There were only two things I knew of our 21st president before reading The Unexpected President: the Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur. 1. Chester A. Arthur was part of a corrupt New York political machine before becoming vice president to James Garfield. 2. He became president on Garfield’s death, courtesy of Charles Guiteau, a delusional political office seeker, and of 19th century medical practices.
I’m occasionally offered a free book in return for the possibility of a review and I’ve always declined, because I didn’t feel that a book review would fit on a heritage tourism blog. But when Chester A. Arthur came my way, I changed my mind. History books inform my travels, after all. Plus, reading at least one biography of each US president is on my bucket list and this would cover Arthur. I wasn’t sufficiently interested in him to pull myself through a lengthy academic tome — I may want to know which foot George Washington puts his sock on first, but Arthur: not so much. The Unexpected President — realistically sized and written by the news editor for the Pew Charitable Trust — seemed a fine option.
Chester Alan Arthur, born in 1839 and raised by an admirable but grim Baptist preacher/abolitionist father, got out of his bleak home as fast as he could and eventually made his way to New York City to practice law. There, he showed himself to be his father’s son with his first notable case: that of Elizabeth Jennings. In 1854, in a move that predates Rosa Parks by 100 years, African-American school teacher Jennings refused to exit a streetcar meant only for whites. She was dragged off by a policeman and, battered and bruised, she decided to sue the streetcar conductor. And the driver. And the streetcar company. She was represented by Chester Arthur (and won!).
So why, then, did Arthur turn from this auspicious beginning to a career marked by rapacity and second-bananadom? Because that’s what he was, for most of his life — the right hand of a succession of powerful men, content to do their bidding as long as it fed his lavish lifestyle. Arthur’s wife Nell “was socially ambitious and … she had to live in a fine home with servants.” Arthur “shared his wife’s aspirations and as a high ranking officer in the militia, he had begun to cultivate some expensive tastes.” That seems to be the closest that author Scott S. Greenberger gets to giving us a reason for Arthur’s foray into a dissipated life.
Greenberger is a journalist and the good news is that he’s a very good story teller and his populist style makes for a quick and easy ready. The bad news is, to quote Greenberger’s Author’s Notes: “[W]hen I ascribe feelings to Arthur, I do so based on his own statements or those of the people around him” and primary sources are scarce. While I appreciate that Greenberger doesn’t indulge in conjecture, I can’t help but think that academic historians would analyze available research and present hypotheses on the various 180 degree turns Arthur makes through his life. I know I said that I didn’t want to work my way through academic minutiae, but still, Arthur is a paradox and a little analysis would have been welcomed. Why did he go from a civil rights advocate to corrupt political flunky? Why did he go from an avid practitioner of Civil Service job patronage to a supporter of Civil Service reform? Inquiring minds want to know.
When I first picked up the book, I thought that “Unexpected President” referred to his sudden elevation to the presidency, after Garfield was shot just a few months into his term. The book lays out a more provocative proposition: he was unexpected because nothing in his early life pointed to his ability, or even desire, to be a leader but, once president, he stepped up. But again that pesky question: why?
The answer may have had to do with one of the more fascinating characters in the book: Julia Sand. Sand was a wealthy, sickly spinster who wrote to Arthur to give him advice. She was a stranger to him when her correspondence began, yet he kept two years worth of her letters and seemed to take at least some of her advice to heart. Americans were less sad that Garfield was dying, Julia wrote Arthur in her first letter, than that he (Arthur) would be Garfield’s successor. Ouch. But. “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.” Could this piece of encouragement have triggered a light bulb in Arthur’s head and an arrow through his heart? Greenberger presents Julia’s letters (there’s no evidence Arthur ever wrote back) and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.
Greenberger gave an interview to the Washington Post and expressed an interest in seeing Unexpected President become a Hamilton-like Broadway musical (How does a prissy, rotund, son of a DAR and a preacher grow up to be Roscoe Conkling’s creature?). I can’t see it. To me, the book shows Arthur not to be the star of his life’s story but to be a literary devise, used to introduce the stories of the more dynamic people around him. The book left me wanting to know more about Elizabeth Jennings and Julia Sand, and even Chester’s father, but not Chester A. Arthur. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the book and wouldn’t recommend it. I did and I do. The failure of Chester to be a star doesn’t make the book less worthy. Greenberger provides a well-researched, engaging and accessible introduction to Arthur. It may not appeal to serious historians looking for the definitive biography, but it’s exactly what the rest of us need.