“They say you won’t succeed because ‘making a man President cannot change him.’ 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.”
On September 22, 1881, Chester Alan Arthur was sworn in as the twenty-first President of the United States. His ascendancy to the highest office in the land was an improbable development, and one that was met with trepidation, dread even, by his fellow Americans, no matter their political persuasion. “Chet Arthur? President of the United States?,” those who knew him best were reported to have exclaimed. “Good God!” For Chet Arthur was generally seen first as a political hack, a man who had personally enriched himself through the holding of political office; second as a political stooge, being the tool of a powerful Republican senator; and third, as an intellectual lightweight and dandy, who worried more about his personal wardrobe than about the public weal. Arthur was said to own eighty pairs of trousers and was observed to change his attire several times a day; his pretentiousness was also indicated by the fact that he insisted upon pronouncing his middle name “a-LON.”
The immediate cause of Arthur’s elevation to the presidency was the death of President James A. Garfield, who had passed away a few days before, after suffering for two-and-a-half months from the effects of a bullet wound inflicted by a delusional office-seeker. (Garfield actually died not from the wound itself, but from a massive infection caused by the ignorance and stubbornness of his doctor.) Garfield had served as president a mere four months in office prior to his assassination on July 2, 1881. In contrast to Arthur, Garfield possessed a strong and probing mind—he had been hired to teach at his college while still a student and janitor at the school—and, despite being slightly tainted by the infamous Crédit Mobilier scandal, was seen as a generally upright man by the American public, earning the respect even of many Southerners… and this despite his service in the Civil War as a Union general and his insistence on securing the rights of freed African-Americans in the South as the formal era of Reconstruction ended.
Garfield himself had been a surprise, compromise choice for the Republican presidential nomination in 1880. Fifteen years after the Civil War, the Republican party was split into two factions, the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds. The former group reveled in political corruption, employing the device of political patronage without reserve or excuse, at all levels of government. The presidency, of course, afforded a political party the opportunity to dispense a large number of political offices as rewards to its most influential operatives and supporters. Indeed, in 1880, the president was empowered to appoint allies to some 30,000 posts (today the number is about a tenth of that). The Half-Breeds, meanwhile, tended to favor reform of the patronage system, and though Half-Breeds sometimes too dispensed offices as political favors, they were at least more circumspect and restrained about the process.
Garfield was a Half-Breed, but in order to win the election, he needed to unite the Republican party by securing the support of the Stalwarts, who were led by Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. Conkling was indeed the most powerful man in the Republican party, and when his favored candidate, former President Ulysses S. Grant, failed to win the nomination in 1880, Conkling sulked, refusing even to negotiate with Garfield and the Half-Breeds about cooperating in the general election. But other Stalwarts bargained on their own with Garfield’s camp, and the two sides struck a deal by which one of their own, Chester Arthur, would serve as Garfield’s running mate. Conkling, furthered incensed by this end-run around him, ordered Arthur, who shared an apartment with his political boss, to turn down the vice presidential nomination. Arthur, showing unexpected backbone, flatly told Conkling that he was going to accept the nomination: “The office of the Vice-President is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.”
Neither those who knew him, or knew of him, would have dreamed that Arthur would ever attain such an elevated office, ineffectual as it often was in practice. Arthur’s sole job in public administration had been as Collector of the New York Customs House, a lucrative federal post to which he was appointed by President Grant, with the backing of Conkling. At the time, the New York Customs House collected 75% of the custom revenue generated by the federal tariff. As Collector, Arthur received the relatively modest annual salary of $6,500, but he was allowed to supplement this income through the “moiety system,” which awarded the Collector a percentage of the fines levied against shippers who attempted to evade the tariff, as well as a portion of the smuggled goods themselves. In the seven years that he served as Collector, from 1871-1878, Arthur’s salary amounted to roughly $50,000 per year; up until 1873, the President of the United States earned an annual salary of $25,000 (that year Congress increased the president’s compensation to $50,000.)
As Collector, Arthur also controlled some 1,000 patronage positions, which he dutifully doled out to Republican Party operatives, whom he in turn pressed for political contributions. Arthur was considered a kindly boss and a gentleman, earning the nickname, “Gentleman Boss.” But his plum position became threatened when President Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican reformer who won the presidency in the election of 1876, launched an investigation of political corruption at the New York Customs House as part of an effort to break the power of Roscoe Conkling’s political machine and to reform the civil service system. As a result of the investigation, Hayes fired Arthur in 1878.
Arthur and Conkling took their revenge on Hayes by ensuring that the Stalwart faction in New York won the vast majority of state offices in the elections of 1879. And though Conkling balked at the nomination of another reform-minded presidential candidate at the Republican convention in 1880, he soon reconciled himself to the Garfield-Arthur ticket, after securing what he deemed to be assurances from Garfield about his own continued political influence in a Garfield Administration. Too, his roommate and ally Chet Arthur would be sure to keep an eye on things at the White House.
