While most Americans remember Calvin Coolidge as “the President from Vermont,” many forget that another of our Chief Executives hailed from the Green Mountain State. Vermont’s “other President” was Chester Alan Arthur. Both Coolidge and Arthur were born in small farming communities and both, as Republican U.S. Vice Presidents, succeeded to the Presidency upon the death of the incumbents. Like many of their contemporaries, both men left their native state to attain political prominence. Coolidge used his Vermont background to great advantage whereas Arthur never mentioned it. The Coolidge family saved everything for many generations yet Chester Arthur had all his personal papers destroyed before his death.
Some mystery surrounds the early years of Chester A. Arthur. These questions are addressed and answered in the interpretive exhibit in the reconstructed house. The most frequently asked question is “Where was he born?” Thomas Reeves, in his book: Gentleman Boss, answers this question.
Chester Alan Arthur was the fifth child and first son of Malvina (Stone) and William Arthur. William Arthur was born in 1796 in County Antrim, Ireland and concentrated on education because of a childhood injury. After graduation from Belfast College, William immigrated to the Province of Quebec and taught school near the Vermont border. In 1821, he married 18-year-old Malvina Stone whose family was originally from Vermont and New Hampshire and family tradition says Malvina's mother, Judith Stevens, was part Native American. Both President Arthur and Calvin Coolidge were descendents of Native Americans. Because the boundary between the United States and Canada was easily crossed families often freely moved back and forth. Even in the town of Derby Line the town library was built straddling the boundaries of the two countries.
William Arthur was ordained as a Baptist minister. North Fairfield's 46-member congregation was his first post. The Arthur family lived in a small cabin for more than a year while the Fairfield congregation finished the frame parsonage on the site of the 1953 reconstruction. Chester Arthur was born October 5, 1829, in the temporary parsonage.
The Arthur family moved to New York State in 1835; the same year William Arthur co-founded the New York Anti-Slavery Society and began to increasingly promote his abolitionist and temperance views. William Arthur was such an ardent supporter of abolition and temperance he often alienated parishes and thus the family moved often. Chester was strongly influenced by his father’s beliefs.
In 1845, after graduating from the academy in present day Greenwich, New York, "Chet" Arthur entered Union College in Schenectady. Described as a tall, genial, good-looking and sociable student, he pursued a classical education and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his senior year.
After graduation from Union College, Chester Arthur became a schoolmaster and studied law at the newly opened State and National Law School. In 1851, he became principal of an academy that met in the basement of his father's church in North Pownal, Vermont. Coincidentally, three years after Arthur left the North Pownal Academy, his future presidential running mate, James A. Garfield, was hired to teach penmanship at this same school.
Chester A. Arthur was admitted to the New York bar in May 1854 and distinguished himself as a champion of civil rights for blacks. In the "Lemmon Slave Case" he secured the decision that slaves brought into New York while in transit to a slave state were free. He won another case which entitled blacks in New York to the same accommodations as whites on public transportation.
His Marriage and Family:
Arthur was married to Ellen Lewis Herndon, the daughter of a wealthy Virginia family. "Nell" readily assumed the duties of social director for the household. The Arthurs had two children, Chester Alan II and Ellen Herndon Arthur, and maintained a fine residence at 123 Lexington Avenue in New York City.
Mrs. Arthur died in 1880, prior to her husband's vice presidential nomination. Arthur never overcame this loss, once telling a relative, "Honors to me now are not what they once were." Every day in the White House he had roses placed next to his wife's photograph. During Arthur’s presidency his younger sister, Mary Arthur McElvoy, served as his official hostess.
Although Arthur was not a Union soldier during the Civil War he served as Quartermaster General of New York, and with the rank of Brigadier General, skillfully organized the provision of food and supplies to Union Civil War soldiers.
In 1871, he was appointed Collector of Customs in the New York Customhouse by President Ulysses S. Grant, a leader of a faction of the Republican Party known as the Stalwarts. Chester Arthur became a major figure in that wing of the party and a master at political persuasion.
The Collector of Customs oversaw the movement of goods into the busy New York harbor, collected duties and fines and regulated the business of merchants. A major responsibility of the Customs Collector was to meet with party bosses to place supporters in patronage jobs.
In 1878, in an intraparty struggle, newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes suspended Arthur as Customs Collector and appointed one of his own followers to the position.
The 1880 Republican National Convention, deadlocked between supporters of Ulysses S. Grant and proponents of Maine's Senator James G. Blaine, compromised, on the 36th ballot, on James A. Garfield of Ohio who was a supporter of Senator Blaine. To make peace within the party, and to politically balance the ticket with a supporter of former President Grant, Chester A. Arthur was selected as
Garfield's running mate.
Less than four months after the inauguration of President Garfield, a disgruntled office seeker shot the President at the Baltimore and Potomac train station in Washington, D.C. The assassin shouted: "I did it and will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President." Some believed these remarks implied he had shot Garfield for Arthur's benefit. President Garfield lingered near death for 80 days. Arthur was reportedly brought to tears by the charges that he was linked to the assassin and the suggestions he assume the duties of the presidency prior to Garfield's death. When Garfield died on September 19, Arthur's sincere grief was apparent when he was sworn in as President at his home at 123 Lexington Avenue in New York City.
