How did Chester Arthur become president, and why do most Americans know so little about him?

Q: Why do most Americans know so little about Arthur?

A: The first reason is that Arthur rose to power and served in the White House during in an era that is a bit foggy in the minds of most Americans. We dissect and rehash the events of the Civil War all the time (and rightly so), but we often ignore the crucial decades immediately following the war.

The second reason is that Arthur had a deep distrust of the press, and paid little attention to cultivating his public image, either for his contemporaries or for posterity. Newspapers treated him harshly before he assumed the presidency, and he remained wary of reporters even after attitudes shifted in his favor.

But the main reason Arthur’s story is unknown is that he left little behind, creating a challenge for historians.  Shortly before he died, he ordered most of his letters, journals, and private papers to be destroyed. For many years, Arthur was represented in the Library of Congress by a single document, a letter he had written during the Civil War and which the library purchased in 1902.  Painstaking work by chief librarians over many years gradually added to the holdings, but the collection still falls short of what is available for most presidents.

In writing this book, I have relied on the letters and papers that do survive, together with the memories—published and unpublished—of the men and women who knew Arthur and the wonderfully vivid descriptions that filled the newspapers of the time.


Q: Why is the Gilded Age—Arthur’s period—relevant today?

A: The Gilded Age has many parallels to our own time. In the 1870s and 1880s, rapid industrialization was creating vast fortunes—but also rampant waste, fraud and corruption.  As the gap between rich and poor yawned wider, the Protestant ethic that had guided the nation since its birth was shunted aside in an orgy of speculation and consumerism. Financial titans such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jim Fisk and Jay Gould bribed legislators and siphoned government loans, land and subsidies even as they preached the values of self-reliance and a laissez-faire economy.

Now, once again, America is grappling with economic inequality, money in politics and corporate malfeasance. Many have described the current era as a “second Gilded Age.”


Q: How did Arthur become president?

A: At the urging of New York political boss Roscoe Conkling, in 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur collector of the New York Customhouse, the largest single federal office in the nation and a valuable font of jobs and favors. The customhouse was a critical revenue source during a period with no income tax—and it was rotten with corruption.

From his powerful perch, Arthur did his utmost to bolster Conkling’s machine. He doled out jobs to Conkling’s supporters and eagerly collected mandatory campaign “contributions” from the customhouse’s 1,000 employees. Arthur held on to his lucrative post for seven years, until reform-minded President Rutherford B. Hayes, determined to root out waste and corruption in the vital agency, fired him in 1878.

When the customhouse fined merchants for violations, “Chet” Arthur took a cut.

Combined with his regular salary, Arthur made slightly more than President Grant himself.  He liked to linger into the early morning hours with his boys from the machine, eating, drinking, smoking Havana cigars and talking politics. On most days, he didn’t arrive at his office until 1 p.m.

Arthur held on to his lucrative post until 1878, when reform-minded President Rutherford B. Hayes fired him. In June 1880, GOP leaders resurrected Arthur’s political career. When Republicans gathered in Chicago to pick their presidential nominee, Garfield, a long-time congressman, upset former President Grant and emerged as the surprise choice. Party elders were desperate to appease Conkling, a Grant supporter, in order to secure his help in winning New York. Garfield was a vigorous 49-year-old, and the second place on the ticket seemed to be a safe spot for one of Conkling’s flunkeys. They chose Arthur, and the Republicans triumphed in November.

The political rehabilitation of Arthur in 1880 did not reflect party leaders’ confidence in his abilities, as much as it reflected their confidence in Garfield’s health. Chet Arthur was merely a seat-warmer. Nobody imagined he would have to lead the country.

But the morning of July 2, 1881, a deranged office-seeker shot President Garfield in the Baltimore and Potomac Station in Washington. After lingering for months, Garfield died and Arthur became president.


Q: What was “civil service reform” and why was it important?

In the post-Civil War period, both political parties were corroded by greed and cronyism, dominated by political machines and bosses who enriched themselves at the public’s expense. Under the so-called “spoils system,” politicians doled out government jobs to loyal party hacks, regardless of their qualifications.

The nation’s intellectual elite believed that without civil service reform, American democracy was doomed. They wanted to root out patronage and award federal jobs based on competitive examinations, not political connections or contributions. Civil service reform became one of the most important political issues of the time.

Arthur surprised many when he signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in January 1883 and faithfully implemented it. By reforming the civil service, he restored Americans’ trust in their government, laying the groundwork for the progressive presidents to come.


Q: How did Arthur change once he became president?

A: Vice President Arthur had not hesitated to use his position to help his New York cronies, and Conkling and his associates looked forward to reaping the benefits of his ascension. But they underestimated the impact of Garfield’s suffering and death on their old friend. President Arthur was determined to show the country he was no mere ward heeler.

