When James A. Garfield decided to run on the Republican ticket for President of the United States, his party knew they faced an uphill battle. Garfield, a Civil War veteran from Ohio, would struggle to win votes in the Northeast, as his Democratic challenger, Winfield Hancock, hailed from Pennsylvania. To balance his ticket and increase his odds, Garfield chose New Yorker Chester Alan Arthur as his running mate. The two campaigned on a claim that the Democrats, if elected, would lower America’s protective tariffs, allowing cheap imported goods into the market and putting American workers out of their jobs. The tactic worked.
Though they won the Electoral College rather decisively (214-155), Garfield and Arthur eked out a popular vote victory of only 1,898 votes: the smallest margin of victory in American history. During the campaign, a man by the name of Charles Guiteau wrote and distributed a speech he had written in support of the Garfield-Arthur ticket. With such a small margin of victory, he was sure that it was this speech and his campaigning which had secured the win for the Republicans. As such, he expected recompense in the form of a diplomatic post in Paris.
Guieteau gained entry to the White House the day after Garfield’s inauguration and was actually able to drop off a copy of his speech with the new president. For days afterward, Guiteau wandered the streets and buildings of Washington D.C., attempting to drum up support with politicians and waiting for word from President Garfield. On March 13, 1881, the slovenly and unbathed Guiteau was banned from the White House and, the following day, was told by Secretary of State James G. Blaine to “Never speak to me again of the Paris consulship as long as you live.”
Outraged, Guiteau used borrowed money to purchase a revolver and began taking target lessons. He planned everything exhaustively: the gun he purchased had an ivory handle so it would look better on display in a museum some day; he asked for a tour of the Washington jail where he’d be held; and he began stalking President Garfield around the city, learning his schedules and routines.
On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau waited for the president at the Baltimore and Potomac Rail Station, where he was scheduled to leave to deliver a speech at his alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts. Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, whose own father had been assassinated just 16 years prior, waited at the station to see the president off. Garfield had no security detail has he stepped into the crowded waiting room. Guiteau snuck up from behind and fired twice. One bullet grazed Garfield’s shoulder. The other entered through his back and lodged behind his pancreas. The president cried out and collapsed.
Garfield was carried to an upstairs room of the station as Guiteau was arrested. Robert Todd Lincoln is quoted as having lamented, “How many hours of sorrow have I passed in this town?” The bullet unable to be found, he carried the president to the White House, where he began to make a steady recovery. Doctors, however, continued probing his wound for the missing bullet using unsterilized instruments. Garfield was soon ravaged by infection, causing him to dramatically lose weight and begin slipping into hallucinations.
On September 6th, the president was transferred to a beachfront home in Elberon, New Jersey. Doctors hoped the fresh air and quiet would help him to recover. His body beyond help, Garfield died on September 19th, becoming the second president to be killed by an assassin’s bullet.
The news was delivered to Vice President Arthur at his home in New York City that evening. And at 2:15 AM, in the parlor of 123 Lexington Avenue, Chester A. Arthur took his oath as President of the United States. He traveled to New Jersey to pay his respects to Garfield before heading to Washington to take up his Constitutional duties.
Deeply mistrusted by Garfield’s cabinet, President Arthur had to fight an uphill battle to win the respect of his new colleagues. By the end of his first term, all of Garfield’s appointed cabinet members resigned with the exception of Robert Todd Lincoln as Secretary of War. Despite this, President Arthur quickly took the reins, filling his cabinet vacancies with friends and allies from New York. He chastised Congress for their perpetual stalling and disagreement on various issues such as civil service reform, naval vessel construction, and civil rights issues.
But when it came time for Arthur to run for a full term in 1884, his defeat was assured by the fact that Republicans remained luke-warm to him and his policies. Rather than fight it out, Arthur endorsed party favorite James G. Blaine, and retired to his home in New York.
In New York, he became increasingly ill. On November 16, 1886, he ordered all of his papers burned. Two days later, in the home where he took the oath of the presidency just five years prior, Chester A. Arthur died. A private funeral was held at the Church of the Heavenly Rest at 90th Street and 5th Avenue. He was buried in his family plot just outside of Albany.
Thrust into office under the most tragic of circumstances amid a bitter partisan stalemate, Chester Alan Arthur left office a highly respected man. After his death, a collection was taken to build a monument to his honor near his grave at Albany Rural Cemetery. So much more was raised than was needed that the surplus was used to erect a statue in his likeness in Madison Square. He stands tall, forever presiding over the city he called home.