Following the assassination of President James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur began his presidency in September 1881. Though his one and only term is better known for his efforts at civil service reform, President Arthur also oversaw several significant events pertaining directly to United States’ foreign affairs. In fact, Arthur’s term included some initial steps in what would be the United States' gradual ascension to a global superpower.

Constructing the Modern Navy

During his term, President Arthur oversaw a major effort to reinvigorate the U.S. Navy. After the Civil War, the U.S. Navy’s ship total dwindled to about 50 ships (down from over 700). Following the president’s directive, Secretary of the Navy William Hunt and his successor, William Chandler, approved and orchestrated the expansion of the U.S. Navy to include new steel cruisers, steamers, monitors and warships. The last of the newly requisitioned ships were completed in 1889, four years after Arthur’s final year as president.

Involvement in Central and South America

President Arthur’s successor, President Garfield, had appointed James Blaine to the position of secretary of state. Blaine, who remained in his position into the early part of Arthur’s term, continued his efforts to broker deals with various South American countries engaged in the War of the Pacific. Blaine’s successor, Frederick Frelinghuysen, discontinued many of the deals struck with countries like Bolivia, Peru and Chile because he was concerned the U.S. would be dragged into the fighting. Frelinghuysen did, however, expand upon Blaine’s efforts to increase trade in Central and South America and other areas in the Pacific, overseeing various treaties with Mexico, Santo Domingo, Spain’s American colonies and what was then the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Immigration Acts and Taxes

The 47th Congress, serving concurrently with Arthur’s first and only term, generated several pieces of immigration legislation that the president took a part in shaping. For example, Arthur insisted on some language changes for a bill that would regulate steamships carrying immigrants into the U.S. Arthur and Congress also worked together to draft the Immigration Act of 1882, which taxed immigrants 50 cents upon entering into the U.S. and denied entry to people with mental and physical disabilities, criminals and others who might require some type of public assistance.

Chinese Immigrants Barred

In addition to general legislation regarding immigration, President Arthur also signed into law specific legislation regarding Chinese Immigration. Initially, the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 allowed Chinese immigrants to enter the U.S. with no restriction. This concerned general laborers, who perceived these immigrants as threats to their ability to work. Consequently, Congress attempted to pass an act that barred Chinese immigrants from entering the country at all for 20 years. Arthur vetoed this bill, but Congress and the Senate overrode his veto with a compromise bill that barred Chinese immigrants for 10 years.