At the beginning of his presidency many expected Chester Arthur to be a political puppet. However, the nation's highest office brought out the best in him. President Arthur, the former spoilsman, backed and signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act. This act prohibited salary kickbacks from public employees as well as their firing for political reasons. It also established a bipartisan Civil Service Commission, which administered competitive examinations for Federal jobs. He ordered the U.S. Attorney General to prosecute a series of fraud cases in the Post Office Department which included many of Arthur's friends and associates. He advocated tariff reform and appointed a commission to examine the issue of high tariffs. His administration is also credited with the modernization of the American Navy and for the protection of Yellowstone as a National Park.
These actions by President Arthur alienated his former supporters and left the Republican Party in total disunity and left Arthur a president without party support. Although he attempted to appear vigorous and covered up reports of terminal kidney ailment, he was also not physically well. Because of his ill health, Arthur did not actively pursue his re-nomination in 1884.
Stoic to the end, Arthur concealed his deteriorating health. Following Grover Cleveland's inauguration as President, he returned to his home in New York City. On November 18, 1886, he died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Chester A. Arthur was buried in Albany, New York, in the family plot at the Rural Cemetery.
Chester Arthur was the quintessential man of the Gilded Age. Despite his country background, he enjoyed life's finer pleasures. Arthur was always impeccably dressed and his homes were furnished in the most fashionable styles. Uncomfortable with official duties, Arthur was at his best in the drawing room and at social gatherings.
Arthur insisted on redecorating the White House before he would occupy it. He commissioned Louis C. Tiffany as designer. Twenty-four wagonloads of furniture dating back to the Adams Administration were removed and sold at public auction. This was replaced by the finest contemporary furniture, fabrics, rugs, and wallpapers promoting the American Victorian Aesthetic Movement.
Despite critics who saw in him the evils of the patronage system, Chester A. Arthur was an example of how the office of the presidency can remake its occupant. In the words of his biographer, Thomas Reeves, Arthur underwent a "genuine transformation from a spoils-hungry, no-holds barred Conkling henchman into a restrained, dignified Chief Executive." His administration's accomplishments seem to support this view.
Elihu Root, present at Arthur's swearing-in and later to be President McKinley's Secretary of War, described Arthur on the occasion of the unveiling of the Chester Arthur statue in New York City in 1899. "He was wise in statesmanship, and firm and effective in administration...Good causes found in him a friend, and bad measures met him an unyielding opponent...In him, many came to recognize the grace and charm of his courtesy, his grave and simple dignity, and his loyal and steadfast friendship."
A drive to the President Chester Arthur State Historic Site in rural Fairfield, Vermont is like stepping back to a time when dairy farming was in full swing.
Today a granite monument stands next to small two-room, brightly painted yellow house set back from a gravel road. A casual driver may wonder what the granite marker means. If they stop and walk across the lawn they will see a monument that was dedicated in 1903 by Robert Todd Lincoln. The marker identifies the location where it was thought Chester Arthur was born. Oral history identified this as the location of the Arthur house and the monument was placed on a small plot of land presented to the State of Vermont by Peter Bent Brigham Northrop. At that time it was believed this was the location of the birthplace of Chester Arthur. P.B.B. Northrop was the father of the future Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, Consuelo Northrop Bailey. The Barre, Vermont granite monument was paid for by the State of Vermont and Robert Todd Lincoln came to Fairfield with much fanfare to dedicate the monument. Lincoln had been in Chester Arthur’s Cabinet as Secretary of War.
In 1947 the Vermont Legislature established the Historic Sites Commission and one of the Commission’s charges was to direct attention towards a suitable memorial for Chester Arthur. In 1950 the State of Vermont purchased additional land around the monument and the present building was recreated in 1953 using as a guide the old photograph of the house which stood on this site. Consuelo Northrop Bailey’s sister, Fredericka Sargent, was at the time a member of the Vermont House of Representatives and successfully piloted a bill to passage to fund the reconstruction of the house.
The house has mounted interpretive exhibits on the steps Chester Arthur took leading up to his presidency and of his accomplishments. The Vermont Historical Society has Arthur memorabilia in their collection because the historic site in Fairfield is not a research facility or the holder of historic objects.
A short distance to the northwest of the Chester A. Arthur State Historic Site stands the North Fairfield Baptist Church. At this site the father of Chester Arthur, Rev. William Arthur, was called to preach shortly before Chester was born. When you visit the church look for the date chiseled into one of the bricks on the side of the building. The present brick church, built circa 1840, replaced the earlier church. This church, which has never had electricity, was donated in 1970 to the State of Vermont, through the efforts of Consuelo Northrop Bailey, by the Vermont Baptist State Convention. The Brick Church is built on a rocky knoll from which is seen a panoramic view of a classic Vermont mountain range. The Brick Church is often used for memorial services and weddings and is open to the public for viewing during the hours the Historic Site is open.