Union Notables

Chester Alan Arthur    class of 1848

Courtesy of Yale University

Chester Alan Arthur was born on October 5, 1829 in Fairfield, Vermont. In 1839 his family moved to Union Village (now Greenwich), New York, where his father, William Arthur, was a Baptist minister and co-founder of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. He attended Union College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1848, and then taught at academies in North Pownel, VT and Cohoes, NY, and studied law at the State and National Law School in Ballston Spa, NY. In 1854, he was admitted to the New York State bar and began practicing law in New York City. Influenced by the strong anti-slavery views of his father, and those of Union College President Eliphalet Nott, Arthur worked on several important anti-slavery and discrimination cases, including the Lemmon Slave case in which slaves traveling through New York State from one slave state to another were granted their freedom. In 1855, Arthur also won the case that integrated New York City’s public transportation system.

At the start of the Civil War, Arthur was assigned to the Quartermaster General’s office, quickly proving to be an excellent administrator. By July 1862, Arthur had been promoted to Quartermaster General, and during his time in that post he far exceeded New York’s quota of troops – at a critical time for President Lincoln. In 1871, Arthur was nominated to be the Collector of the New York Customhouse. The Customhouse handled millions of dollars of the nation’s customs receipts and the collector was responsible for managing the patronage system that was the basis for hiring and firing employees. The popular Arthur was re-nominated for a second term in 1875, but in 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes ousted Arthur from the Customhouse after a lengthy struggle over civil service reform. Working tirelessly for the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party, Arthur was nominated to be James Garfield’s Vice-President at the 1880 Republican National Convention. Shot after only four months in office, Garfield lived for eighty days, then died on September 19, 1881. On September 20, Chester Alan Arthur was sworn in as the twenty-first President of the United States.

As President, Arthur took a generally progressive stand, signing and vigorously implementing the 1883 Pendleton Act, the civil service reform bill, and vetoing a highly discriminatory Chinese immigration bill. He was also responsible for rebuilding and modernizing the U.S. Navy. Arthur was passionate about the finer things in life – good food and wine, elegant clothes, and fashionable surroundings. When he moved into the White House he had many of the rooms redecorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his firm Associated Artists, the most fashionable interior designers of the time. Perhaps the most magnificent of these spaces was a stained glass screen in red, white, and blue created for the entry hall.

Robust and healthy all his life, Chester Arthur began to suffer chronic pain and illness shortly after becoming president and in March of 1882 the Surgeon General diagnosed him with Bright’s Disease, a terminal kidney ailment. He died on November 18, 1886, only a year-and-a-half after leaving office.