The Politics of Chester A. Arthur: A Stalwart Defender of the Spoils System in Government

Chester Alan Arthur

Chester A. Arthur, soon to be 21st President of the United States, was a loyal member of the stalwart faction of Republican Politics throughout his rise to the Vice-Presi.

Chester A. Arthur was born, by most accounts, in Fairfield Vermont in 1829, though there have been rumors ever since that he, the son of parents who lived in Quebec for a short time, may have actually been born in Canada, though there is no actual evidence for this.

Arthur, by most accounts, had a fairly ordinary childhood, attending public school in Vermont, then Union College in Schenectady, New York where he earned his Master’s Degree in 1851.

Arthur went on to become the Principle of a Vermont school before studying law on his own and being admitted to the bar in 1854.

It is here that Arthur’s political life can be said to have begun, for he practiced law quite capably in New York City until the Civil War began, when he began serving as Quartermaster General for New York State (a position which supplies logistical support to the armed forces), serving in this post with distinction until 1862.

Even as the Civil War continued, Arthur continued to practice law, New York being far enough from the fighting that his business was able to continue. In this capacity, Arthur forged a relationship with New York political boss Roscoe Conkling – an important step for a person with any political asperations in New York.

Stalwarts and Spoils

Conkling and other members of the Republican party (at this point by far the dominant party in the Union states), who would become known as Stalwarts when the party split a decade later, believed strongly in the patronage and spoils system.

To men like Conkling (and, supposedly, Arthur himself), an elected official was obligated to repay his supporters by offering them jobs in the Civil Service (that is jobs in the government beaurocracy). Opponents of this view thought that this was unfair, and favored Civil Service Reform.

Nevertheless, Arthur had become a very popular and successful lawyer, and when Ulysses S. Grant (a proponent of patronage himself) became President, he was named to the prestigious position of Collector of the Port of New York.


Though corruption was rampant within the spoils system of politics during this time (this was one of the chief complaints made by opponents of Grant’s Presidency), Chester A. Arthur, by all accounts, performed his duties with great dignity, even in the shadow of previous collectors who had been well-known as corrupt.

Grant lost reelection to a third term in 1776, however, and Rutherford B. Hayes, who opposed the Spoils system, became President. In 1778, Arthur was fired and went back to his law practice.

In 1880, however, Arthur recieved an important opportunity.

Though his political mentor Roscoe Conkling favored former President Grant for a third term in the fight for the Republican nomination that year, a faction opposing the Stalwarts, who became known as “Half-Breeds” by their enemies, who saw them as comprimising, nominated Congressman James A. Garfield to oppose him.


Garfield, knowing that if he was to win the nomination would have to find a way to achieve the support of stalwarts, sought out just such a man for his running mate. He was turned down by some, but when he asked Arthur, who had grown very popular in his own state (though he had no national political experience), the offer was enthusiastically accepted.

Sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when he saw one (despite vehement opposition by Conkling and other stalwarts), Arthur campaigned strongly for Garfield, helping him squeak by in both the nomination and in the national election.

Just like that, Chester A. Arthur was Vice President. It is said that he and Garfield did not necessarily get along, however. Arthur attempted to remain loyal to Conkling, openly opposing the President’s choice of appointments for men who favored reforms in the civil service (which was an attempt to do away with stalwart ideas regarding spoils).

Garfield pressed on throughout his short time in office, pushing his appointments through, and in the end winning an important victory when Conkling resigned his seat in the Senate.

Arthur’s voice as Vice President was surpressed, and it looked as if Garfieield would be victorious.

On July of 1881, however, only months after becoming President, Garfield was shot. He died two months later, turning the inept Vice President into the most powerful man in the nation.

Arthur, fortunately, would step up to the challenge with admirably capability and surprising independence.