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Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
21st President of the United States, 1881-1885
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Chester A. Arthur House
New York

On the threshold of office--what have we to expect of him?
On the threshold of office--what have we to expect of him?
J. Keppler.
Illus. in: Puck, 1881 Sept. 28, pp. 56-57.
Library of Congress

In the early morning hours of September 20, 1881, Vice President Chester A. Arthur took the oath of office as the 21st president of the United States in a private ceremony at his New York City home.  The assassin’s bullet that wounded President James Garfield in July had claimed his life the day before.  Arthur lived in this handsome four-story brownstone townhouse on Lexington Avenue for most of his adult life.  Arthur was a spoils man and staunch supporter of Roscoe Conkling’s Republican machine in New York State as vice president.  As president, he became a champion of civil service reform, encouraging government appointments based on merit and creating the Civil Service Commission.  Although respected as president, he made too many enemies to win re-nomination and retired to his New York City home at the end of his single term.  He died there two years later.

Born in 1829, Chester A. Arthur was the eldest son of a Baptist minister.  The large family moved from church to church in the New York-Vermont border area when Arthur was growing up.  He worked his way through Union College in Schenectady, New York. After graduating with honors in 1848, he taught school and studied law in his free time.  In 1853, he moved to New York City, passed the bar, and joined a law firm managed by family friends.  At about this time, he moved into his Lexington Avenue residence.  His strong anti-slavery views soon led him to join the new Republican Party.  In 1859, Chester Arthur married Ellen Lewis Herndon. 

Arthur suspended his legal practice to serve in the Civil War.  He resumed his practice after the war and became more involved in Republican politics.  He steadily advanced in the ranks of Senator Roscoe Conkling's powerful political machine.  In 1871, President Grant rewarded Arthur’s political loyalty by appointing him to an important patronage job, collector of customs for the Port of New York.  Although he filled most positions on merit, he padded the rolls with unnecessary appointments and expected political appointees to support the party.  In 1878, Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes removed Arthur from office, in part to demonstrate his commitment to civil service reform, but also to pursue his ongoing feud with Conkling’s Stalwart faction of the Republican Party.  When Arthur became vice president under James A. Garfield, he continued to support the Stalwarts, even when that brought him into conflict with the president.

After President Garfield's death, Arthur privately took the oath of office in his New York home in the wee hours of the morning; he repeated the oath two days later at the United States Capitol.  Still grieving over his wife’s death the previous year, Arthur was the second vice president to become president because of an assassination.

As president, Arthur surprised everybody by rising above partisanship.  He turned against the Stalwarts and worked to unify his party, made many non-partisan appointments, and continued the work of Presidents Hayes and Garfield for civil service reform.  He supported the prosecution of a series of fraud cases in the Post Office Department.  In 1883, he signed the Pendleton Act, which removed some Federal jobs from the spoils list, forbade compulsory donations from office holders, and authorized the creation of a bi-partisan Civil Service Commission to enforce the law.  Patronage did not end in 1883, but the Pendleton Act was a landmark in creating a professional, non-partisan civil service.

Arthur tried, unsuccessfully, to lower tariffs.  He thought the budget surpluses they created encouraged Congress to approve unnecessary, politically motivated "pork-barrel" projects.  He managed to reduce the surplus somewhat by using some of it to pay off part of the national debt.  The protectionist Tariff Act that Congress passed over his opposition in 1883 cost the Republican Party the support of many western and southern farmers.  In 1882, Arthur vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended immigration from China for 10 years, but Congress overrode his veto.

In December 1884, Arthur marked the beginning of the age of electricity by turning on machinery at the North, Central and South American world’s fair in New Orleans by pushing a button at the White House.  Two months later, he dedicated the finally completed Washington Monument.

The Republicans refused to re-nominate Arthur in 1884.  He was a respected and popular president, but had alienated too many people in his own party.  In 1885, Chester Arthur retired to his residence in New York City.  That same year, he failed to win the Republican nomination for senator from New York.  He planned to resume his legal practice, but soon became ill and never recovered his strength.  He died at his home in November 1886.

Subsequent owners made many changes to the Lexington Avenue house after Arthur’s death.  They moved the original main entrance on the first floor down to what had been the basement level, converted the first two floors into commercial space, and divided the upper floors into apartments.  The front elevation has been stripped down to bare brick.  On January 16, 1964, the 81st anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Civil Service Act by President Arthur, the Native New Yorkers Historical Association and the New York Life Insurance Company recognized the historic significance of the house by placing a bronze plaque on the building.

Plan your visit

The Chester A. Arthur House, at 123 Lexington Ave., New York City, NY is privately owned. Only the commercial space on the first floor is open to the public. The house has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file: text.

The State of Vermont operates the President Chester A. Arthur State Historic Site, featuring an interpretive center on Chester Arthur in a recreation of the second house in which he lived as an infant. Nearby is the North Fairfield Baptist Church, where his father was a minister.

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