The general election of 1880 was extremely close, with Garfield winning fewer than 2,000 more popular votes than the Democrat nominee, Winfield Scott Hancock. In the Electoral College, the vote was 214-155 in favor of Garfield, with Conkling’s New York and her thirty-five Electoral votes making the difference for Garfield.
Garfield’s great promise as president was cut short on July 2, 1881, when Charles Guiteau fired two bullets into his body at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station in Washington. Guiteau, a troubled and mentally unbalanced loner, fancied himself a major player in Republican party circles, believing that his (insignificant) work on behalf of the Garfield campaign was responsible for the Ohioan’s victory. Garfield thus owed him a plum position, Guiteau told himself, preferably as minister to Paris or Vienna, and Guiteau lobbied for such a post almost daily at the White House, alongside scores of other office-seekers. When it became clear that he was not to be given any appointed government office, Guiteau began to hear the voice of God, telling him to kill the president. He believed that Arthur and the Stalwarts would be grateful for the elimination of the obstacle to their dreams of controlling the Republican party and the administration and reward the assassin handsomely. “Arthur will be president!” Guiteau shouted out as he was quickly apprehended at the Washington train station, and wild rumors began to abound that Arthur and Conkling had indeed hired Guiteau to commit the foul deed. Such was the low opinion in which most American held the self-serving Stalwart leaders.
But in reality Chester Arthur was devastated by the news of the assassination attempt and the wounding of Garfield. He secluded himself in the home of a Senator-friend, who had closed up his house for the summer, fleeing the humidity of Washington. A reporter who sought Arthur out was struck by the vice president’s countenance: “Tears stood in his eyes, and the orbs themselves were bloodshot. On his face were the traces of recent weeping. He would trust himself to speak but little, and was evidently afraid of being overcome by his emotions.” In Garfield’s final days, when Arthur visited Lucretia Garfield, the dying president’s wife, to offer express his sympathy, Arthur himself broke down weeping. He could genuinely understand Mrs. Garfield’s heartbreak, for eighteen months earlier, Arthur had been rendered similarly inconsolable by the sudden death of his beloved wife, Ellen.
Most Americans were unaware that this seemingly superficial, self-serving political operative had a sensitive soul. Arthur’s years working with Conkling’s machine had tarred him as simply one of a kind. “Arthur is about the last man who would be considered eligible” for the presidency, The New York Times intoned. Examining Arthur’s career in the dirty arena of New York Republican politics, journalist E.L. Godkin lamented, “It is out of this mess of filth that Mr. Arthur will go to the Presidential chair in case of the President’s death.”
Yet the example of brave suffering displayed by James Garfield had a profound effect on Chester Arthur, changing him… or perhaps simply awakening in him parts of his soul that lay dormant. In reality, Chester Alan Arthur possessed many good qualities and had led a life worthy of admiration before becoming entwined in Republican machine politics. Born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829, he had headed the debate society at Union College and was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Arthur became a teacher after graduation and then a lawyer, gaining some renown for his work on two civil rights cases. His firm successfully won the so-called Lemmon Slave Case, in which a New York appeals court in 1860 upheld the decision to free the slaves of a Virginia master who had brought them into New York State. Though Arthur played a minimal role in Lemmon v. New York, he was the lead attorney for an African-American client named Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who successfully sued New York city after she was denied a seat on a streetcar because of her race. Arthur won the case, the verdict leading to the desegregation of the city’s streetcars.
Arthur served as a brigadier-general in the Civil War, acting as quartermaster for New York’s troops. After the war, he set up his own law practice, becoming involved in Republican party state politics under the tutelage of his wartime patron, Governor—later Senator—Edwin D. Morgan. He soon rose in party ranks thanks to his close association with Roscoe Conkling.
As President Garfield lingered in August of 1881, unable to function as chief executive, some in the administration began to worry about the ramifications of a leaderless American government. The United States Constitution at the time contained no provision for the disability of a president, only for his death, which called for the elevation of the Vice President. Secretary of State James G. Blaine thus urged Arthur to take on the duties the powers of the president, but Arthur steadfastly refused, perhaps worrying that such a move could make it appear to the American people that he was eager to assume the powers of the presidency.
It was at this time that Arthur received a remarkable letter from an obscure woman named Julia Sand, a resident of New York City, and unknown to Arthur. Sand was remarkably frank in addressing the Vice President. “Before this meets your eye, you may be President,” she wrote on August 27. “The people are bowed in grief; but—do you realize it?—not so much because he is dying, as because you are his successor.” Sand continued:
“Your kindest opponents say ‘Arthur will try to do right’—adding gloomily—’He won’t succeed though making a man President cannot change him.’ 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. Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you—but not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult & brave. Reform! It is not proof of highest goodness never to have done wrong, but it is proof of it, sometimes in ones career, to pause & ponder, to recognize the evil, to turn resolutely against it…. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest of aims.”
