Although he was the 21st President of the United States, Chester Alan Arthur is a rather obscure figure of American history. His is not a household name, and his one term Presidency is usually not credited with much significance in the grand scheme of American politics. Nevertheless, Arthur was an intriguing figure with local roots to boot.
Arthur had significant ties to the Capital region. Although born in Vermont, he traveled around the Northeast with his preacher father, ultimately settling in the Albany area when young Chester was about 15. Arthur the elder preached at churches in Schenectady, Lansingburgh, Hoosick, Watervliet and Albany. In 1845, "Chet" enrolled in Union College where he studied the Classics and was remembered as handsome, intelligent, well-liked and somewhat of a prankster. Historian Thomas C. Reeves writes about one incident where Arthur was fined for throwing the West College bell into the Erie Canal. He also edited the school newspaper, attended law school in Ballston Spa and taught schoolchildren in Schaghticoke and later Cohoes before he moved to New York City to pursue a legal career. When the Civil War broke out, Arthur served as Quartermaster General for the New York state militia.
Although a dedicated abolitionist like his father, Arthur joined the "Stalwart" faction of the Republican party which was more concerned about party loyalty than actual reform. He was known as a bit of a dandy; he wore stylish clothes and allegedly changed outfits several times a day. He was a machine politician and liked to stay up to the early hours of the morning; smoking, drinking and talking politics with "the boys." He was loyal to his friends and colleagues but viewed as corrupt because of his ardent defense of the spoils system. Arthur's political enemies also accused him of actually being born in Canada, thus disqualifying him from the Presidency (a charge which seems to be baseless).
In 1881, Arthur was elected Vice President of the United States under James A. Garfield. Only months after taking office, President Garfield was struck down by an assassin's bullet, thus ushering in Arthur as President. Although distrusted by many political insiders and somewhat unknown to the larger public, Arthur quickly proved himself an able and respectable leader. He turned his back on the spoils system and passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. He laid the foundations for a modern navy and signed reciprocal treaties with several Latin American countries. Despite his previous reputation, Arthur left office as well-liked and respected by colleagues, rivals, and the public alike. Even the ever-cynical Mark Twain commented that "it would be hard to better President Arthur's Administration." If nothing else, you have to admire a guy who proclaims: "I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damned business." Arthur is buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands.
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Gentleman Boss by Thomas C. Reeves