The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur, A Review

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The slew of late nineteenth century Republican Presidents following Lincoln, have long been ignored and passed over by public and academics alike.  Milk and water party made cyphers, none are any longer considered worthy of our attention, far less a new biography.

Indeed, if we thought of them at all, we might have considered that the worst example just had to be Chester A. Arthur, a corrupt dandy, an intellectual lightweight, a pound-shop president, machine made and insubstantial.

The internecine, byzantine complexity of party machine politics in New York during the post civil War period where he lived and made his name are thought terminally dull, complex, and seemingly undeserving of examination.

So, The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur by Scott S Greenberger is a delight.  A fresh clear light into a world strangely not so very different from our own.  For here too we have the claims of “Presidential birthers”; party machines; persistent racism; bullying business barons; foreigners coming into the country and driving down labourers’ wages; and corrupt politicians only in the business for their own benefit and the opportunities for pork barrel handouts to cronies.  A swamp, fetid and ripe for draining.

Greenberger treats the story as a story, writing the tale with all the spirit and style of a novel, throwing the reader through the roller-coaster of Arthur’s transformation.  It is an excellent decision.  The story bowls along at a pace, and such information as would assist is eased in as we go.

Greenberger plunges us into the middle of the story collecting up the back story of Arthur’s life as we go.

We first meet Arthur plumped up and dandified, steeped in the devices of political patronage, coming into dock at New York on the morning after President Garfield was shot.  Chester Arthur was already the Vice President, a role he had considered both nominal and final.  His ambitions had never stretched to being President, so the news that greeted the boat horrified him.  As Greenberger tells us Arthur confided, “The office of Vice-President is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining”.

Indeed, as the weeks drag by, and various incompetent medical interventions only make Garfield’s eventual demise more certain, Arthur seems plunged into some form of existential crisis.  Numbed by grief and fear he does nothing, and nothing much frankly seems expected of him.

Until there is an intervention that is simply extraordinary.  If this were a “real” novel we would consider it a literary device too far, too blunt and crude, too much the deus ex machina.  We find Arthur sitting with his head in his hands at the desk, face blotched with tears, where he receives a letter from a young woman he has never met.

A proper little Jiminy Cricket.

His very obscure correspondent was a young (well thirty-two) New York woman, Julia Sand who seems to have been a partially bedridden invalid, but an obsessive consumer of politics.  She had certainly amassed an extraordinary grasp of the personalities in the parties and at Washington.  One might have been interested in a psychoanalysis of her background, the sickly autodidact who never marries, but true to Greenberger’s approach this question, as many others, is left hanging for us to ponder.

She certainly does not hold back with the blunt advice.  The letter is straight to the point and stinging in its rebuke.  “Your kindest opponents say “Arthur will try to do right”  she opines before adding sourly “ But making a man President can change him!  Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life.  If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine…….do what is more difficult and brave Reform!”

San wrote at least twenty-three letters to Arthur over the next year.  Sometimes she praised him, other times she chided and scolded him.  Finally, when Garfield succumbed to the follies of his medical team, Sand sent him another letter.  “Remember that you are President of the United States – work only for the good of the country.  And bear in mind, that, in a free country, the only bulwark of power worth trusting is the affection of the people”.

These letters clearly meant something to Arthur for of all the papers, both personal and political, that he commanded to be burnt before he died, these alone were kept safe in a special envelope.  So safe in fact that they were not rediscovered until 1937.

One of the more potent set pieces in Greenbergers’s account was the single meeting that Arthur and Sand had.  He arrived unannounced at Sand’s home, but unprepared she was too overcome to make the best of the meeting, which in any event was gate-crashed by Sand’s parents, sister, cousins and all, making the opportunity for their speaking plainly lost.

However much of a circus the visit had been, Sand was still quick enough to observe what only a very few had seen before, that the President was clearly very unwell.  “You ought not to keep your malaria a secret and endure it so patiently” she wrote later.  But Sands was only wrong in the diagnosis.  Arthur had Bright’s disease, an affliction of the kidneys which in those days was fatal.  Arthur had a limited time left.

In 1882 spurred by Sand, Arthur showed the world his new found mojo.  He vetoed the Rivers and Harbours Bill, a repeating piece of legislation which had long since fallen into being an excuse to suck up Pork Barrel monies from Congress.  Although it was overridden at Congress, Arthur had made his mark and sealed his political future.  This act made too many enemies.  He might as well now play for broke.

Chester Arthur was the son of a firebrand Scots-Irish Presbyterian preacher.  How much of Chester’s love of fashion, fast living and fine dining were down to some form of filial disobedience, and how much of his reformist nature when President was a returning to the fold, are questions perhaps not as well explored as they might be.  I suspect though the destruction of Arthur’s personal papers have ruled that study out, and Greenbergers’s novelistic approach is probably the best.

On a roll, Chester Arthur now vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Bill, and pursued prosecuting government officials guilty of corruption.

In January 1883, he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act which started reforming the civil service by reducing the number of posts available to the patronage of politicians.

He had by now lost any hope of nomination for the 1884 election, but he probably knew that the Bright’s disease would rule this out in any event.

He died largely unheralded, but in his navel reforms, pursuance of corruption in officials, and opening the civil service to a true( r) meritocracy he laid the foundations for the modern state of America.  Greenberger has helped bring him back to life.

“If you must suffer, by all means suffer for the sake of truth & justice” Sand once wrote him, “What we suffer for wrong degrades us – what we suffer for right, gives us strength”.

Copyright David Macadam 2017

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