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Sinking into the Nadir with President Arthur

Following his death on September 19th, 1881 President Garfield was succeeded by his Vice-President, Chester A. Arthur. Born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829, the son of a fervent anti-slavery Baptist minister who immigrated to America from Ireland, Chester A. Arthur rose to become an attorney in New York City. Admitted to the bar at age twenty-eight, Arthur’s first case was the Lemmon Slave case. Working alongside of William M. Evarts they contended that eight slaves formerly owned by Jonathan Lemmon were legally free. They successfully argued that by voluntarily bringing the slaves into New York state they had, in effect, set them free. Later, in 1856, working as a partner in the law firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur, the future president won a case for a black woman, Lizzie Jenkins, who had been illegally expelled from one of the era’s horse-cars because of her race. Jenkins’s and Arthur’s victory secured the right of blacks to equal treatment on public vehicles in New York. During the Civil War he won acclaim as the Quartermaster General for the state of New York recruiting tens of thousands of soldiers, organizing the logistics of supplying and quartering the troops. Arthur hoped for a war confined to maintaining the Union, not one committed to ending slavery.

President Arthur continued Garfield’s policies that were designed to foster national reconciliation in large part by turning a blind eye to the systematic violation of black human rights in the South that had been tolerated by his predecessors, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, and Garfield. Allying himself with the Readjuster Democrats —who were independent of the mainstream Democrats— in an attempt to establish a Republican foothold in southern politics, President Arthur’s inaugural address justified the disfranchisement of African Americans by pointing to the extent of illiteracy among the recently emancipated people.

Increasing African-American Discontent with Arthur and Republicans

After the Right Reverend Daniel Alexander Payne, then head of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was expelled from a Florida train because he insisted that his first-class ticket be honored by the segregated train he was forced to walk five miles in blistering hot weather with his heavy baggage. The treatment received by the seventy-one year-old distinguished cleric who presided over Wilberforce University led to angry meetings of African Americans in Jacksonville and New York City with the finger being pointed directly at the Arthur administration. Frederick Douglass, accompanied by top officials of the African Methodist Episcopal church met with President Arthur’s attorney general, Benjamin H. Brewster to seek action on the case but they received only a promise to investigate--a promise which was not kept.

President Arthur’s refusal to respond positively after Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875 also led to widespread protests among blacks. Frederick Douglass said that the move would make blacks vulnerable “when on a steamboat or railroad or in a theatre, restaurant or other public place, at the mercy of any white ruffian who may choose to insult them.” Yet, Arthur refused to support any of the Republican-sponsored legislation in Congress to restore the intent of the original civil rights legislation. In response the National Convention of Colored People condemned Arthur in September 1883 for his administration’s failure to enforce laws that would protect the civil rights of blacks. The Louisville convention refused to endorse Arthur effort to win the 1884 Republican nomination for president. Following the 1883 overturning of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by the Supreme Court, Arthur failed to support legislation designed to substitute for it. All of the efforts to restore the civil rights legislation failed.

In Washington, D. C., in a speech at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, African American leader John Mercer Langston called the Supreme Court's


President Chester Arthur

Chester Alan Arthur, 21st President

1881 to 1885

Birth: October 5, 1829, Fairfield, Vermont

Death: November 18, 1886

Education: Union College

Religion: Episcopal

Profession: Lawyer, Bureaucrat

Political Party: Whig, Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Chester A. Arthur Aug 6, 1999, CSPAN



John Mercer Langston decision “a stab in the back”. These developments spurred a movement among African Americans to form an independent political party. Black discontent with the Republican Party reflected anger at this ongoing betrayal of their interests, and was only heightened by President Arthur’s January 1883 decision to effectively endorse black disfranchisement by not reducing southern representation at the upcoming Republican convention. Douglass, writing from abroad, summed up Arthur's legacy upon the occasion of his death. While he “regretted that he has fallen in the midst of his years,” Douglass said that “there is nothing in his career as President of the U. S. that proves him to have any sympathy with the oppressed colored people of the South.”


©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.