Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Domestic Affairs

No President ever came to power who was better equipped to handle the management of a federal bureaucracy than Chester Arthur. His service as quartermaster general for New York and as the collector of the New York Customs House had provided him with a wealth of administrative experience. Those who knew him understood that few men in public life could match his administrative skills. Moreover, the number of federal employees remained relatively small. The secretary of state, for example, was served by three assistants, a chief clerk, and eight bureaus, each possessing a chief and several clerks. Hence, administration was a relatively easy task.

Reforming Civil Service Policies

From the first, Arthur made it clear that no one controlled him. Although he professed skepticism about civil service reform—the major reform issue of the day—in 1883, he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Arthur made this decision in part because of Republican mid-term defeats in the congressional elections of 1882. The Pendleton Act, written by the Democratic Ohio Senator George Pendleton, established a bipartisan five-member examination board. The law banned salary kickbacks, apportioned federal appointments among the states, and ruled that new employees must begin their service at the bottom of the career ladder, advancing only by merit exams.

Its initial impact, however, should not be exaggerated. As the legislation was not retroactive, present (primarily Republican) incumbents could remain in office even if the Democrats won the forthcoming presidential election. Hence, one Democratic senator caustically called the measure "a bill to perpetuate in office the Republicans who now control the patronage of the Government." Furthermore, the Pendleton Act exempted the vast majority of federal employees and all municipal and state workers.

Reducing Tariffs

In other matters, Arthur also exhibited a measure of independence and vision that neither his opponents nor his supporters had expected. Though he was extremely cautious, Arthur saw the need for a lower tariff. The Treasury had long shown an embarrassingly high surplus, a condition that presented a major financial problem when money was in short supply. Furthermore, discrepancies in duties made administration of the tariff both irrational and difficult. Consequently, his specially appointed tariff commission called for a 20 to 25 percent reduction across the board. Acting in defiance of the President, Congress instead passed the infamous "Mongrel" Tariff of 1883, which dropped rates on a varied list of items by an average of 1.47 percent, indicating that the nation was far from receptive to the creation of a "scientific" tariff. As in the past, Republicans generally supported high tariff rates in contrast to Democrats. On this measure, as on his attempts to limit patronage, Arthur marched out of step with Republican machine politicians and eastern manufacturers.

Limiting Expenditures and Chinese Immigration

Arthur also stepped out of line when he vetoed the notorious pork-barrel Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882, a measure that he believed unduly benefited the South. The bill, which passed over his veto, enraged him. He thereafter forcefully argued at every opportunity that the growing surplus of federal funds should be reduced by tax and rate reductions rather than by government pork-barrel-type expenditures. His position surprised many of his contemporaries, who had expected Arthur to use the federal surplus to support party patronage, the mother's milk of Gilded Age politics.

Bucking much party and national sentiment, Arthur vetoed a proposed Chinese Exclusion Act. On April 4, 1882, the President assailed the legislation, finding the twenty-year immigration ban unreasonable. Furthermore, he claimed, the Chinese had contributed a great deal to the American economy, and here he cited their labors on the transcontinental railroad. Moreover, he believed such legislation threatened a potentially rich market in China. When Congress lowered the ban to ten years, Arthur signed the bill.

Renovating the White House

Most dear to Arthur's heart as President, however, were his efforts to renovate the White House. Always known as a man of elegant taste—he is reputed to have owned eighty pairs of trousers—Arthur came to the presidency as the "Gentleman Boss." He greatly enjoyed his reputation for throwing elegant parties, for having an exquisite taste for fine food, and for socializing with the most suave and cultivated associates. Disgusted with the shabby look of the White House, he hired Louis Comfort Tiffany, the most fashionable designer in New York City, to completely refurbish the executive mansion into a showplace residence befitting the office. The price tag, funded by Congress, exceeded $30,000, which would be approximately $2 million in today's value.