The enigma of Chester A. Arthur, forgotten President

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.”

All the Presidents’ books: The best reads about America’s leaders

So I’m a massive Presidential history nerd, a hobby which has felt more than a little shameful the last four years under President Asterisk*, he-who-shall-not-be-named. Fortunately, it feels OK to admit this in public again now.

I love a good presidential history book, and I’m fascinated by the lives and times of most of the men (so far, all men and happily, now one female vice-president) who’ve held the office, even if I loathed their politics at times. February is when the US celebrates Presidents Day – hopefully a little less bleakly this year – and it’s the month during which the birthdays of George Washington (1732) and Abraham Lincoln (1809) fell. It’s a great month to look back at the presidency over nearly 250 years and remember that despite the current troubles, there’s still a lot to learn from history. 

Of the dozens of Presidential books I’ve read over the years, here’s some highlights: 

Most interesting president to read about: Theodore Roosevelt was a cowboy, a policeman, a rancher, a war hero, naturalist, historian and still, at 42, the youngest President in American history. You pretty much have to work to make his life story boring, and there’s many fascinating books about ol’ Teddy’s life and presidency. The king of these is the late Edmund Morris’ three-book trilogy, with the first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, probably the best book about a President’s early life I’ve ever read. Teddy built himself up from an asthmatic child into a swaggering pile of masculine, determined ego, and while he was frequently overbearing, he also was surprisingly progressive in many areas. You can’t go wrong with Morris’ trilogy, or for a great side story, Candice Millard’s The River Of Doubt is a terrific manly travel tale about TR’s near-fatal trip deep into the Amazon after his presidency. And Teddy himself also wrote some great books about his adventures.  Runners-up: Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Thomas Jefferson

Greatest writing about a President: Robert A. Caro’s epic multi-volume look at the life and times of President Lyndon Johnson is held up as the gold standard of biographies, having won the Pulitzer Prize twice. I won’t be contrarian. It’s an absolutely stunning, authoritative piece of work that shows the countless hours of research and shoe-leather reporting Caro has put into his masterpiece over the decades, from evocative portrayals of the dirt-poor Texas hill country where LBJ came from to untangling the ins and outs of the US Senate works without boring the pants off readers. It now sprawls for thousands of pages, but every word of The Years of Lyndon Johnson is essential. The fifth and final volume is in progress now and like many other readers I am hoping Caro, now 85, sees it all through to the end. It’s a blueprint for how to tell the full story of a life and the times they lived in. Runners-up: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; Grant by Ron Chernow; Team of Rivals by Doris Goodwin; Truman by David McCullough; the excellent Nixonland series by Ron Perlstein which I’ve written about before. 

President you wouldn’t think would be interesting: Grover Cleveland is mostly remembered as being the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms, so he’s technically the 22nd and 24th President. But he also had one of the greatest cover-ups in Presidential history, a top-secret cancer surgery held in the middle of the night on a boat at sea. Matthew Algeo’s fast-paced The President is A Sick Man is a great concise history of the somewhat forgotten Cleveland and one of the bigger medical scandals in US history. It reads like a thriller. And Presidents have certainly never stopped being cagey about their health, from Woodrow Wilson’s crippling stroke to Tr**p’s still mysterious COVID hospitalisation. 

Best books not quite about the Presidents: Doug Wead is a conservative activist and Tr*mp booster, which I’m not wild about, but I do rather like the two books he’s written about the children and parents of Presidents, All The Presidents’ Children and The Raising of a President. They dig into what makes a leader and what a leader’s legacy is and are chock-full of interesting trivia about the Presidential families. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of awful tragedy in the families of many Presidents, perhaps it comes with the job. Runner-Up: Alice by Stacy Cordery, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter, who lived a remarkable life in the middle of the Washington scene that spanned from the presidency of Cleveland to Jimmy Carter. 

Goofiest book about Presidents: How To Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country by Daniel O’Brien. If you want offbeat, here’s a book that looks at presidents through the filter of how good they might be at kicking your ass. It’s very silly but amusing stuff, and the only book I own that features the phrase “Ulysses S. Grant is the drunken, angry John McClane of Presidents.” The joke gets a bit old, but it’s still a pretty funny breezy, fisticuff-filled march through history. I’d still put my money on Teddy Roosevelt to smack them all down, though. 

Best overall look at the Presidents: When it comes to overall presidential trivia, nothing compares to William DeGregorio’s massive Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. How tall was Calvin Coolidge? What nasty health ailments did Chester A. Arthur have? Who, for the love of God, was Millard Fillmore’s Postmaster General? It’s a great done-in-one resource for history nerds. Unfortunately, since DeGregorio died a while back, later editions have been notably lacking in detail and accuracy regarding the more recent presidents, which is a shame, but from Washington to Clinton or so, it’s a great guide.  

Most morbid book about Presidents: Dead Presidents by Brady Carlson. What happens to Presidents after they die is sometimes more interesting than their administrations. Take Zachary Taylor, first president to die in office, who was famously exhumed in the 1990s to prove he wasn’t poisoned. Dead Presidents is a great tour of presidential demises, resting places and of their legacies, looking at things like Thomas Jefferson’s children with his slaves or the long strange journey of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse. Runner-up: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.

Best presidential memoirs: People talk about how great the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant are, but I’m afraid I haven’t made it around to them quite yet. Most of the memoirs are famously stiff and reveal little about the men themselves. They tend to start strong and fizzle out, such as Bill Clinton’s My Life, which is nicely evocative about his Arkansas boyhood and difficult family life, but turns into a blur of names and places when he becomes President. Even Barack Obama’s recent A Promised Land, although eloquent and featuring great moments of detailed insight, succumbs somewhat to this problem, although I’d still probably rank it as the best memoir that I’ve read so far in a flawed genre. (But his wife’s is even better.) To me the best presidential books are the ones not written by the subjects themselves, but by talented historians. 

Sorry, but you can’t make these guys interesting: I’ve read a few books about some of the lesser-known presidents and it can be hard going. Some near-forgotten ones are surprisingly captivating to me – I’ve always had a thing for the hapless Franklin Pierce, for James Buchanan, usually considered the worst President until quite recently, or the overwhelmed Warren Harding. However, I don’t want to name-and-shame authors as it’s not always their fault if a subject isn’t Teddy Roosevelt, but let’s just say it’s pretty darned hard to make Calvin Coolidge interesting, and despite James K. Polk presiding at a pretty fascinating time in American history as the nation expanded, as a person, he seems as dull as dishwater to read about. And don’t even get me started about Benjamin Harrison.

These are just a few of the veritable mountain range of presidential literature out there to dig into around Presidents Day. Happy reading!