The Unexpected President: Chester Alan Arthur…..Life and Times: A Book Review

There are very few things that Chester Alan Arthur is “famous” for. One, is his mutton chop whiskers; the other is his statement that “I may be President of the United States, but my private life is my own business.”

The Unexpected President, by Scott S. Greenberger

With that latter statement in mind, Scott S. Greenberger, and indeed any biographer of the 21st President, would be hard pressed to sub-title his book anything other than Life and Times. Mr. Arthur has scrupulously locked every available door to his inner self.

Born in 1832 in a little-bitty town in Vermont to a strict and pious family, he received a liberal education at Union College, became a lawyer, and moved to New York City – where he belonged.

He discovered a not-so strict or pious lifestyle that fit him hand-in-glove. In an age where manners, prestige, manly pompousness and all the accoutrements of the good life were the essence of the good life, Chet Arthur was the poster boy. A handsome, bewhiskered six-footer, he became an immaculate dresser, with cultivated manners, tastes and well-to-do urbanity. He attracted some of the most powerful political mentors in the state. He also acquired a genuine blue-blooded Virginia belle for a wife.

Finding a perfect middle-ground of Civil War service, he was appointed Quartermaster General for the New York Militia, performing yeoman service supplying, equipping and feeding tens of thousands of volunteer soldiers (and their horses) – and never left New York nor fired a shot.

Arthur’s association with NY Senator and political machine boss Roscoe Conkling lasted for the better part of his adult life. Different in temperament according to Greenberger, they nevertheless became close friends. Conkling appreciated Arthur’s gifts for administration, fund-raising, and all the backstage mechanics of political appointments that run governments. He was a treasure. He did it all, and he did it well. Even better, he enjoyed doing it. Prestigious jobs and serious wealth came with it, including the plummiest of all positions: Collector of the Port of New York. The lucrative salary, along with the perks of traditional share-the-spoils, amounted to $50,000 per year – the same as the President of the United States.

The Port, however, was a morass of political corruption, bribery, finagling and decadence. Chet Arthur was in charge, and when heads had to roll, it would be his head. While he never was personally accused of malfeasance, bad stuff happened on his watch, and reform minded President Rutherford B. Hayes removed him.

Arthur resigned in semi-disgrace to practice law, and enjoy political camaraderie in late night partying, copious amounts of champagne, steaks and oysters, cigars, card playing, and occasional cavorting with “sporting” ladies who wore low-cut gowns and short skirts. It placed a strain on his marriage.

Four years later, by a freak of political maneuvering, and against the advice of Conkling, he was candidate for Vice President – and won pretty much by a whisker.

Four months later, President Garfield was shot by an assassin, and the reader finally gets a tiny peek into the man. Chet Arthur’s wife had died a year earlier; he was a somewhat distracted father; he had a marginalized relationship with Garfield and his cabinet, and had acquired a pen-pal: an invalid spinster named Julia Sand, who appointed herself his “Jiminy Cricket.”

The assassin, Charles Guiteau, a certifiable lunatic, claimed to be the “Stalwart of the Stalwarts,” who had made Chester Arthur president. The slight acquaintance between Arthur and Guiteau was superficial; little more than “Good morning.” Nonetheless, there was reasonable speculation that the Vice President was complicit in some way.

Chester Alan Arthur was now in fear of his own assassination. For the better part of the ten weeks remaining in Garfield’s ebbing life, he drew the shades on  his New York townhouse and seldom left. He relied on his well-cultivated and steely persona to see him through all his anxieties and cares. His behavior was impeccable. His words were few, and well-measured. He categorically declined to undertake any “presidential” duties or activities while President Garfield was still alive. For this, he was admired, and began to grow – both into the position he would fill, and in the respect of his fellow countrymen.

He came to a saddened Presidency along with a secret of his own. He was a sick man and he knew it. Nevertheless he redecorated the White House, according to his excellent and sophisticated taste, mostly with his own funds. He distanced himself without rancor from Roscoe Conkling, whose star was quickly fading. He embraced a favorable position toward Civil Service reform, which in its quirky way was responsible for both the loss of his Collectorship position and the death of President Garfield.

While he hoped to be nominated for a term on his own, he refused to seek it overtly.  He returned to his well ordered life in New York, was asked to co-chair the huge funeral for General Grant, and to help dedicate the Statue of Liberty. The machine politician had become a statesman who had earned the approbation of the country.

But true to himself, he kept the pot of “mind your own business” on a steady boil, destroying most of his personal papers and documents. We are welcome to know the manners of the persona, but we can never really know the man. Greenberger surmises that Arthur was less than proud of his pre-presidential career. No argument here.

Chester Alan Arthur’s life by itself would be little more than a magazine article, since so little of him is available. The times he lived in were interesting, but not especially exciting.  Civil Service Reform is not a sexy topic.  Author Greenberger has done an admirable job piecing together its random pieces, and presenting our mutton-chop President as a man with some real chops.

The Unexpected President is a quick and surprisingly nifty read – hardcover or ebook!.

Greenberger, Scott S. – The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur, De Capo Press, 2017

ISBN-10: 0306823896

From $18.30

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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One Response to The Unexpected President: Chester Alan Arthur…..Life and Times: A Book Review

  1. energywriter says:

    Interesting look at a president no one really knows.

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