Although the nomination and election of the dark-horse candidate for president, James Garfield, surprised many Americans, the nomination and election of Chester A. Arthur (1830-1886) as his running mate was even more of a shock. Many a citizen feared the worst when Garfield was assassinated with three and a half years of his term remaining. And for good reason.
Arthur, who loved fine clothes and elegant living, had been associated with the corrupt New York political machine for almost twenty years. In 1878 he had even been removed from his post as Collector of the Port of New York by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who had become alarmed at his brazen misuse of patronage.
But in spite of his questionable record, Arthur was nominated to run for vice-president--largely to appease the powerful party establishment. Thus, when Arthur became president on this day in 1881, following the death of Garfield, there was every expectation that the free-wheeling spoils system that had reigned in New York would be firmly established in Washington.
But Chester Arthur fooled everyone--friends and enemies alike. Somehow, the responsibilities of that high office seemed to transform this corrupt, petty politician into a man sincerely dedicated to the good of the country. Courageously, he established his independence by vetoing a graft-laden rivers-and-harbors bill, by breaking with his former machine cronies, and by vigorously prosecuting members of his own party accused of defrauding the government. And, most important, instead of a spoils system, he supported a Federal Civil Service based on competitive examinations and a non-political merit system.
By his change of heart--evidenced by these courageous acts--Arthur won over many who had first feared his coming to power, but he lost the support of the political bosses. Although he was not an inspiring leader of men, he earned the nation’s gratitude as the champion of the Civil Service system.