I’ve always been curious about the underdogs in life, and few presidents were bigger underdogs than Chester A. Arthur, perhaps the most forgotten of American Presidents.
Arthur served less than a full term after the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881, and died just over a year after leaving office. The most distinctive thing about the 21st President to most casual history buffs is his truly prodigious set of mutton chops, a fulsome flowering of facial hair that bloomed from his sideburns to give him an almost leonine appearance. Presidential facial hair was big in the 1800s, but Arthur, like the dandy he was in life, was perhaps the most stylish of them all.
Yet Arthur’s legacy is mired in a time when corruption was so endemic in US politics that a President actually died because of it. Garfield was assassinated by a crazed, disgruntled office seeker in an act that disastrously capped off an era of failed attempts to reform the patronage system where jobs and bribes were handed out like candy to political operators.
I began my fascination with Arthur years ago with a rather bizarrely entertaining weird novel from 1983 called The Chester A. Arthur Conspiracy by William Weigand. The wacky plot of this book is that John Wilkes Booth was not killed after Lincoln’s assassination, but instead taken in by Confederate sympathisers including one Nell Herndon – wife of the New York Customs House official Chester Arthur. Nell and Booth fall in love, and in a series of escalating contrivances, Arthur dies (weak heart) and fugitive Booth, who of course was an actor before all that assassinating business, takes his place. He assumes the career of Arthur right up until his unlikely ascension to the presidency, and beyond. The tragedy of Booth (besides all the obvious stuff) is that he gives up his own identity and true love along the way.
I know it sounds bizarre, and the preposterous Chester A. Arthur Conspiracy is not really a great book – Weigand makes Booth rather too sympathetic – but it’s a rather bold yarn in its implausible ideas, and there’s something to the idea of Booth, the haunted assassin who actually ends up becoming the president himself. Arthur is enough of a cipher to the public imagination that the idea of an actor actually playing him kind of works.
There’s not a lot of books on Arthur, compared to Lincoln or JFK, but Scott S. Greenberger’s recent The Unexpected President is a good, breezy look at Arthur’s sudden rise. Chester Arthur was born in Vermont (still the only President from there) to religious fundamentalists, but when he grew up he left for a career as a lawyer in New York City, developing a taste for the finer things in life and falling in with the Republican Party of the time. He became a key player in “boss” Senator Roscoe Conkling’s fiefdom of corruption and control in party politics, and whatever idealism he possessed in his youth seemed to be consumed by the desire for power, instead of principle.
Nobody would have picked Chet Arthur to rise from running the New York Customs House to the second-highest office in the land, but in a series of behind-the-scenes wrangling at the 1880 Republican convention, he was picked to be “dark horse” James Garfield’s running mate, in an attempt to balance things between reformers and “stalwarts” like Conkling. It was a cozy job for a cozy kind of fellow, the ultimate patronage reward.
But just a few months into his term, Garfield was shot, and after an agonising few months, he died. The reaction from many was summed up with this popular quote from the time: “‘Chet’ Arthur president of the United States! Good God!’
Arthur was described as shattered by the reality of the presidency falling upon him. “He is sitting alone in his room sobbing like a child,” one of Arthur’s staff reported his reaction upon hearing the news. He’d never been elected to any political office before the vice-presidency, and was one of the least experienced chief executives in history. Arthur actually did quite a lot of weeping about his fate, according to Greenberger’s book, which maybe isn’t the reaction Truman or LBJ had in the same situation, but at the same time, it kind of humanises poor old Chet.
Arthur burned much of his papers and letters before his death, probably in an attempt to avoid his reputation becoming more scandalous, but the net effect of that is that Arthur now feels like a spectator in his own story, a Zelig or Chauncey Gardner at the heart of democracy. Others who loomed large in Arthur’s life like Roscoe Conkling or James Garfield feel more vivid. It doesn’t help that Arthur died of Bright’s Disease at just 57, not even two years after he was failed nomination for a second term.
The curious thing about Arthur is, he actually turned into a bit of a reformer when he became President. He balked at Conkling’s attempts to run his presidency and ticked off a lot of his old friends. He wasn’t a revolutionary, but he also wasn’t the pliable puppet many of his old pals expected him to be. Arthur remains opaque, but in Greenberger’s book he comes across as a man trying to make up for his past sins in his brief time as president.
One pivotal point in The Unexpected President is the correspondence an invalid woman and fan named Julia Sands sent Arthur. The Victorian age equivalent of an internet commenter, Sands sent Arthur at least two dozen letters over the years, most of them praising and berating him at the same time, always encouraging him to do better and rise above his controversial past.
Greenberger and others have picked these letters as a reason for Arthur’s change in heart as President, which might be an exaggeration, but it’s hard to know. A lot of theories about her are mere speculation. None of Arthur’s letters to her – if he sent any – survive, and the two only apparently met once in a rather stiff and awkward encounter where it seems Arthur just came to see who the heck this crazy lady who kept mailing him was. But the image of a random woman acting as the conscience of a president is appealing.
Despite not being anywhere as weird as the fictional one in Conspiracy, the Arthur at the heart of The Unexpected President is a bit of a void as well. He’s often described as an amiable, glad-handing friend, but his inner life remains mysterious. He mourns the early deaths of his wife and an infant son, but we can never know what he really felt.
“I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damned business,” he once said.
And yet there’s something interesting about Arthur to me – almost alone among Vice-Presidents turned Presidents, he apparently never really aspired to the office – he wasn’t a lifelong office-holder like Truman, LBJ or Gerald Ford – as his very human fears and worries over the responsibility are something you can still identify with.
“Making a man President can change him!” Sands wrote in one of her letters:
“Your name now is on the annals of history. You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence, shool [sic] boys will recite your name in the list of Presidents & tell of your administration. And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold. For the sake of your country, for your own sake & for the sakes of all who have ever loved you, let it be pure & bright.”