On September 20, 1881, Chester Arthur was inaugurated, becoming the third person to serve as president in that year.

The year 1881 began with Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in office. He served out his first and only term and officially turned over the reins of government to James A. Garfield in March 1881. On July 2, four months into his term, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau who 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 aneurysm that ultimately killed Garfield on September 19.

The next day, Vice President Chester Arthur was sworn in as president. Guiteau wrote to Arthur from jail, taking credit for putting him in the White House. Arthur served only one term from 1881 to 1885.

This was the second time in American history that three men served as president in one year; a similar situation occurred in 1841, when Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison and John Tyler all held the office.