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The Unexpected President
The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur
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Despite his promising start as a young man, by his early fifties Chester A. Arthur was known as the crooked crony of New York machine boss Roscoe Conkling. For years Arthur had been perceived as unfit to govern, not only by critics and the vast majority of his fellow citizens but by his own conscience. As President James A. Garfield struggled for his life, Arthur knew better than his detractors that he failed to meet the high standard a president must uphold.
And yet, from the moment President Arthur took office, he proved to be not just honest but brave, going up against the very forces that had controlled him for decades. He surprised everyone — and gained many enemies — when he swept house and took on corruption, civil rights for blacks, and issues of land for Native Americans.
A mysterious young woman deserves much of the credit for Arthur’s remarkable transformation. Julia Sand, a bedridden New Yorker, wrote Arthur nearly two dozen letters urging him to put country over party, to find “the spark of true nobility” that lay within him. At a time when women were barred from political life, Sand’s letters inspired Arthur to transcend his checkered past–and changed the course of American history.
This beautifully written biography tells the dramatic, untold story of a virtually forgotten American president. It is the tale of a machine politician and man-about-town in Gilded Age New York who stumbled into the highest office in the land, only to rediscover his better self when his nation needed him.
CHESTER ARTHUR, OUR nation's 21st president, frequently lands on lists of the country's most obscure chief executives. Few Americans know anything about him, and even history buffs mostly recall him for his distinctive facial hair. People who flock to Arthur's former home in Manhattan, a brownstone that still stands, typically come to shop at a store that sells Indian and Middle Eastern spices and foods, not to see the only site in New York City where a president took the oath of office. Arthur's statue in Madison Square Park, erected by his friends in 1899, is ignored. Arthur's fascinating and surprising story had a lasting impact on the country—so why have we forgotten it?
The first reason is that Arthur rose to power and served in the White House during an era that is a bit foggy in the minds of most Americans. We frequently dissect and rehash the events of the Civil War (and rightly so), but we often ignore the crucial decades immediately following the war. We shouldn't. The social, political, and economic changes that shook America during the 1870s and 1880s were the birth pangs of the society we have today. Arthur became president 136 years ago, but the era Mark Twain dubbed the "Gilded Age" doesn't feel distant at a time when political corruption, economic inequality, and corporate malfeasance are once again shaking people's faith in the American experiment.
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 reasons that will be revealed in the pages ahead. 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 that the library purchased in 1902. Painstaking work by chief librarians over many years gradually added to the holdings, but the collection is meager compared to 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. Anything between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document, and when I ascribe feelings to Arthur I do so based on his own statements or those of the people around him.
Despite the relative scarcity of writings by Arthur himself, I hope I have done justice to his story. It is the tale of a good man who veered off the right path, but rediscovered his better self with the help of an ordinary young woman who believed in him.
THE ST. JOHN sliced through the last wisps of haze and steamed south toward the Canal Street pier, where a messenger stood with a telegram clutched in his damp fingers. It was the morning of July 2, 1881, a Saturday, and the ship was running late. In the fog the pilot had steered her cautiously, straining his eyes and ears to avoid a collision with another steamer. Now he was trying to make up for lost time. Picking up speed, the St. John churned past the mammoth ice-harvesting warehouses, and then the sheer cliffs of the Palisades, where an advertisement for Drake's Plantation Bitters was painted on the rock face in letters 20 feet high.
Finally, the island came into view. On the shore, the great trans-Atlantic steamships, their smokestacks blackened with soot, slumbered under towering wooden sheds. Ferries crisscrossed the Hudson, carrying passengers to and from the railroad depots that connected the great metropolis to points south and west. The bells of the ferries clanged fiercely, challenging the St. John to stay out of their way.
The engine thrumming in the belly of the 418-foot St. John had been salvaged from the steamer New World, which had been converted into a hospital for Union soldiers during the Civil War. Propelled by a pair of paddle wheels, one on each side, the St. John was the largest inland steamship in the world when she was built in 1864. She had since relinquished that title, but she still belonged among the floating palaces that operated the overnight service between Albany and New York City. She had gracefully curved deck lines, and her grand staircase was carved of St. Domingo mahogany, inlaid with white holly. Passengers could walk out of their lushly decorated staterooms onto a gallery overlooking the two-story saloon, which extended from stem to stern. A line of Corinthian columns ran down the saloon's center, concealing masts that extended through the St. John's superstructure to its wooden hull. The steamer catered to passengers' every whim, from tables piled high with all of the delicacies of the season to the company of young women who took up residence on board and never wanted for customers.
