October 5, 1829 – Birth of Chester A. Arthur, 21st U.S. President

Many Americans don’t know much about their 21st president, Chester Alan Arthur, born on October 5, 1829, this day in history. He was serving as the 20th vice president when he succeeded to the presidency upon the death of President James A. Garfield in September 1881, two months after Garfield was shot by an assassin.

Arthur has quite an interesting background however. The son of an abolitionist preacher, he began his professional career as an attorney in New York City, making a name for himself by prosecuting civil rights cases.

Chester A. Arthur as a young man in New York

In 1854, for example, he successfully represented Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jennings, born free in New York City in March 1827. Lizzie’s father was the first African American to be awarded a patent, for his method to clean clothes. Lizzie’s mother was active in a society founded by New York’s elite black women to promote self-improvement through community activities, reading, and discussion. Thus Lizzie grew up in an atmosphere that stressed equality and activism. In adulthood, Lizzy became a schoolteacher at New York’s African Free School, as well as the organist for her church.

As a “Black History Month” post for Potus-Geeks Live Journal explains, in New York prior to the Civil War, although there was public transportation for blacks, the buses ran “infrequently, irregularly, and often not at all.” Blacks could only board omnibuses designated for whites if no passenger or driver objected, and the drivers carried whips to enforce the practice.

On Sunday, 16 July 1854, Lizzie was late for church, and boarded a streetcar for whites. The conductor ordered her to get off, but she saw plenty of empty seats, and refused. The driver assisted by two other men grabbed Lizzie and threw her out into the street but she picked herself up and climbed back on the streetcar.

Five blocks later, the driver hailed a police officer, who forced Lizzie off the car and Lizzie was at last successful ejected.

Word of Lizzie’s treatment spread throughout her neighborhood, and the incident was reported in the New York Tribune. Her story was further publicized by Frederick Douglass, and received national attention.

A meeting was held at Lizzie’s church at which attendees decided to form a committee and hire a lawyer. Her case was taken on by 24-year-old Chester A. Arthur, the future twenty-first president.

Seven months later, the case, Elizabeth Jennings v. The Third Avenue Railroad Company, was heard in court. Lizzie won her case, and the next day, the “Colored People Allowed in This Car” signs on the Third Avenue streetcars came down. Lizzie was awarded $225 in damages (comparable to over $6,500 in today’s dollars), and $22.50 in costs. The next day, the Third Avenue Railroad Company ordered its cars desegregated. New York’s public transit was fully desegregated by 1861. Furthermore, the New York State Supreme Court, Brooklyn Circuit ruled that African Americans could not be excluded from transit provided they were “sober, well behaved, and free from disease.”

Another case Arthur won, Lemmon v. New York decided by the New York Court of Appeals in 1860, held that slaves being transferred to a slave state through New York would be emancipated.

The Potus Geeks history of the incident recounts:

Lemmon’s lawyers relied on the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1824 decision Gibbons v. Ogden to argue that states had no right to regulate interstate commerce as that power lay in the hands of the federal government. The state’s lawyers included Chester Alan Arthur, Erastus D. Culver and John Jay. They argued that the U.S. Constitution granted limited powers to the federal government, and the powers which were not granted were reserved for the state. Under the provision of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that required states to return fugitive slaves, the state argued that any requirement for states to return non-fugitive slaves was excluded.

The Court of Appeals affirmed by a vote of 5-3 in March 1860, holding that the slaves were free. Lemmon appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, but by then the Civil War was under way and the appeal was never heard.”

During the Civil War, Arthur served as quartermaster general of the New York Militia. When the war ended, he got involved in Republican politics and became a part of Senator Roscoe Conkling’s political organization. When James Garfield won the Republican nomination for president in 1880, Arthur was nominated for vice president to balance the ticket as an Eastern Stalwart. (Stalwarts were a faction of the Republican Party that favored patronage systems over merit-based appointments to cvil service.)

After Garfield was assassinated, to everyone’s surprise Arthur shifted policy and advocated and signed the Pendleton Act of 1883, which established the principle that federal jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit, determined by competitive exams, rather than through political connections.

[As a story in Politico points out, initially the act covered only about 10 percent of the federal government’s civilian employees. It included a provision, however, that allowed outgoing presidents to lock in their appointees by converting their jobs to civil service status. After a series of successive party flip-flops at the presidential level in 1884, 1888, 1892 and 1896, most federal jobs eventually came under the civil service umbrella, where they remain to this day.]

Weisberger asserts that “Overall, Arthur conducted a responsible, if undistinguished (and unimportant), presidency.”

Notably, however, he did veto renewed attempts by Congress to restrict immigration from China in response to racist scapegoating following the financial panic of 1873. Congress could not override his veto, but passed a new bill reducing the immigration ban to ten years. Although he still objected to this denial of citizenship to Chinese immigrants, Arthur acceded to the compromise measure, signing the Chinese Exclusion Act into law on May 6, 1882.

Arthur suffered from poor health, and made only a limited effort to get the Republican Party’s nomination in 1884. Shortly after becoming president, he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment now referred to as nephritis. But Arthur also realized that the Republican party was not prepared to support him. Thus he retired at the close of his term.

Arthur left office in 1885 and returned to his New York City home. In the fall of 1886 he became seriously ill. On November 17, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and never regained consciousness; he died the following day, November 18, at the age of 57. While he was considered a good president at the time, his reputation has faded over the years. Scholars rank him somewhere near the middle of all presidents serving thus far.

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