President Chester A. Arthur Takes Oath of Office After the Assassination of James Garfield

On this day in 1881, Chester Arthur is inaugurated, becoming the third person to serve as president in that year.

The year 1881 began with Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in office. Hayes served out his first and only term and officially turned over the reins of government to James A. Garfield, who happened to be a close friend of his, in March 1881. Just four months into his term, on July 2, Garfield was shot by a crazed assassin named Charles Guiteau. Guiteau claimed to have killed Garfield because he refused to grant Guiteau a political appointment. Garfield sustained wounds to his back and abdomen and struggled to recover throughout the summer. Though it appeared he would pull through in early September, the autopsy report revealed that the internal bullet wound contributed to an aneurism that ultimately killed Garfield on September 19.

President Arthur took the oath of office twice. The first time was at his Lexington Avenue residence, when it was given just past midnight on September 20. The oath was given by New York Supreme Court justice John R. Brady. The second time was two days later after he returned to Washington. This time it was given in the Capitol by Chief Justice of the United States Morrison Waite. This was to avoid any dispute over whether the oath was valid if given by a state official. (A similar situation later occurred with Calvin Coolidge.)

When Vice President Chester Arthur succeeded to the presidency on the death of James Garfield, a newspaper noted that he was "not a man who would have entered anybody's mind" as a worthy candidate for the office. Indeed, as a major player in a spoils system that reduced the civil service to a sinecure-ridden vehicle for rewarding party faithful, he struck many as an emblem of all that was wrong in American politics.