On this steamy morning, the St. John carried two New York machine politicians accustomed to such opulence.
The boss of New York's vaunted Republican machine stood six foot three, with broad shoulders and reddish-blond hair. He wore a manicured beard, and a curl he combed onto the middle of his broad forehead. His polka-dot tie was fastened with a gold pin, and he had tucked a checked handkerchief into the upper pocket of his cutaway coat. He wore English gaiters and pointy shoes, freshly polished, and held a sun umbrella.
His loyal lieutenant was an inch shorter, and a thousand late nights of eating and drinking had swelled him to a hearty 225 pounds. His face was florid and puffy, framed by mutton-chop sideburns trimmed to perfection. Unlike most politicians, who tended to wear dreary long-tailed frock coats and slouch hats, he wore a derby over his wavy hair, and a stylish sack coat. Like the boss, he was fastidious about his clothes—sometimes he had his Prince Albert coats, light trousers, and high hats imported from London, and he bought dozens of vests and pairs of trousers every year. The son of a rigid abolitionist preacher, he had left the discipline and deprivation of his Vermont youth far behind. Now he had a five-story brownstone on Lexington Avenue, a taste for expensive Havana cigars, and, his friends noted, extraordinary powers of digestion.
The two New Yorkers were protagonists in a national debate. Leaders of the "Stalwart" faction of the Republican Party, they were vociferous supporters of the spoils system, under which victorious candidates rewarded their cronies—and perpetuated their power—by handing out government jobs. Once in office, "spoilsmen" like the men on the St. John collected "voluntary" campaign donations from government employees, who knew they would be fired if they declined to contribute.
To Republican reformers, the spoils system was a mortal threat to American democracy. Driven by an almost religious fervor, they had become a powerful political force. At large gatherings held in all the nation's major cities, they sang songs praising reform and condemning the spoils system as an unadulterated evil. Without reform of the civil service, they argued, it would be impossible to curb the trusts that were beginning to dominate the nation's economy, since there would be nothing to prevent them from buying influential posts for their allies. "At present there is no organization save that of corruption; no system save that of chaos; no test of integrity save that of partisanship; no test of qualification save that of intrigue," one leading reformer proclaimed. "We have to deal with a widespread evil, which defrauds the country in the collection of taxes on a scale so gigantic that the commissioners of revenue, collectors, assessors, and Treasury officers—at least those of them who are honest—bow their heads in shame and despair."
Near the Canal Street pier were barrels and boxes of kitchen offal on the sidewalks and heaps of manure in the streets, all mellowing in the midsummer heat. The gutters were clogged with straw, eggshells, orange peels, potato skins, and cigar stumps. The overall effect, even when combined with the savory smells of cooking that emanated from some of the tenements, was nauseating. Wagons and trucks clustered around the wharf as sweltering stevedores loaded and unloaded the vessels docked there. At about 10:30, the St. John finally came within hailing distance. Standing on the shore, Baggage Master Turner cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed to Steward Burdett on the deck of the St. John. Burdett froze for a moment, stunned. Then he rushed into the saloon to deliver the news to the two machine politicians lounging inside.
At first, they didn't believe him. "It can't be true," sputtered the lieutenant. "This must be some stock speculation." Then the St. John kissed the pier, and the messenger came on board with his telegram. He handed over his dispatch and stood by silently. As the words sunk in, the lieutenant blanched and collapsed into a chair. The boss took the telegram from his protégé and read the news for himself: President James A. Garfield had been shot and seriously wounded at a railroad station in downtown Washington. If he died, the corrupt politicians on board the St. John would become the most powerful men in the United States.
THE MOB BAYED just outside the church doors, bellowing for the blood of the abolitionists huddled inside, but Elder Arthur wasn't frightened. The dark-haired minister, known for his ringing sermons and his crippled leg, had an iron belief in his own rectitude. That belief brooked no doubt, and an ungodly rabble could not shake it. Utica's grocers and taverns had started selling liquor when the first rays of autumn sunlight were still creeping over the foothills of the Adirondacks, and they had extended credit freely. "Open the way! Break down the doors! Damn the fanatics!" cried the members of the mob, with rage reinforced by their early-morning purchases.
The steeple of the Second Presbyterian Church was painted white, the shutters were green, and the cupola was covered with tin. It was a cheerful-looking building, bright and sparkling. But the mob's ugly threats slithered through the walls and under the church doors, which remained, for the moment, shut tight. The date was October 21, 1835, and nearly three decades before the Civil War tore the Union apart, most Utica residents were no more interested in abolishing slavery than the residents of Charleston or Richmond.
