On this day in 1829, future President Chester Alan Arthur is born in North Fairfield, Vermont.
The precocious and bright young Arthur wanted to become a lawyer and enrolled in Union College in New York at the age of 15. He later supported himself by teaching school while he earned his law degree. In 1848, he went to work as a lawyer in New York City. During the Civil War he served as quartermaster general for the state of New York, overseeing the purchase of supplies for the state’s military depots. His political career began when Ulysses S. Grant appointed him as port collector for New York’s harbors in 1871. Arthur’s penchant for staffing his office with Republican political cronies resulted in his firing by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878. After being chosen as James Garfield’s vice-presidential running mate in 1880, Arthur decided to straighten up his act and denounced the political patronage system. The campaign was successful.
In March 1881, Arthur’s close friend and boss, President James Garfield, was shot by a crazed assassin named Charles Guiteau. Garfield lingered for four months but finally succumbed to his wounds on September 2. The next day, Arthur was sworn in as president, becoming the third person to inhabit the White House in 1881. (Rutherford B. Hayes had turned over the reins of government to Garfield that March.)
According to President Hayes, Arthur’s administration was best known for ”liquor, snobbery and worse.” Although he had been ambitious as a young man, he was considered a lazy and “foppish” president. Some historians suggest that the lethargy he displayed as president was in fact the result of a debilitating and fatal kidney ailment known as Bright’s disease, compounded by a case of malaria he picked up while vacationing in Florida. Others explained away his frivolous lifestyle as a balm for the heartbreak he experienced over his beloved wife’s unexpected death in 1880.
Arthur served only one term from 1881 to 1885. The following year, he died from complications associated with Bright’s disease.