Study Guide

Chester A. Arthur in Chinese Exclusion Act

By Chester A. Arthur

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Chester A. Arthur

When it comes to knowing presidents, almost everyone can remember the biggies. Your Washingtons, your Jeffersons, your Lincolns, and your Roosevelts. Then there are the nondescript guys, mostly from the 1800s, who are this fuzzy mass of weird facial hair and generic names.

President Chester A. Arthur is one of those guys.

Rise of the Planet of President Chester A. Arthur

Chester (or "Chet" as he was called because apparently he was a bad guy in an '80s movie) Arthur was born in Vermont to an abolitionist Baptist minister from Northern Ireland and the daughter of a U.S. Naval officer. Chet became a lawyer, and this is where stuff gets weird.

People are complex, and politicians more so than most. So for Arthur, a man who would later be known for signing something as ridiculously racist as the Chinese Exclusion Act, you'd think he'd have a career where he only represented people who kicked puppies. Nope.

The man tried some serious civil rights cases, including one in which he represented a black woman who was kicked off a streetcar for her race. This case, which Arthur won, helped desegregate public transportation in New York City. (Source)

The Republicans of the Round Table

Arthur, agreeing with his father's abolitionist convictions, joined the Republican Party in the 1850s. Modern political parties are totally different than what they were in the 1850s—at the time, the Republicans were the northern, predominantly urban party, strongly championing the abolitionist cause. They were also brand spankin' new, being founded in 1854.

During the Civil War, Arthur was the Quartermaster General of New York. Sounds complicated…but it just means he was responsible for keeping Union soldiers fed, clothed, and armed. War stuff. As someone who had served both the Union and the Republican Party faithfully, Arthur came to the attention of Roscoe Conkling, who, despite the name, was not a blues musician.

Conkling was a senator in New York and a high level political boss in the Republican Party. He made sure that President Grant (a fellow Republican) appointed Arthur to the plum position of customs collector of the Port of New York.

Setback, Recovery, Redemption

President Hayes (a Democrat), wanted to reform the system of patronage. Quick refresher: patronage is the system where loyal members of the party get good jobs in exchange for past services. So in 1878, Hayes had Arthur fired from his job.

Conkling wasn't going to take that lying down and got Arthur on the presidential ticket with James Garfield. Ironically enough, Garfield was assassinated by a man who expected a job because he had supported the new president. Garfield died, presumably hating Mondays and loving lasagna, elevating Arthur to the big office. (Source)

The Big Office

For a guy who owed his career to patronage, Arthur was not a fan once he was president. Maybe he realized this was as far as it would take him. He signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which mandated that some federal positions be awarded on merit. We kind of hoped that would be assumed, but it wasn't.

Arthur also tried to lower tariffs to make it easier for American businesses to buy and sell abroad. Congress fought him every step of the way there, and not much came of these attempts.

He signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which was the first immigration law aimed squarely at a specific ethnicity. That's not really a record you want.

End of the Line

Arthur had been suffering from Bright's Disease, a serious kidney illness. It put him in such poor health that he couldn't run for re-election. Instead, the Republicans nominated James Blaine (Arthur's Secretary of State) who was beaten by Grover Cleveland.

Arthur succumbed to Bright's Disease in 1885. Sorry. There's not a happy ending here. He didn't even become a force ghost like Anakin Skywalker.

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