Set in New York's Mohawk River Valley, Utica was a prosperous city with nearly nine thousand residents and more than a hundred banks, inns, stables, dry goods stores, and taverns. It had its share of abolitionists—citizens of Oneida County sent a steady flow of money to antislavery groups. But the dominant sentiment, expressed in a motion at a Republican gathering days before, was clear: the abolitionists were "wicked or deluded men, who, whatever may be their pretensions, are riveting the fetters of the bondman, and enkindling the flames of civil strife."
The leader of the anti-abolitionist mob banging on the church doors was none other than Congressman Samuel Beardsley, a former state senator and county judge serving his third term in Washington. "The disgrace of having an abolition convention held in the city would be deeper than that of 20 mobs, and it would be better to have Utica razed to its foundations, or to have it destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah, than to have the convention meet here," Beardsley had roared at a meeting of concerned citizens several days before. A fierce-looking man with a furrowed brow and wings of white hair on either side of his rectangular head, the 45-year-old Beardsley had served as a lieutenant in the War of 1812. As usual, his views prevailed.
By 9 o'clock on Wednesday morning, Beardsley and his followers were mobilizing at the Oneida County Courthouse. An hour later, six hundred abolitionists gathered inside the Second Presbyterian Church, just two blocks away on Bleecker Street. The shutters softened the sunlight that streamed in through the church's windows, brightening the white walls and ceiling, but they could not muffle the sounds of the mob. New York had already banned slavery, in 1827, but the abolitionists inside the church wanted to form a New York State Anti-Slavery Society to advocate for freedom nationwide. They began with a short prayer. Then the man who had called the meeting, 45-year-old Alvan Stewart, a prominent local attorney, rose to speak. "You, for this moment, are the representatives of American liberty," he began. The menacing shouts from the street grew louder, but the handsome lawyer with the high forehead and the aquiline nose seemed to draw strength from them. "If you are driven from this sacred temple dedicated to God, by an infuriated mob, then my brethren, wherever you go, liberty will go, where you abide, liberty will abide, when you are speechless, liberty is dead!" Elder Arthur and the other abolitionists nodded their heads in assent. Then the mob burst through the church doors.
William Arthur was born in 1796 in Antrim, Ireland, to a respectable family that could provide him with an education, but little more. From an early age William walked with a pronounced limp, the result of a "fever sore" on his knee that had become infected. A talented and determined student, he mastered Latin and Greek and earned a college degree in Belfast, but he knew his family's lack of money and connections would limit his prospects in Ireland. In 1819 he sailed for Canada, bent on pursuing a legal career in the New World. He lived for a time in Stanstead, Quebec, then moved to nearby Dunham to work as a teacher while he studied the law. There he met Malvina Stone, a 19-year-old girl from Berkshire, Vermont, a short distance across the border. Malvina was from old New England stock—her grandfather Uriah Stone had served as a corporal in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. In 1821 William and Malvina were married, and three years later the young couple moved to Burlington, Vermont, where William thought he could make more money as a teacher while he studied law in the office of a prominent attorney.
In Burlington, the life of the aspiring lawyer abruptly changed course. New England was in the throes of the Second Great Awakening, a religious reaction to the rationalism and deism that had challenged Calvinist piety throughout the eighteenth century. In the 1770s and 1780s, the conflict with Great Britain focused Americans' attention on political upheaval, rather than on religious salvation, and membership in New England churches plummeted. In the 1790s, New England pastors feared the French Revolution would spread godlessness to America's shores, and some of them embarked on a campaign of vigorous preaching to strengthen Americans' spirituality. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, their efforts bore fruit. "Sects and creeds, doctrines and disquisitions, preachers and people, sermons and societies, plans and projects; excitements and conversions, you may hear talked of wherever you go—in stage-coaches and steam-boats, in shops and bar-rooms, nay in ball-rooms and parties of pleasure, and in short, every where," Orville Dewey, an Englishman traveling in New England, wrote to a friend back home in 1827. It was a revival meeting in Burlington that ignited the religious fire in William. Convinced he had been "called," William left behind the law and his Anglican upbringing to become a Free Baptist preacher. He was ordained in Waterville, Vermont, in 1828.
