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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Chester Arthur: The President from Murray Hill

With the media coverage ramping up for next Tuesday’s inauguration of President Barack Obama, we thought we’d take this opportunity to look back at one of the presidential inaugurations that took place in New York City.

There have actually been two presidents who have taken the oath of office in New York. The famous one was George Washington, who was sworn in on April 30, 1789, on the balcony of the old City Hall on Wall Street. (Federal Hall National Memorial stands on the spot today.) The other was one of America’s least remembered chief executives, Chester A. Arthur, who took the oath in his home at 123 Lexington Avenue in Murray Hill.

A lawyer by training, Chester Arthur had risen through the ranks of the Republican Party to become the Collector of the Port of New York, a job secured for him by powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling. When Rutherford B. Hayes (who’ll talk more about in a future post) became president in 1877, Arthur lost his patronage job—in part so that Hayes could show that he was cracking down on patronage positions. But in 1880, Arthur was tapped to be James A. Garfield’s running mate, and in March 1881, was sworn in as Vice President. (The presidential and vice presidential inauguration was still in March back then.)

Just four months after the inauguration, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled civil servant. Garfield lingered until September 19, when he finally succumbed to his wounds.

Word was immediately sent to Chester Arthur, who was at home in Murray Hill. In the middle of night, New York Supreme Court Justice John R. Brady was fetched to come to the Arthurs’ home and administer the oath of office. (A second, more formal inauguration took place two days later in Washington, DC.)*

After his one term in office—marked by distinct efforts at civil service reform—Arthur retired to his Lexington Avenue home where he died on November 18, 1886. The house at 123 Lexington still stands, but the only part you can visit is the ground-floor retail section, which is the Indian grocery store Kaluystan’s.

*UPDATE 1/21/2009
It has come to light in the wake of Barack Obama having to take the oath of office a second time (because of flubbing of his lines) that it was the same sense of wanting to have an "abundance of caution" that caused Chester Arthur to also take his oath twice. Evidently, some in D.C. weren't convinced that Arthur's late-night swearing-in on Lexington Avenue was the real deal, so he was asked to take the oath again once he got to Washington.

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More on the role New York has played in the presidency can be found on our blog post from the weekend before Election Day and—of course—in our new book, Inside the Apple.

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