In his first message to Congress—now known as the State of the Union address—the erstwhile party hack shocked the nation by proclaiming his support for civil service reform and asking for money to revive the moribund Civil Service Commission.

But Congressmen from both parties rejected Arthur’s plea.  It took huge Republican losses in the 1882 elections, interpreted by many as a rebuke to machine politics, to change the mood on Capitol Hill.

After the elections, Arthur acknowledged that party leaders often coerced government employees into making “voluntary” political contributions—the “assessments” he had enthusiastically collected as customhouse chief. He called on Congress to ban such contributions, and urged passage of the reformers’ civil service overhaul, which had been languishing in legislative purgatory for several years. Prodded by Arthur, Congress finally approved the reform bill. Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in January 1883 and faithfully implemented it.


Q: Who was Julia Sand?

A: As Garfield lingered throughout he summer of 1881 Arthur was in a state of panic. He had never coveted the presidency, and could not conceive of leading the country. When newspapers accused him of conspiring to kill Garfield, he avoided appearing in public, fearing his own life might be in danger. His friends worried he was on the verge of an emotional collapse.

At the end of August, as Garfield’s condition deteriorated, Arthur received a letter from a fellow New Yorker, a bedridden 31-year-old woman named Julia Sand.

Sand was the unmarried eighth daughter of Christian Henry Sand, a German immigrant who rose to become president of the Metropolitan Gas Light Company of New York. As the pampered daughter of a wealthy father, Julia read French, enjoyed poetry, and vacationed in Saratoga and Newport. But by the time she wrote Arthur she was an invalid, plagued by spinal pain and other ailments that kept her at home. As a woman Julia was excluded from public life, but she followed politics closely through the newspapers, and she had an especially keen interest in Chester Arthur.

That August letter, the first of many Sand wrote to Arthur, helped awaken the conscience of the man destined to become the 21st president of the United States. Arthur followed much of the political advice that Sand offered in her letters. He visited her at her home in Manhattan, and when he ordered his papers burned shortly before his death, he asked that the two-dozen letters from Sand be preserved for posterity.


Q: Besides civil service reform, what were some of Arthur’s other accomplishments as president?

 A: During the Gilded Age, most Americans were indifferent to international affairs. But Arthur recognized the country’s need for overseas markets for its booming productive capacity, and he was determined to thwart the European powers’ designs on Latin America. To enforce the Monroe Doctrine, promote economic growth and enhance American prestige, the country required a modern navy.

When Arthur took office, the U.S. Navy had only 52 ramshackle ships, down from almost 700 vessels during the Civil War. Moreover, at a time when other nations were rapidly constructing steel navies, nearly every U.S. ship was made of wood. “Never was there such a hopeless, broken-down, tattered, forlorn apology for a navy,” one British journal concluded.  Overcoming strong resistance, Arthur wrung money out of Congress to construct the U.S. Navy’s first modern ships.

 Arthur also held remarkably forward-looking views on civil rights. In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which barred discrimination in inns, on public transportation and in theaters.  Though the decision was enormously popular, Arthur forcefully and publicly spoke out against it, urging Congress to approve a new law that would withstand judicial scrutiny.

Arthur also pushed for federal money for African American schools, privately contributed to a black church, personally awarded diplomas to black high school graduates and invited the choir from historically black Fisk University to perform at the White House (their performance moved him to tears). He also appointed African Americans to important government positions, such as surveyor of the port of New Orleans.

 Democrats across the South took advantage of the demise of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to pass Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation. Until the middle of the next century, they met with little or no resistance from the men occupying the White House. Chester Arthur, the son of the abolitionist preacher, might have put up more of a fight than his successors did—but he never got the chance.


Q: Why didn’t Arthur serve a second term?

 A: One major factor was his health. He secretly suffered from Bright’s disease, a serious kidney ailment, and as a result he was almost constantly exhausted, nauseous and depressed. Believing it would be undignified and unmanly to burden others with his pain, he kept his condition secret from all but a handful of his closest friends, and he continued to appear at the public receptions and banquets that sapped his strength.

Arthur did not want to be remembered as a sickly caretaker of the White House. He knew, however, that he was not healthy enough to seek a second term. Officially, he remained in the running for the 1884 Republican nomination—after all, bowing out would raise suspicions about his health and cast doubt on his ability to handle the burdens of his office. But privately he told his closest allies that he did not want them to champion him at the upcoming GOP convention.

Arthur also knew that his political standing had been weakened by crushing Republican losses in the 1882 elections, and that his about-face on civil service reform had angered Conkling and other machine politicians without earning him the trust of reformers.  When Republicans met in Chicago in June 1884, they chose former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State James Blaine of Maine as their standard-bearer.