Chester A. Arthur: Life Before the Presidency

Chester A. Arthur: Life Before the Presidency

Chester Alan Arthur was born on October 5, 1829, in a small log cabin in Fairfield, Vermont. The son of Malvina Arthur and the Reverend William Arthur, a passionate abolitionist, young Chester and his family migrated from one Baptist parish to another in Vermont and New York. The fifth of eight children, Chester had six sisters and one older brother. Before beginning school in Union Village (now Greenwich), New York, he studied the fundamentals of reading and writing at home.

In 1845, young Arthur entered Union College in Schenectady as a sophomore. There he pursued the traditional classical curriculum, supplementing his tuition by teaching at a nearby town during winter vacations. As a student, he engaged in undergraduate high jinks and enjoyed playing school pranks. Though not an outstanding student, he graduated in 1848 in the top third of his class and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

After college, Arthur spent several years teaching school and reading law, but he was clear about what he wanted to do with his life: He sought to reside in Manhattan as a wealthy lawyer and public servant, living the life of a true gentleman. With such goals in mind, he passed his bar exam in 1854 and then, using his father's influence, gained a clerkship in a New York legal firm headed by the prominent Erastus D. Culver.

Law Career

Culver's firm had achieved fame in 1852 when it supported a plea by a group of free blacks to liberate seven slaves. In transport from Virginia to Texas, these slaves had been brought temporarily to New York by their master. In what became known as the Lemmon Case, Erastus D. Culver successfully argued for a writ of habeas corpus, freeing the slaves from incarceration in the city jail, where their owner had placed them for safekeeping, and thus bondage. This court ruling allegedly violated the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law and called into question the agreements made in the Compromise of 1850. Young Arthur spent much of his time as clerk in Culver's firm handling details of the appeal. Arthur made numerous trips to the state capital, Albany, to assist in arguments before the New York Supreme Court. The final court decision in 1860 upheld the initial ruling, and Arthur's work put him in touch with the leading legal minds in the state and the most prominent state politicians.

A second case was also instrumental in advancing Arthur's public profile. The firm defended a black woman, Elizabeth Jennings, who had been forced out of a New York streetcar and told to wait for the next one. Jennings's case predated Rosa Parks' case in the 1950s by over 100 years; Parks' defiant act involving racially segregated motor buses in Montgomery, Alabama, launched the historic civil rights movement led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Arthur, now a partner in Culver's firm, won $225 from the streetcar company and $25 from the court. The case forced all New York City railroad companies to seat black passengers without prejudice on their streetcars.

As was common in those days, young unmarried men frequently lived in boardinghouses, where they took meals in family-style settings, socialized with fellow boarders, and tried to establish the appearance of a home life. Arthur lived in such a "family hotel" on Broadway. While there, he befriended a young medical student from Virginia, Dabney Herndon, who frequently visited with relatives living nearby. Arthur occasionally accompanied his friend on these family visits, and Herndon's cousin, the young Ellen "Nell" Lewis Herndon, soon caught Arthur's eye. The two—she was twenty-two and he was thirty—were married on October 25, 1859.

Civil War Service

When the Civil War broke out, Arthur stood primed for duty. In 1858, he joined the state militia principally out of a desire for companionship and political connections. In a rush to staff key positions, the Republican governor appointed Arthur to be engineer-in-chief with the rank of quartermaster general in the New York Volunteers. He served in that post with great efficiency, obtaining the rank of brigadier general. Responsible for provisioning and housing the several hundred thousand soldiers supplied by the state to the federal cause, as well as for the defenses of New York, Arthur dealt with hundreds of private contractors and military personnel. The military service played to his advantage; he gained a reputation for efficiency, administrative genius, and reliability.

Although eager to serve in a battlefield position, Arthur never pressed his case. His wife, a Virginian with family members in the Confederacy, could not tolerate the thought of her husband taking up arms against them. Moreover, his sister had married an official of the Confederate government who was stationed in Petersburg, Virginia.

Upon his retirement from duty in 1863, Arthur threw himself into his law practice, representing clients suing for war-related damages and reimbursements. His practice thrived, making him wealthy by the war's end. He also worked actively for Roscoe Conkling, a New York Republican Party boss and U.S. senator who used patronage and party discipline to advance his power in the state. By 1867, Arthur had become one of Conkling's top lieutenants. From 1869 to 1870, he served as the chief counsel to the New York City Tax Commission, earning an annual salary of $10,000, a princely sum of money in those days—in 1870, the wages of a skilled worker ranged from $400 to $650 annually.

Collector of the Port of New York

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur to the position of Collector of the Port of New York. Arthur served in this capacity until 1878, supervising nearly 1,300 agents responsible for collecting about 75 percent of the nation's import duties. His domain included the entire coast of New York State, the Hudson River, and parts of New Jersey. Paid a salary of $12,000 annually, Arthur augmented his income by sharing in a portion of all fines collected on undervalued imports. Indeed, given such "perks," Arthur grossed $50,000 a year, a salary equivalent to that of the President of the United States. While customs office agents frequently accepted bribes from importers, warehouse owners, and ship companies, there is no evidence of Arthur ever partaking in such graft. However, Arthur routinely collected salary kickbacks from customs house employees to support Boss Conkling's machine.

In 1877, soon after he was inaugurated, President Rutherford B. Hayes tackled Conkling's political empire. Eager to distance himself from the Grant administration's reputation for scandal, Hayes sought to reform the New York customs office as an example of his reform-minded agenda. He established a special commission to investigate corruption there. The commission found political favoritism and blatant patronage governing appointments, exposed the practice of salary kickbacks, and charged the port authority with being criminally overstaffed.

Armed with the commission's findings, Hayes sought to remove Arthur. In exchange for his resignation, the collector would receive the consulship in Paris. Conkling and Arthur viewed Hayes's assertion of authority as an open declaration of war, to which they mounted a stiff fight in the Senate. To counter Conkling's opposition, Hayes bided his time, finally suspending Arthur after Congress had adjourned for the summer. In 1880, Arthur and Conkling, determined to reassert their control of the port, moved to draft former President Grant as Hayes's successor in the White House.