A short time later, William accepted an offer to lead a congregation in Fairfield, Vermont, in the northwest corner of the state. It was a bucolic setting: Fairfield was nestled in the Green Mountains, and in the surrounding valleys brooks flowed lazily toward the Missisquoi River and Lake Champlain. The parish was in the process of building a parsonage, so William, Malvina, and their four daughters—Regina, Jane, Almeda, and Ann Eliza—were housed in a large log cabin. At first, William preached in a nearby schoolhouse. The new minister moved haltingly around his pulpit, dragging his injured leg behind him, but he did not waver in preaching the gospel. Speaking in a strong Irish accent, he admonished his parishioners that the words in the Bible were without error and were to be taken literally. He told them that all of Adam's descendants had inherited his fallen nature, and thus had a natural inclination to sin. Man could only be pardoned and forgiven for his sins when he admitted to God that he was a sinner, and when in godly sorrow he turned from those sins and trusted in the work of Christ as redemption for them. Salvation came by grace alone, not by works. God was wise and benevolent, but the preacher, now known as Elder Arthur, left his listeners with a stark warning: if they refused to repent and believe, if they drank or fornicated, they would forfeit their chance to be saved, condemning themselves to eternal damnation.
It was a harsh message, but many were eager to hear it. Before long, the crowds that came to hear Elder Arthur preach had grown too large for the schoolhouse, forcing him to move to a neighboring barn. Women and girls sat on planks and blocks of wood on the bare floor, while the men sat in the hayloft and on the scaffolds and the boys perched on the high roof beams, their skinny legs dangling in the musty air.
On one memorable occasion Elder Arthur preached for four straight hours, and some of his listeners "became so weary and excited that they got up their teams, put whips to their horses, and were never seen there again." The preacher was witty and passionate, and in small gatherings his penetrating eyes and erudite conversation held listeners spellbound. But he also could be bitingly sarcastic, and his lack of tact alienated many potential friends. At one Baptist convention, a fellow minister, recently returned from the West, delivered a lengthy address describing conditions on the frontier. "I can tell the brethren," the minister boasted, "that if they think any kind of ministers will do for the West, they are mistaken." Elder Arthur jumped to his feet. "Mr. Moderator," he said, "I never knew before why the brother came back."
Sometimes Elder Arthur was brought low by the privations of his life as a young preacher, especially during the long winter months, when it was difficult for him to hobble outside for bread or firewood. To earn extra money, he took in students. "Instead of my attending school I recited to Elder Arthur, as he was called. He maintained the most rigid government in his family," one former student remembered. "He was a hard-shell Baptist in the strictest sense of the word, and was earnest and enthusiastic in preaching his doctrines." A half century later, when a newspaperman came to town to ask people what they remembered about Elder Arthur, Old John Baker claimed the preacher often joked about his injured leg. "He was a bit lame, and used to say in fun that he'd had a stone wall fall on his feet," the old man recalled—adding that Elder Arthur said he was sorry he could not chase down his students to punish them.
On October 5, 1829, a momentous event prompted uncharacteristic joy in the mostly joyless preacher: Malvina gave birth to a son. The boy was named Chester, after the doctor who had delivered him, Dr. Chester Abell, who also happened to be Malvina's cousin. Unable to contain his happiness, Elder Arthur momentarily succumbed to the devil's wiles and danced a celebratory jig.
Elder Arthur's dedication to the abolitionist cause did not endear him to church deacons, trustees, or parishioners. A man "who formed his opinions without much reference to the views of others," he would not smooth the rough edges of his beliefs or soften his pronouncements in deference to prevailing opinion. After two years, Elder Arthur was no longer welcome in Fairfield. Fortunately, the outspoken minister was offered another Baptist congregation in Williston, Vermont, a flourishing town of about 1,600 on the stagecoach route between Burlington and Montpelier. It had an academy taught by the Baptist pastor, and Elder Arthur succeeded in this dual role—but only temporarily. A year later, the family was on the move again, this time to a nearby congregation in Hinesburgh. That position only lasted two years, and the Arthurs joined a steady flow of migrants to western New York, settling first near the Erie Canal in Perry, and then moving 14 miles north, to York. By this time the Arthurs had two more children, a son named William and a daughter named Malvina.
When the church doors banged open, the first protesters who rushed inside charged immediately for the bell rope. Spencer Kellogg, an abolitionist who owned a nearby dry goods store, had been standing in front of the church, trying to pacify the surging crowd. He had failed in that mission, but he was determined to prevent the mob from disrupting the abolitionists' meeting by ringing the bell. Kellogg grabbed the rope, but as he did a half-dozen men tackled him, ripping the coat from his back. "Kill him! Kill the damn fanatic!" somebody cried. When Kellogg's son rushed to his aid, the mob left the merchant sprawled on the floor and turned its attention to what was going on inside the church. "Stop that reading! We won't hear it!" the men shouted as they swarmed into the aisles. "Knock him down! Hustle out old Stewart! Beardsley, say the word and we will tear old Stewart to pieces in an instant!"
