“His political experience had been restricted almost exclusively to one state, and his knowledge of national and international affairs was limited to what any reasonably curious New Yorker might cull from local newspapers.”
“His nomination had been entirely unexpected, and was commonly interpreted as a device for placating the most opprobrious forces within the GOP.”
“His presidency was almost unanimously dreaded. There were those, however, who contended that he would change dramatically once he found himself in the White House.”
“It is out of this mess of filth that he will go to the Presidential chair.”
“It was a common saying of that time among those who knew him best, ‘Chet Arthur President of the United States. Good God.'”
Oh, you thought I might be referring to our incoming forty-fifth president? Good guess. But these quotes were instead written about Chester A. Arthur, our twenty-first president and the subject of the latest presidential biography I decided to tackle: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas Reeves.
Why Arthur? I remember reading in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which is about the assassination of James Garfield, about how as Garfield’s vice president and successor, Arthur was considered a corrupt spoilsman, a GOP hack subject to the whims of nefarious party strongmen. He’d never held public office before being named vice president as a consolation prize for his wing of the Republican Party. He was New York’s quartermaster general during the Civil War but otherwise hadn’t served in the military. His sudden ascension to the presidency was greeted with a mix of dread and low expectations, and yet when he became president he managed to surprise everyone with his dedication to reform and respectability.
Hope, then, is why Arthur and why now. After the 2016 election I wanted to learn more about the man whose presidency made a good many people scoff and wring their hands in despair, yet who proved them wrong by being better than he had been—or at least clearing the low bar that was set for him.
The comparison only goes so far. Arthur practiced law, was involved in GOP politics politics for years, and proved a capable and well-regarded quartermaster during the war. He wasn’t the moral vacuum his 2016 successor is, though he also didn’t leave much time for family and was an unabashed beneficiary of the privileges his positions afforded. If anything the current president-elect compares just as much to Arthur’s successor, Grover Cleveland, who fathered an illegitimate child, had hired a convict as a “substitute” in the Civil War, and was “supposed to have enjoyed hanging two criminals” while serving as sheriff in Buffalo.
(Hints of Obama surfaced too: Arthur was accused by rivals of being foreign-born, first in Ireland, then later in Canada, and thus ineligible for the presidency. He also had to retake the oath of office after having first done it with a New York state judge at 2 a.m. the morning after Garfield died.)
More an exhaustive overview of Gilded Age politics than an Arthur biography, the book often felt like Reeves was more interested in tariff debates and who got appointed to which middling position than in talking about Arthur, who admittedly isn’t the most rousing historical subject. It felt a lot longer than it was, though it did drop some interesting Arthur Nuggets™ like:
- He was one of a few first-generation presidents: Jackson, Buchanan, and Obama’s fathers and Jefferson, Wilson, and Hoover’s mothers were foreign-born
- He spoke at the capstone ceremony of the finally completed Washington Monument in December 1884, which had been under construction since 1848
- His younger sister Mary served as First Lady because his wife had died before he entered office
As Reeves writes, the presidency during the Gilded Age did not have the power it now has. Congress controlled the political movement of the day; the president was a vetoer and just kept the federal machine running by filling positions with supporters and other eager office-seekers. There also weren’t the cascading foreign crises we’re used to presidents having to manage today. “From Appomattox to the sinking of the Maine,” Reeves writes, “the nation was preoccupied with its own internal developments.” Moreover, Arthur didn’t really want the job. He was forced into it and surprised everyone with how he handled it.
Someone who understood this at the time was Julia Sand, a young disabled woman from New Jersey who began writing to Arthur after Garfield was shot to encourage him and offer unsolicited political counsel. She knew Arthur’s reputation, but eloquently implored him to overcome it:
Rise to the emergency. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest aims. It may be difficult at once to inspire confidence, but persevere. In time—when you have given reason for it—the country will love & trust you. … It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold.
Let’s hope this history repeats itself.