Chester A. Arthur viewed cultural diversity as a threat to America.
The 20th 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 bookThe 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 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.”