Sand wrote a total of at least twenty-three letters to Arthur over the next year, sometimes praising him, sometimes scolding him. When Garfield finally succumbed to infection on September 19, Arthur took the presidential oath the next day, and Sand continued to offer him advice. “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.”
Sand’s letters apparently meant a great deal to Arthur, who preserved them. At Sand’s urging, Arthur even visited the unmarried, thirty-two-year-old woman, who lived with her family, a year after receiving her first letter. It turned out that Sand, the youngest child of a prominent New York City merchant, was largely bedridden and lame due to spinal trouble. Overwhelmed at finally meeting Arthur, Sand could hardly recall details of his hour-long visit, though she remembered that Arthur’s voice reminded her of “a gentle-voiced Episcopalian minister.”
There was something else that Sand noticed about Chester Arthur: He looked sick. “You ought not to keep your malaria a secret and endure it so patiently,” Sand wrote to him afterwards. In reality, Arthur was suffering from a kidney ailment, Bright’s Disease, with which he was diagnosed early in his presidency and which he knew to be fatal. Arthur tried to keep his illness private, though Sand would not be the only one to recognize that something was amiss with the President’s health.
As President, Arthur rose to Sand’s challenge to demonstrate to the American public that he had the “purest of aims.” When Roscoe Conkling, who had foolishly resigned from the Senate in a political stunt that backfired, approached Arthur in an effort to secure the position of Secretary of State, or at least some lucrative government appointment, Arthur refused the request. Conkling was furious. His political power would then begin to wane, as would that of the Stalwart faction he led.
The message could not have been clearer to Arthur’s former associates; this was not the corrupt hack who had enriched himself as head of the New York Customs House. “He’s not ‘Chet’ anymore,” a Stalwart resignedly observed. “He’s the President of the United States.” “The Presidency puts a man terribly to the test,” Julia Sand suggested to Arthur. “If he has fine qualities, they will shine with double brilliancy. If he is commonplace, it kills him.”
It took little time for other observers to see that Arthur had been changed upon assuming the presidency. In his first message to Congress he called for reform of the federal civil service system, calling for bill that would require that federal jobs be filled based on merit instead of political connections. In January 1883, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which made a modest start at reform by opening ten percent of federal positions to a merit system. Arthur enthusiastically carried out the implementation of the law, appointing well-know reformers—including his old nemesis at the New York Customs House—to the new Civil Service Commission.
In August of 1882, Arthur again displayed his new-found animus against political corruption by vetoing the pork-ridden Rivers and Harbors bill, writing:
My principal objection to the bill is that it contains appropriations for purposes not for the common defense or general welfare, and which do not promote commerce among the States. These provisions, on the contrary, are entirely for the benefit of the particular localities in which it is proposed to make the improvements. I regard such appropriation of the public money as beyond the powers given by the Constitution to Congress and the President.
Though Congress overrode his veto, Arthur had made his point, and Julia Sand congratulated him; “How can I tell you how delighted I was at your veto of the Harbor Bill? Ah, if you only realized what a thrill of enthusiasm you awaken, every time you show the people plainly that you have the good of the whole country at heart.” Sand also encouraged Arthur to veto a Chinese Exclusion bill (which he did, though he signed a less strict version of the bill later) and to pursue justice in prosecuting government officials guilty of corruption (advice he followed).
Arthur had little chance of winning his party’s nomination for president in 1884. In addition to his obviously declining health, he had alienated his old political base by promoting reform and antagonized other Republicans through his opposition to pork-barrel politics. The Republicans nominated former Secretary Blaine, who would lose the general election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
Increasingly tired from his battle with Bright’s Disease, Arthur retired from public life. When he became seriously ill in November 1886, he ordered that nearly all his correspondence, personal and official, be burned. But excluded from this order were the letters of the mysterious young woman who had written him five years earlier, and whose advice and approbation seemingly meant so much to him. “Do you feel flattered how awfully surprised [people] are, whenever you do anything good,” Julia Sand wrote to him on one occasion. “Well, go on surprising them. But I am never surprised because I expect it of you. If you had done otherwise, I should have been dismally disappointed.”
Chester Arthur died a largely unheralded figure, though even some who had clashed with him in life recognized the worth of the man after his death. Roscoe Conkling—the man who had once considered the “Gentleman Boss” little more than a malleable, useful minion—was among the attendees at Arthur’s funeral. Elihu Root, who would serve as Secretary of War and of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, praised Arthur in his speech in 1899 at the unveiling of a statue of the former president in New York City: “He was wise in statesmanship and firm and effective in administration…. Good causes found in him a friend and bad measures met in him an unyielding opponent.”
“If you must suffer, by all means suffer for the sake of truth & justice,” Julia Sand had once written to Chester Arthur. “What we suffer for wrong, degrades us—what we suffer for right, gives us strength.”
For more on this subject, see Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Thomas C. Reeves’ Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur, and Zachary Karabell’s Chester Alan Arthur. These and other books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.