Chester Alan Arthur was a recent widower when he was elected VP in 1880.
The Private Arthurs
No one was more surprised than Chester Alan Arthur when he was nominated for (and elected) Vice President in 1880. Had she lived, Ellen Herndon Arthur would have echoed that surprise.
Chester Alan Arthur (1829-1886) was Vermont-born of a “humble” family. His father, a farmer-teacher-minister, was long on faith and short on funds. When Chet was still a toddler, the family moved from place to place in upstate New York for better opportunities. In a land where one (with pluck and luck) can rise from modest means to wealth, Chet leaped at the opportunity for an education at Union College. He excelled, studied law, and in time, decided to seek his fortune in The Big Apple, where, if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.
Nevertheless, while he never denied his modest beginnings and kept in contact with his family, like Lincoln, he seldom discussed personal details.
Ellen Lewis Herndon (1837-80) came from both means and distinction. She was a Virginian, born to a high ranking naval officer; her father’s cousin Matthew Fontaine Maury, was an even higher ranking naval commander (both USA and CSA) and scientist of renown.
Due to her father’s long absences at sea, Ellen (usually called Nell) was an only child, and had little contact with him. She would later admit she never knew her father very well. When he died in a tragic hurricane shipwreck in 1857, he became a bone fide hero, rescuing scores of passengers, but losing his life in the effort.
Born in Fredericksburg, VA, young Nell lived mostly in Washington DC, and blessed with an excellent singing voice, sang in the St. John’s Church choir. She eventually moved with her mother to New York. For a while.
Becoming Mrs. Arthur
Chet Arthur (as his friends called him) adapted easily to the New York City lifestyle. He became a nifty dresser and epicure. His legal talents, especially those of administration, were recognized quickly, and the then-Governor of New York took a personal interest. When the opportunity arose, Governor Morgan appointed his young protege to high level positions, particularly once the Civil War began.
Prior to meeting Ellen Herndon in 1858 at a Saratoga Springs resort, Arthur focused on furthering his career and seems to have had little serious romantic involvement. But when his friend Darnley Herndon introduced the young attorney to his cousin Ellen, that changed quickly.
Despite the fact that Arthur the New Yorker and Miss Herndon the Southern belle came from backgrounds that were miles apart, they were attracted and the courtship proceeded apace. He visited the Herndon home in Virginia, and met many of her well-placed kinsmen. Their gracious lifestyle was embraced by the up-and-coming lawyer; the Herndon family liked him.
They married in 1859. She was 22, he was 30. They purchased a townhouse in Manhattan, and proceeded to entertain frequently – and lavishly. She had inherited a considerable fortune from her recently-deceased hero-father.
The Happy Couple
In many ways Nell and Chet were a happy couple. They had three children, the first died in infancy. Chet readily acknowledged how much he owed to the genteel Southern social style that his bride brought to the table, along with her finances. She, on the other hand, found fulfillment singing in the Episcopal Church choir, and the Mendelssohn Glee Club, where she sang their soprano solos, and performed at many benefit occasions.
The Civil War took a toll on the Arthur spouses as it did on many marriages. Nell openly favored the Confederacy, deeply concerned about her many relatives. Meanwhile Chet had become essential to New York’s military efforts, provisioning all the volunteer NY troops, to include housing, feeding, clothing, arming and sundries. He eventually was given the title of Quartermaster General, which allows history to consider him as a military general. When the 30-something Arthur tried to enlist for active duty, the Governor would not permit it. He was needed in New York.
The Maybe Not-So-Happy Couple
After the Civil War, politics in general underwent many changes, not the least of which was the rise of the political boss who controlled all the patronage jobs in said city/county/state (wherever the boss reigned). “To the victor belongs the spoils,” and that meant politics. In the 1870s, it was primarily Republican, and usually corrupt. The emergence of Civil Service regulation was still years away.
While never personally corrupt, Chet Arthur was deeply rooted in the boss system, and became a high-ranking behind-the-scenes advisor. Few Republican decisions were made in New York without his input. In return, he was assigned plum positions that paid more than the President of the United States.
CAA was having a grand time of it. Delmonico dinners, speaking engagements, champagne and caviar meetings. Some may have included show girls or amiable waitresses. Bottom line, he was seldom home.
Here’s where things get a little iffy. His marriage was drifting, and some historians have conjectured that Nell planned to take the children and return to Virginia. Maybe. Both Arthurs were intensely private people. They kept no diaries, were seldom separated for any length of time, thus few letters survive. And the former POTUS Arthur burned most of his papers shortly before he died.
Nevertheless, in January, 1880, she was singing with her glee club on a cold and snowy night. She caught cold which became pneumonia, and died shortly afterwards. She was 42.
She never saw her husband elected VP, nor become President of the United States following the assassination of James Garfield.
Arthur never remarried. But as President, he endowed a magnificent Tiffany stained glass window in Washington’s St. John’s Church in her memory. It is still there.
Greenberger, Scott S. – The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur – De Capo Press, 2017
Karabel, Zachary – Chester Alan Arthur – Times Books, 2004