Chester Alan Arthur never dreamed that one day he would be president of the United States. He had enjoyed a long and successful career as a lawyer and Republican Party operative in New York City, where he served as collector of customs for the Port of New York, the biggest plum on the tree of political patronage. But in 1878 a power struggle between two wings of the Republican Party resulted in Arthur's forced removal from his post. The controversy made him a political celebrity and led to his nomination for vice president—despite his never having run for office before.
Elected with James A. Garfield in 1880, Arthur found his life transformed just months into his term, when an assassin shot and killed Garfield, catapulting Arthur into the presidency. The assassin was a deranged man who thought he deserved a federal job through the corrupt "spoils system." To the surprise of many, Arthur, a longtime beneficiary of that system, saw that the time had come for reform. His opportunity came in the winter of 1882-83, when he played a crucial role in the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which created a professional civil service and set America on a course toward greater reforms in the decades to come.
Chester Arthur may be one of our lesser-known chief executives, but Zachary Karabell, the author of several highly regarded works of American and world history, shows how this president of whom so little was expected rose to the occasion when fate placed him in the White House. Arthur grew in office, frustrated those who demanded special treatment, and left the presidency in better shape than he found it. In many ways, he was an exceptional president who deserves more from history than he has received.