The son of a Baptist preacher who had emigrated from northern Ireland, Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, in 1829. He was graduated from
Union College in 1848, taught school, was admitted to the bar, and practiced law in New York City. Early in the Civil War he served as
Quartermaster General of the State of New York.
To the indignation of the Stalwart Republicans, the onetime Collector of the Port of New York became, as President, a champion of civil service
reform. Public pressure, heightened by the assassination of Garfield, forced an unwieldy Congress to heed the President.
In 1883 Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which established a bipartisan Civil Service Commission, forbade levying political assessments
against officeholders, and provided for a "classified system" that made certain Government positions obtainable only through
competitive written examinations. The system protected employees against removal for political reasons.
Arthur demonstrated as President that he was above factions within the Republican Party, if indeed not above the party itself. Perhaps in
part his reason was the well-kept secret he had known since a year after he succeeded to the Presidency, that he was suffering from a fatal
kidney disease. He kept himself in the running for the Presidential nomination in 1884 in order not to appear that he feared defeat, but was
not renominated, and died in 1886. Publisher Alexander K. McClure recalled, "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely
distrusted, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected."