Review of Scott S. Greenberger’s “The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur”

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Mark Gamin is a Cleveland lawyer and writer.

The astute political theorist (and equally good folksinger) Arlo Guthrie once commented with approval on President Reagan’s supposed Oval Office habit of dozing off, mid-day. “The more he sleeps,” said Arlo, “the safer we’ll be.”

Perhaps something similar was, or could have been, said about the 21st president, Chester A. Arthur – though for different reasons. Most Americans (including he himself) thought that he was totally unqualified to be president. His ascension to the presidency in September 1881 was so controversial, so fraught, that when he accomplished little (though, to his great credit, the little that he did do was mostly good, such as civil service reform) it came as a relief of sorts. As a character, though, and as a man who redeemed himself, he still fascinates, as Scott S. Greenberger ably shows in his new biography, The Unexpected President.

Arthur was born in 1829 in Vermont. His father was a hard-shell Baptist preacher and an abolitionist in an ante-bellum era when abolitionists were routinely attacked, physically, in the North. Arthur inherited, perhaps, some of his father’s views: “Given the tenor of the times,” as Greenberger puts it, “Arthur held enlightened views on race.” But in matters of personal integrity, Arthur, in his early career, fell well short of the rectitude that would be expected of a man of God like the elder Arthur – he was somewhat, indeed, the opposite.

As a young man, Arthur moved to New York City and quickly adapted to the way the game of politics was played then and there (or, a cynic might say, the way the game of politics is played all the time, everywhere). “To the victor went the spoils,” Greenberger says: “jobs, power, and money.” A man of refined and expensive tastes, Arthur wanted to get rich; and his wife, Nell, was socially ambitious which, then as now, takes money.

The names of New York’s bosses in the Gilded Age (thus it was dubbed by Mark Twain) are still known today: Thurlow Weed, Reuben Fenton, William “Boss” Tweed, and Arthur’s confidant, protector, sometime roommate, and especial friend and co-conspirator, the Republican United States Senator from New York, Roscoe Conkling.

Through Conkling’s mechanics Arthur was named Collector of the New York Custom House, the single largest federal office in the nation, with the Collector controlling huge spoils in the form of jobs. Arthur grew rich off the graft and made many Republican Party connections that proved useful later; among other things those connections led to his nomination, and later election, as James Garfield’s vice-president.

After Garfield’s assassination, Arthur filled out the two-year remainder of his term, but showed little interest in running for president on his own; at the 1884 Convention in Chicago, James G. Blaine (who eventually lost the presidential election to Grover Cleveland) took the Republican nomination.

Greenberger’s book is not a long one, but his rendition of Arthur’s life is thorough, especially on how and why Arthur transformed himself from a hack pol, beholden to Conkling and eager to do his bidding (a Thomas Nast cartoon showed him, when he was vice-president, as Conkling’s bootblack) into a reasonably independent and reasonably honorable president.

How so? What made for the apparent change in character? Partly it was Arthur himself, humbled by the majesty of his undeserved office. “For the vice-presidency I was indebted to Mr. Conkling,” he said. “But for the presidency of the United States my debt is to the Almighty.”

But there was one other factor, involving a minor, but fascinating, figure in American presidential history – Julia Sand. If Conkling was a figurative devil sitting on one of Arthur’s shoulders, whispering in his ear, Julia Sand was the figurative angel on the other shoulder.

She was the unmarried, pampered daughter of a wealthy father; various physical ailments kept her at home in Manhattan. She and Arthur were complete strangers but, after President Garfield was shot (and lay in extremis for weeks), Sand began to write Arthur letters of support. Greenberger quotes a number of them: they are extraordinary in their keen and sensitive (but tough!) insight into Arthur’s character, into the hugely awkward situation he found himself while the beloved Garfield lay dying, and into the politics of his short presidency.

Arthur visited Julia Sand’s New York home once; their meeting, as Greenberger portrays it, was pleasant but perfunctory. Did he value her advice as he ought to? Perhaps that question is best elucidated by this circumstance: Arthur destroyed most of his own writings and personal papers shortly before he died, but there was a notable exception. Though they weren’t discovered until forty years after his death, it turned out that Arthur had, indeed, saved Julia Sand’s letters to him. It is a virtue of The Unexpected President that Sand is given a prominent place in the story of this place keeper president.



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