The Gilded Age
bon vivant who became America's unlikeliest chief executive-and who presided over a sweeping reform
of the system that nurtured him Chester Alan Arthur
never dreamed that one day he would be president of the United States. A successful lawyer, Arthur had been forced out as the head of the Custom House of the Port of New York in 1877 in a power struggle between the two wings of the Republican Party. He became such a celebrity that he was nominated for vice president in 1880-despite his never having run for office before. Elected alongside James A. Garfield
, Arthur found his life transformed just four 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 increasingly 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 pushed through the Pendleton 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 largely forgotten today, but Zachary Karabell eloquently shows how this unexpected president-of whom so little was expected-rose to the occasion when fate placed him in the White House.
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The Gilded Age was the term used by Mark Twain to describe America after the Civil War, which was not a golden age but one characterized by showy gilding. James A Garfield was elected president as a Republican in 1880 and assassinated in 1881.