Lewis Tappan, an abolitionist leader who later would become known for his efforts to free the Africans on the Spanish slave ship Amistad, hurriedly read a declaration of principles and called for a vote to adjourn. But the mob was not pacified. It surrounded Oliver Wetmore, the elderly minister who had been recording the proceedings, and ordered him to hand over the minutes. Rutger Miller, a court clerk, took the lead. "I will be damned if I don't have the papers if I have to knock you down to get them!" In a final humiliation, Reverend Wetmore had to relinquish the minutes to his own son, who was among those who had stormed the church.
Later the mob would display the minutes, along with other captured abolitionist documents and the key to the church, as trophies at the Oneida County Courthouse. The mob harangued and shoved Elder Arthur and the rest of the departing abolitionists, many of whom headed for Clark's Hotel, where Gerrit Smith, a well-known attorney and philanthropist, was staying. An active campaigner for temperance, Smith had established one of the nation's first "temperance hotels" in his hometown of Peterboro, some 25 miles away. Smith wasn't an abolitionist, but he was appalled by Utica's persecution of them, and he offered to host their convention at his Peterboro estate. The abolitionists gratefully accepted Smith's invitation, perhaps swayed by the continuing taunts of their enemies, who had now assembled outside the hotel. As the abolitionists left town, the remnants of the Utica mob pelted them with mud, eggs, clubs, and stones, knocking one abolitionist unconscious.
During the 1830s anti-abolitionist riots were a common occurrence, even in the North. On the same day the mob broke up the abolitionists' convention in Utica, William Lloyd Garrison narrowly escaped a public lynching by a mob determined to break up a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. Men wielding knives cut Garrison's clothes and hat to tatters and were prepared to do worse when "two burly Irishmen" seized him and turned him over to constables. They shoved the abolitionist into a carriage and bolted to the Leverett Street jail, where he was locked up overnight for his own protection. In July 1834, anti-abolitionist rioters rampaged for four nights in New York City. In July 1836, a Cincinnati mob destroyed the presses of the Philanthropist, an abolitionist newspaper; the next year, editor Elijah P. Lovejoy of Alton, Illinois, was shot and killed in a similar melee. In 1838, a mob in Philadelphia torched Pennsylvania Hall just three days after it opened because abolitionists had been allowed to hold a meeting there.
In the autumn of 1839 the Arthurs moved yet again, this time to Union Village, near Saratoga. Chester was nine years old, and up to that point he had received his schooling at home, from his father. In Union Village, Chester enrolled in a local academy to begin his formal education. "Frank and open in manners and genial in disposition," Chester impressed his teachers and was popular with his classmates. When the children in the neighborhood built a mud dam after a downpour, Chester was the kind of boy who took charge of the project. He ordered this boy to bring stones, that one sticks, and another scoops of mud to finish the dam. He enjoyed giving orders and his friends followed them—but he didn't like to get his own hands dirty.
Even before Elder Arthur arrived, the church at Union Village had been roiled by disagreements over slavery and temperance, and the new minister churned the waters. He forged a close friendship with Gerrit Smith, who had converted to the abolitionist cause after the Utica riot and was now an organizer of the antislavery Liberty Party, and with Erastus D. Culver, an abolitionist lawyer and state assemblyman. Again, Elder Arthur's friendships and radical views alienated many of his parishioners. In the summer of 1844, the Arthurs moved to Schenectady, where Elder Arthur became pastor of the First Baptist Church.
Schenectady was struggling economically, but it had two well-respected educational institutions: the Lyceum and Academy, and Union College. Now a teenager, Chester continued his formal education at the Lyceum, which was housed in a three-story octagonal building at the corner of Union and Yates Streets. After a year, he enrolled as a sophomore at Union College.
The president of the college was Eliphalet Nott, who was in his fifth decade at the helm. Seventy-two years old when Arthur arrived, "Old Prex" was a beloved figure who rode around campus in his custom-made three-wheeled carriage. Raised "pious and poor" on a hardscrabble farm in Ashford, Connecticut, Nott spent much of his childhood living and working in the home of his brother Samuel, a Congregationalist minister who was 19 years older. Samuel beat his little brother regularly. When Eliphalet grew up to become a teacher and principal, he made up his mind to "substitute moral motives in the place of the rod" in his own dealings with young people.
- On Sale
- Sep 12, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Da Capo Press