Bookmarks: 'Chester A. Arthur, the Unexpected President'

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Congress and the White House are fighting about immigration, infrastructure, the use of national park lands, rebuilding the military and key executive appointments. The New York Times has daily editorials decrying the corruption and incompetence of the president, who had never held elective office. Polls show historically low popularity for the new president, who escapes a hostile Washington, D.C. for a Florida vacation.

No, it's not 2018 and Donald Trump. It's 1882, and the president is Chester Alan Arthur, a man who has been primarily known as the more esoteric answer to the question: What two American presidents were born in Vermont?

Scott S. Greenberger, the executive editor of the web-site Stateline and a former newspaper reporter, is trying to change that gap in our knowledge of American history with his new book, "The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur" (De Capo Press 2017). With a lively and engaging writing style, he largely succeeds.

Greenberger employs his reportorial talent to tell a story with a strong narrative arc and makes Chester Arthur come alive on the page. Arthur's modest beginnings in a small cabin were, indeed, in Fairfield, where he was born in 1829 to Malvina, a Vermont native, and William Arthur, a fundamentalist, abolitionist preacher and an Irish immigrant. Arthur left his strict upbringing to attend Union College and then moved to New York City to pursue a legal career. There, at the age of 25, he established an early reputation as a capable attorney with strong values when he successfully represented an African-American woman who sued the transit company when she was forcibly removed from a "whites only" streetcar.

Arthur was soon identified as an up-and-coming lawyer, and began a close association with the leaders of New York's Republican Party. That led to his appointment as a brigadier general when the Civil War broke out, and he eventually became New York's quartermaster general, a position that controlled the allocation of important resources and positions.

After the war, Arthur became the lieutenant to a powerful political patron, Congressman and then Senator Roscoe Conkling, and Arthur quickly rose in Conkling's New York Republican Party. In 1871 he was appointed by President Grant to be the collector at the New York City Custom House, a position with enormous political power for patronage and personal enrichment.

When he was ousted by the reforming President Hayes in 1878, what could have been the end of a political career turned out to be another "right man in the right place" outcome for Arthur. He was the surprise choice to be James Garfield's running mate in 1880 when the Republicans realized that the only way to win the general election was to secure the support of Conkling and his New York machine.

In one of the closest elections in American history, Garfield defeated Winfield Hancock, and Chester Arthur, a man who had never held elective office, was the new vice president. This seemed of little importance until July 2, 1881, when Garfield was shot by a mentally unbalanced office seeker. Garfield lingered through the summer, but when he died, Chester A. Arthur became the unexpected president on September 20, 1881.

The universal opinion was that Arthur was unprepared for his new job, a feeling that he largely agreed with. Initially overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, he rallied, and in one of his first acts as president, he established his independence from Conkling by refusing to appoint the machine's candidate to be the Custom House collector. It was clear that Arthur was going to be his own man.

Throughout his presidency, Chester Arthur steadily moved from his shady political patronage and spoils past to the idealism and values of his family upbringing, his early law practice, and his experience as the publicly-minded quartermaster of the Union Army. He supported the Pendleton Bill, which reformed the civil service; he vetoed an anti-Chinese immigration bill; he vetoed a pork-barrel laden rivers and harbors infrastructure bill; he resisted erosion of Yellowstone National Park's environmental protection; and he brought style and stability to the White House at a time when the country was reeling from the second presidential assassination in 20 years.

In telling this story of Chester Arthur's presidency, Greenberger focuses on a little known minor detail: his relationship with Julia Sand, a politically engaged, single woman who was largely home-bound in New York City due to illness. She began writing letters to the new president in 1881, urging him to occupy the higher moral ground in his policies and actions, and Greenberger suggests that this correspondence was an important factor in Arthur's conversion from a party hack to a reforming executive. These letters only became public in 1937 when Arthur's grandson released 1800 documents that had been hidden in a bank vault. Among the papers were 23 letters from Sand, which Arthur had kept in a separate envelope. Though it's impossible to judge her real impact, the story of Julia Sand and Chester A. Arthur is a fascinating element of this book.

Arthur died two years after leaving office at the age of 57. His funeral was attended by President Cleveland and members of the Supreme Court, Senate, and House, and he was buried in the family plot in Albany. In the days after the funeral, newspapers including the New York Times were filled with his praise.

There is a statue of Chester A. Arthur in the northeast corner of Madison Square Park in Manhattan that was dedicated in 1899 by his friends in the New York Republican Party. It's a fine piece of statuary and a vivid contrast with the small house in Fairfield where Arthur was born. In visiting those two sites, one should keep in mind Greenberger's theme that the arc of Chester A. Arthur's life shows how a person can rise to meet challenges. If nothing else, after reading Greenberger's book, more people will be able to correctly answer the question: Name the two presidents born in Vermont!

Michael F. Epstein reads and writes in Brownsville, Vt. and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at mfepstein@gmail.com.


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