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Chester Arthur dies in New York

On this day in 1886, former President Chester Alan Arthur succumbs to complications from a debilitating and fatal kidney ailment known as Bright’s Disease. In the words of former President Rutherford B. Hayes, Arthur’s term as president was most notable for “liquor, snobbery and worse.” Although he had been ambitious as a young man, he was considered by many of his contemporaries to have been a lazy and “foppish” president.

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 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.

That same year, Arthur’s beloved wife Ellen became ill and lapsed into a coma. Arthur was away in upstate New York when he was notified of her illness, but had returned to be by her side by the time of her death. 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, leaving Arthur’s political role in limbo. Just as Garfield appeared to be on the verge of recovery, though, he took a turn for the worse, finally succumbing to his wounds on September 2, and thrusting Arthur into presidency.

Some historians have suggested that the lethargy Arthur displayed as president was in fact the result of his struggle with Bright’s Disease. Also called nephritis, the disease causes the degeneration of kidney cells, swelling, high blood pressure and, eventually, kidney failure. It can be brought on by infection. (Arthur had reportedly picked up a case of malaria while vacationing in Florida in 1882.) His doctors diagnosed the disease in 1882 but kept it secret since it was not in an advanced stage.

In addition to being considered a lazy administrator, Arthur’s lifestyle apart from politics was perceived by many as frivolous. It was suggested in some social circles that Arthur’s heavy drinking and eating was his way of alleviating his heartbreak over his wife’s death. Arthur served only one term from 1881 to 1885 and upon retirement returned to his home in New York. He never remarried. After leaving the White House, his battle with Bright’s Disease turned critical. He passed away on November 18, 1886.

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