Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Chester A. Arthur

Chester Allan Arthur’s career, like that of thousands of other Americans, illustrates the truth that wealth, high social position and all the advantages with which fortune and affection can surround the young are not essential to their success and prosperity in professional, business or public life. In fact, too often they tend to enervate both mind and body, and thus prove in reality obstacles to attaining true and worthy manhood.

Mr. Arthur, like Lincoln, Grant, Garfield and others who preceded him in the presidential office, hewed his own way upward and onward from a discouraging beginning.

He was born in Fairfield, Franklin county, Vermont, October 5th, 1830. He was the eldest son of the Rev. William Arthur, a Baptist clergyman, having a large family and a modest income. The Rev. Mr. Arthur was born in Ireland, and came to this country when eighteen years of age. He is remembered as a man of great force of character, sturdy piety and a faithful and earnest Christian minister. He had few worldly benefits to bestow upon his children, but he implanted deep into their minds principles governing their actions which were never effaced.

As a lad, Mr. Arthur was trained in the public schools accessible to him, and by his father’s aid, fitted himself for college, entering Union when fifteen years old, and graduating with high honors in 1848. The Hon. Frederick W. Seward, who was in the class next below young Arthur, says of his school days: “Chet, as we all called him, was the most popular boy in his class. He was always genial and cheerful, a good scholar, and apt in debate.” To aid in defraying his expenses, Chester taught country schools during parts of two winters, but kept pace with his class while absent, showing his independence of spirit, and his zeal to acquire an education.

Mr. Arthur’s preference turned toward the law, and after a course in Fowler’s law school at Ballston, he went to New York city; became a law student in the office of Erastus D. Culver, and was admitted to the bar in 1852. Mr. Culver showed his confidence in his promising student by taking him into partnership. Mr. Culver was soon elected civil judge of Brooklyn, and the partnership was dissolved. Mr. Arthur then formed a partnership with Henry D. Gardiner, with a view to practicing in some growing Western city. The young lawyers went West and spent three months in prospecting for a locality to suit their taste, but not finding it, they returned to New York, hired an office, and before long had a good business. The most noted cases in which Mr. Arthur appeared in his early career as a lawyer, were the Lemmon slave case, and the suit of Lizzie Jennings, a fugitive slave, whose liberty he secured, and a colored lady, a superintendent of a Sunday-School for colored children, who was ejected from a Fourth Avenue horse-car, after her fare had been accepted by the conductor, because a white passenger objected to her presence.

In the first case he was largely instrumental in establishing a precedent, setting forth the theory that slaves brought into free territory, were at liberty. In the second case, he obtained a verdict of $500.00 damages in favor of the colored woman as against the company. The establishment of this precedent caused the street railroad companies of the city to issue an order that colored persons should be allowed to travel in their cars. Thus did Chester A. Arthur obtain equal civil rights for negroes in public vehicles.

In 1859 he married Miss Ellen Lewis Herndon, of Fredericksburg, Virginia; daughter of Captain William Lewis Herndon, United States Navy, who went bravely to his death in 1857, sinking with his ship, the Central America, refusing to leave his post of duty, though he helped secure the safety of others. Mrs. Arthur was a devoted wife, and a woman of many accomplishments. She died in January, 1880, and lies buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery.

Mr. Arthur took a lively interest in politics, and was first a Henry Clay Whig, but later helped to form the Republican party. He held several offices in the militia prior to 1860, and when Edwin D. Morgan became governor of the State in 1860, he made Mr. Arthur a member of his staff, promoting him from one position to another until he became quarter-master general. The duties of this post were most arduous and exacting. To promptly equip, supply and forward the thousands of troops sent to the front to defend the Union was a task demanding the highest executive ability and rare organizing skill, besides the greatest precision in receiving, disbursing and accounting for the public funds. Millions of dollars passed through his hands; he had the letting of enormous contracts, and opportunities, without number, by which he might have enriched himself. But he was true to himself and to his trust. So implicit was the confidence reposed in him that his accounts were audited at Washington without question or deduction, though the claims of many States were disallowed, to the extent of millions. He left the office poorer than when he entered it, but with the proud satisfaction of knowing that all the world esteemed him as an honest man.

From 1863 to 1871 General Arthur successfully engaged in the practice of law in New York. November 20th, 1871, he was appointed collector of the port of New York, and re-appointed in 1875. The second appointment was confirmed by the Senate without reference to a committee, the usual course, the fact being highly complimentary, and testifying to the high opinion held by the Senate regarding his official record. He was suspended by President Hayes, though no reflection upon his official conduct was made. He again returned to the practice of law, though taking an energetic part in politics, serving several years as chairman of the Republican State Committee. General Arthur, in the campaign of 1880, was an ardent supporter of Grant before the National Convention, being one of the famous “306” who voted for Grant to the last.

His nomination for Vice President was as much a surprise as that of Garfield for the first place on the ticket. He had not been mentioned as a candidate, and his own delegation had not thought of presenting his name until the roll was called in the Convention. When New York was reached in the call the delegation asked to be excused from voting for a time. Then General Stewart L. Woodford cast the vote for Arthur. The tide quickly turned. The Ohio men were disposed to be conciliatory, and swung over to Arthur, who was nominated on the first ballot. The incidents that followed the inauguration of Garfield and himself as President and Vice-President; the unhappy differences that led to the resignation of Senators Conkling and Platt; the strife over the election of their successors; the assassination and death of President Garfield, and the accession to the presidency of General Arthur. These form a chapter in our political history, with the details of which we are all familiar, and are not likely to soon be forgotten.

It was under the most unfavorable circumstances that Chester A. Arthur assumed the office of President; the people’s passion over the death of the second President of the United States, to fall by an assassin’s hand, was intense; factional feeling in his own party was bitter and apparently irreconcilable; when the popular mind was filled with dreadful forebodings as to the future; but he exhibited a gravity, a reticence, an affability, and a firmness which commanded the respect of conservative men of all parties. Not only was he the most successful—perhaps the only successful—Vice-President elevated to the Presidency by the death of the President, but he is worthy to be counted among the most serviceable of the Presidents.

Peace and prosperity were promoted by his administration. Ex-President Chester A. Arthur died at his residence in New York city, November 18th, 1886. He leaves as surviving members of his family two children, Chester Allan, a young man of twenty-two years, and Miss Nellie, just budding into womanhood. At the age of fifty-six, without elaborate display, he was quietly laid beside his wife in Rural Cemetery.