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Chester A. Arthur Biography

Chester A Arthur facts
  • Twenty-First (21st) President of the United States
  • Years Served as President: 1881-1885
  • Vice President: None
  • Party: Republican
  • Age at Inauguration: 51
  • Home State: Vermont
  • Date of Birth: October 5, 1829
  • Died: November 18, 1886
  • Married: Ellen Lewis Herndon
  • Children: Chester, Ellen
  • Nickname: Elegant Arthur, Gentleman Boss

What is Chester A. Arthur known for?

Chester A. Arthur is mostly known for becoming president after James A. Garfield was shot and killed by an assassin. Arthur had been Garfield’s vice president.

James A Garfield

Early Life

Chester A. Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829. His father William was a Baptist minister from Ireland. His mother Malvina had been born in Vermont.

Throughout his childhood, Arthur moved around Vermont and New York for his father’s job. He eventually attended Union College in Schenectady, New York.

He graduated in 1848 and became a teacher. He also studied law at the State and National Law School. In the early 1850s, Arthur worked as a principal before becoming a practicing lawyer in 1854.

practicing lawyer

Family Life

In 1859, Arthur married Ellen Lewis Herndon, who was nicknamed “Nell.” She was the daughter of a U.S. naval officer.

The couple had two children who survived to adulthood: Chester and Ellen. Arthur’s wife Nell died of pneumonia at age 42, two years before he became president.


Working as an attorney in New York City, Arthur won several high-profile civil rights cases. One of his cases helped desegregate public transportation in NYC.

Around this time, Arthur joined the Republican Party. During the Civil War, he was New York’s quartermaster, organizing food and supplies for Union soldiers.

Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur the customs collector for the Port of New York. As customs collector, Arthur gave jobs to other politicians who had supported him in getting the position.

When Rutherford Hayes became president, he fired Arthur from the job. Hayes wanted to end political corruption and make political appointments based only on merit.

Presidential Election

At the Republican National Convention in 1880, delegates could not decide whether to nominate Ulysses S. Grant or James Blaine for the presidency.

To compromise, they chose James Garfield. Chester A. Arthur was selected as his vice-presidential running mate. He had no real political experience and was chosen as a political compromise.

Charles J Guiteau
Charles J Guiteau

Garfield and Arthur won the election. Less than four months later, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau at a train station.

He survived for about two months but eventually died of infections and complications from the shooting.

On September 20, 1881, the day after Garfield’s death, Arthur was sworn in as president at his Manhattan home.

statue of liberty copper
Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New York

Two days after that, he was officially given the oath of office by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.


Once in the White House, Arthur surprised everyone by signing the Pendleton Civil Service Act. It said that certain political jobs should be based on merit, not political connections.


The act established a Civil Service Administration to enforce the law. The administration would be made up of both Democrats and Republicans.

Arthur also fought fraud in the U.S. Postal Service, modernized the U.S. Navy, and tried to lower tariffs. He also worked to increase funding for American Indian education.

Around 1882, Arthur learned that he had a serious kidney problem called Bright’s disease. He kept his condition a secret, but he was in poor health and did not seek reelection.

After the Presidency

After he left the White House in 1885, Arthur returned to New York City. He continued his legal career, but his health continued to decline.

new york statue of liberty

On November 18, 1886, Arthur died in his home at the age of 57. He was buried next to his wife in the Albany Rural Cemetery in New York.

Fun Facts About Chester A. Arthur

The “A” in Chester A. Arthur stands for “Alan.”

Some people claimed that Arthur was not a U.S. citizen and had been born in Canada or Ireland.

When Arthur moved into the White House, he wanted to redecorate. He hired a designer and auctioned off more than 20 wagonloads of items and furniture from other presidential administrations.

Christmas trees White House

He became known for his style, earning him the nicknames Elegant Arthur and Gentleman Boss. Arthur owned 80 pairs of pants and changed clothes several times a day.

Arthur also enjoyed taking walks late at night, sometimes around 2 or 3 in the morning. Fishing was another of his hobbies.


While Arthur was in the White House, his sister Mary McElroy took on the hostess duties traditionally performed by a First Lady.

Chester A. Arthur regularly appears in rankings of the “most forgettable” presidents.

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Richard Nixon presidential portrait

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