Chester A. Arthur’s Address Upon Assuming the Presidency (1881)

Upon the attempted assassination of President James A. Garfield, Vice-President Chester A. Arthur reportedly went into hiding, fearful that the public would believe he played a role in the shooting of Garfield. Once the President died, two months later, in the 19th century’s fourth emergency swearing-in ceremony, Arthur took the oath of office and became president on September 20, 1881. The ceremony was conducted in his private residence in New York City, where he stayed while awaiting Garfield’s fate. Arthur received a second ceremonial swearing-in ceremony on September 22nd in Washington D.C. Present at his ceremony were former Presidents Hayes and Grant. 

Though doing so upset his colleagues in the Republican party, as president, Arthur championed civil service reform, signing the Pendleton Act into law in 1883, which established a Civil Service Commission, in an attempt to enforce a merit system for government jobs. In addition, Arthur signed into law the Tariff Act of 1883, which lowered tariff rates, and what is considered to be the first federal immigration law, which suspended Chinese immigration for ten years, according to the White House Historical Association

Arthur’s legacy is unremarkable — TIME Magazine listed him as one of the most forgettable presidents, citing his “do-gooder streak,” which led to his failure to secure his party’s nomination for reelection. Arthur died from kidney disease two years after his term ended, in 1886. 

Chester Arthur’s Address Upon Assuming the Presidency, September 22, 1881

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Chester A. Arthur was sworn-in to the presidency twice: first after James Garfield’s death on September 20, 1881, and again in Washington D.C. on September 22.

For the fourth time in the history of the Republic its Chief Magistrate has been removed by death. All hearts are filled with grief and horror at the hideous crime which has darkened our land, and the memory of the murdered President, his protracted sufferings, his unyielding fortitude, the example and achievements of his life, and the pathos of his death will forever illumine the pages of our history.

For the fourth time the officer elected by the people and ordained by the Constitution to fill a vacancy so created is called to assume the Executive chair. The wisdom of our fathers, foreseeing even the most dire possibilities, made sure that the Government should never be imperiled because of the uncertainty of human life. Men may die, but the fabrics of our free institutions remain unshaken. No higher or more assuring proof could exist of the strength and permanence of popular government than the fact that though the chosen of the people be struck down his constitutional successor is peacefully installed without shock or strain except the sorrow which mourns the bereavement. All the noble aspirations of my lamented predecessor which found expression in his life, the measures devised and suggested during his brief Administration to correct abuses, to enforce economy, to advance prosperity, and to promote the general welfare, to Insure domestic security and maintain friendly and honorable relations with the nations of the earth, will be garnered in the hearts of the people; and it will be my earnest endeavor to profit, and to see that the nation shall profit, by his example and experience.

Portrait of President Arthur, courtesy of The Library of Congress

Portrait of President Arthur, courtesy of The Library of Congress

Prosperity blesses our country. Our fiscal policy is fixed by law, is well grounded and generally approved. No threatening issue mars our foreign intercourse, and the wisdom, integrity, and thrift of our people may be trusted to continue undisturbed the present assured career of peace, tranquilly, and welfare. The gloom and anxiety which have enshrouded the country must make repose especially welcome now. No demand for speedy legislation has been heard; no adequate occasion is apparent for an unusual session of Congress. The Constitution defines the functions and powers of the executive as clearly as those of either of the other two departments of the Government, and he must answer for the just exercise of the discretion it permits and the performance of the duties it imposes. Summoned to these high duties and responsibilities and profoundly conscious of their magnitude and gravity, I assume the trust imposed by the Constitution, relying for aid on divine guidance and the virtue, patriotism, and intelligence of the American people.

Transcript courtesy of The Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

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