The Wealthy New Yorker Who Never Wanted to Be President...Until He Was

The grave of Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United StatesEXPAND
The grave of Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States

The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur
By Scott S. Greenberger

Da Capo, 336 pp., $28

When he assumed the Presidency of the United States in a turn of events that nobody seriously expected, he was a wealthy New Yorker criticized for being unqualified and unfit for the office, engaged in possibly corrupt business dealings, and held a deep distrust and even hatred for the press.

I’m speaking of course…of Chester A. Arthur. Were you thinking of someone else? For yes, when an assassin’s bullet ended the life (though after an agonizing two months) of President James Garfield in September 1881, few thought much of his somewhat portly but hugely bewhiskered Vice President.

After all, he was only put on the ticket as a sop to Roscoe Conkling so the powerful New York Republican party boss could throw his support to the ticket. And what better inside man to have in the White House than Arthur, who as head of the New York Customhouse regularly doled out jobs and favors, and collected “contributions” from his political friends while freezing out his enemies in a dirty patronage system.

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But against all odds (and to the dismay of said cronies), as President, Arthur saw the error of his ways. He pushed for civil-service reform in the Gilded Age while trying to heal a nation still torn apart by the Civil War. He also bolstered an ailing U.S. Navy and proved rather progressive on the subjects of civil rights and African-American welfare.

For health reasons — and perhaps tired of a job he never really wanted — Arthur declined to run for a second term, dying in 1886 at the age of 57 from complications due to Bright’s disease. And yes, Arthur is best remembered today for…those whiskers.

Greenberger has done a fine job with what will likely be the definitive book on the 21st president, even though we get little insight on Arthur’s thoughts, opinions and motivations. But there’s a reason. Just before his death, Arthur ordered all of his letters, journals and private papers burned. For many years, the Library of Congress had only a single document on Arthur, which was written well before he ascended to the presidency and only purchased in 1902.

Instead, Greenberger assembled this book from public records, newspaper accounts, the printed materials of others. This includes Julia Sand, a single woman who wrote Arthur letters and became something of a conscience bearer, but also a stalker/groupie who basically forced a meeting with her hero. He also uses memories of others, both published and unpublished.

And while reporters would write down statements that Arthur made as president, he as mentioned had a great distaste for the Fourth Estate. As a result, he gave almost nothing resembling what was then a fairly new journalistic concept – the “interview.”


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