Chester A. Arthur


Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States

My idea of the limited function of a proper government is as inflexible as my definition of proper art (see "Christo’s Gates"), so I was intrigued by a statement about the presidential term of Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886): “Legislatively … little of consequence was achieved during his term except for the creation of the modern Civil Service system.” In an era when even army quartermasters were routinely fired as soon as a different political party came into office, and when part of the salary of political appointees was routinely collected as campaign contributions, civil service reform was a dire need - but not one that the political parties were pushing.

Arthur was an unlikely man to institute such reforms. An early member of the Republican party and a close friend of Roscoe Conkling, one of the most influential cogs in New York’s party machine, Arthur was rewarded in 1871 with the post of collector of customs of the Port of New York. At the time, customs revenues were the federal government's main source of income, and about 75% of the nation’s customs duties were collected in New York. As collector of customs, Arthur was the nation's highest-paid employee.

Under President Hayes, Arthur was accused of corruption but not convicted. Nevertheless he was dismissed from his post in 1878. The influential New York party machine was soothed in 1880 when Arthur was selected to run as vice-president to James Garfield.

At first, Arthur worked with Conkling to promote the usual political appointments, causing some friction with Garfield. But in July 1881, after only four months in office, Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office-seeker. Pundits predicted rampant corruption under Arthur's administration.

It didn’t happen. In a 180-degree turn, Arthur began to push for civil service reform. The Pendleton Act , passed in 1883, forbade the levying of political assessments against officeholders, made certain government positions obtainable only by competitive written examinations, and made it illegal to remove an employee for political reasons.

Not long after being sworn in, Arthur was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, a kidney disorder which at the time was fatal. A private man, he kept the news to himself, merely telling colleagues near the end of his first term that he would under no circumstances run for a second. Arthur died in New York two years after leaving office as president.

I may be president of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damned business.

George Edwin Bissell

Bissell also sculpted the Abraham de Peyster in Hanover Square, lower Manhattan.

Cross References & Further Reading