This is the 21st in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
Chester A. Arthur viewed cultural diversity as a threat to America.
The 21st president of the United States, Arthur took office in September 1881, after the assassination of James Garfield. He inherited a country still wrangling over civil rights for African Americans, and bristling with anti-immigration sentiment.
The animosity was particularly pronounced in the West, where large populations of immigrants and Native Americans lived, said Tom Sutton, a professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University and author of a chapter about Arthur in the 2016 book The Presidents and the Constitution.
“The country was growing more diverse, more industrialized, and out West, we were starting to get to the end of the development of the frontier,” Sutton said. “Arthur wanted consistency in population. He had this idea that everyone needed to be assimilated into American society, and those who couldn’t assimilate were excluded.”
The most notorious exclusion was of Chinese immigrants, who had flocked to America by the thousands for railroad or mining jobs. Following the economic crisis of 1873, the U.S. blamed the Chinese for depressing workmen’s wages. The remedy was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers and denied citizenship to current Chinese residents.
The act marked the first time a specific ethnic group was prohibited from immigrating to the United States. Arthur signed it into law in May 1882.
The federal government used similar anti-immigration language to exclude Native Americans, who were not considered citizens. Indians were required to go through a naturalization process similar to that of immigrants in order to qualify for the same rights and protections as other citizens.
“Arthur wanted what he thought was best for Native Americans—this idea that they needed to be assimilated into American society,” Sutton said. “In terms of citizenship, we continued to treat them as foreign nations, so they had to go through a naturalization process.”
This applied even to Indians born in the United States who voluntarily separated themselves from their tribes.
In 1880, a Winnebago Indian born on a reservation in Nebraska tried to register to vote. In a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1885, John Elk claimed he surrendered his tribal allegiance and was therefore a U.S. citizen. His claims were denied, and the high court ruled that Indians were not considered citizens until after they had been “naturalized, or taxed, or recognized as a citizen either by the United States or by the state.”
Arthur, who had natural empathy for the plight of American Indians, did little to protect them from oppression. Instead, he viewed assimilation as the answer to what he called the “great permanent problem.”
Born in Vermont in 1829, Arthur was an attorney who represented African Americans in civil rights cases. He served as a brigadier general during the Civil War and quartermaster general of New York. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him collector of the Port of New York, a position in which Arthur earned the highest federal salary, or three times that of the president.
A member of the Republican Party, Arthur was elected as vice president in 1880. After Garfield was assassinated in September 1881, Arthur completed the term, serving until 1885. He took office as the nation contended with corruption in the federal government, Mormons practicing polygamy in Utah, an active Ku Klux Klan and occasional violent uprisings among Indians on the dwindling western frontier.
“It was natural, at a time when the national territory seemed almost illimitable and contained many millions of acres far outside the bounds of civilized settlements, that a policy should have been initiated which more than aught else has been the fruitful source of our Indian complications,” he said. “I refer, of course, to the policy of dealing with the various Indian tribes as separate nationalities, of relegating them by treaty stipulations to the occupancy of immense reservations in the West, and of encouraging them to live a savage life, undisturbed by any earnest and well-directed efforts to bring them under the influences of civilization.”
Arthur called for three measures to help assimilate the Indians: robust education funding, individual land ownership, and an act that made state laws applicable on Indian reservations. The goal of these measures was to convince Indians to “sever their tribal relations” so they could be gradually absorbed into American society and earn the rights of citizens.
“The Indian should receive the protection of the law,” Arthur said in 1881. “He should be allowed to maintain in court his rights of person and property. He has repeatedly begged for this privilege. Its exercise would be very valuable to him in his progress toward civilization.”
During his partial term in office, Arthur faced dwindling Indian violence, and in his annual message to Congress, he reported fewer incidents every year. “The only outbreaks of Indians during the past year occurred in Arizona and in the southwestern part of New Mexico,” he said in December 1882. “They were promptly quelled.”
The following year, Arthur reported only a single instance of “any disturbance of the quiet condition of our Indian tribes.” He predicted “that the Indian tribes which have for so many years disturbed the West will hereafter remain in peaceable submission.”
In his final message to Congress, three months before he left office, Arthur reported that, “both as between the different Indian tribes and as between the Indians and the whites, the past year has been one of unbroken peace.”
Arthur left office in 1885 and was succeeded by Grover Cleveland. He died in 1886 at age 57.