Presidential Biographies: Chester Arthur #21

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Chester Arthur, the twenty-first President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selectio n process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) is The Unexpected President by Scott S. Greenberger.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

The Unexpected President: Chester A. Arthur by Scott S. Greenberger

Chester Arthur is one of those Presidents I knew very, very little about going in. To be honest, I’m not sure I would have recognized his face, let alone been able to name any achievements (or, as we will see, his infamy). I thought Greenberger’s biography was fascinating. In part, it was fascinating because it seemed partially an apologetic for Arthur while also denoting in detail the corruption and abuse of power he used throughout his life.

I have to admit something of a chip on my shoulder when I talk about Arthur’s scandals throughout his career. Grant is often spoken of as the most corrupt of Presidents, and Greenberger certainly rakes him over the coals as he gives context to the political career of Chester Arthur. It is true Grant’s administration was filled with corruption and scandal, largely due to his trusting and being quite loyal to those who followed him. Grant’s achievements, in my opinion, vastly outshine the scandals. Arthur, however, was mired in unscrupulous activity throughout his life, and only as President did he do anything about any of it.

Born in a highly religious and conservative family, Arthur seemed to depart somewhat swiftly from his upbringing when he first had the chance to gain reins of power. He went into practicing law. When the Civil War broke out, he became quartermaster general for New York, and quickly capitalized on his position to help a shifty friend sell more poor quality hats and other supplies to the Union army, taking a side cut along the way. He became opposed to the war over time and favored making peace with the South, but that didn’t stop him from using his position as quartermaster to line his own pockets by selecting sellers who’d give him a take on the side.

Arthur became involved in Roscoe Conkling’s political machine, supporting a system which effectively utilized bribes by other names for appointees to keep their jobs and for political offices to be entirely based upon political beliefs and/or how much money one could contribute to “campaigns” (eg. the pocketbooks) of higher officials. Time and again, Arthur profited on political appointments as well as siphoning funds into his own and friends’ pockets through government contracts and even more questionable means like supporting the seizure of property in order to extort additional fees from companies shipping product through New York and other areas. He was corrupt through-and-through, and made wealthy through the public dollar.

Ascending to the Vice Presidency was something of a coup for Arthur, but the political machine he’d joined with Conkling helped assure that he could do so. Garfield was shot, and as his dying moments drew on from hours to days to weeks to more than a month, Arthur seemed to undergo a change in political policy, envisioning himself as President. When Garfield died, Arthur took up the Presidency in a nation doubting of his ability and morals, but Arthur quickly ingratiated himself both with his humble attitude by mourning Garfield for at least six months officially as well as vowing to take up Garfield’s policies as his own. Apparently deciding that the President should represent the will of the people, which would mean Garfield’s policies would have been that same will, he worked to support policies that went against his own greatest supporters, alienating much of the political machines as he did so and even opposing the systems that helped him rise in power.

I admit the reasoning behind this seemed somewhat unclear reading Greenberger’s biography; it all seemed very abrupt. Greenberger, for his part, argues a large part of it was from the influence of Julia Sand, who had decided to take it upon herself to try to be the “dwarf” in the President’s court, someone unafraid to tell the truth. Lending credence to the influence of Sand’s letters on Arthur was a surprise visit the President made to her home, which concluded in somewhat startling fashion when he left her unknowing of whether he felt she’d been too harsh on him or not. Nevertheless, this interesting relationship–of which very little details can truly be known–may have helped influence Arthur away from his own interests.

Arthur also helped pave the way for the modernization of the American Navy, including starting the construction of the first steel warships in the United States. Though at this point the USA was lagging behind world powers in the navy, this move helped pave the way for the rise of the US Navy as a major power. Arthur vetoed the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, and Congress promptly overrode his veto, creating a law that regulated immigration purely based on country of origin, a highly racist law with motivations founded upon worries about labor markets. The similarity between this Act and various ideas about immigration today cannot be denied. Arthur also tried different methods of securing rights of both African Americans and Native Americans during his Presidency, though each failed. He tried to find a new type of coalition with a “Readjuster” Party that Arthur thought might help give African Americans their voting rights back (a strategy that even Frederick Douglass ultimately endorsed). This policy failed when the Readjuster Party failed to gain a following. Arthur wanted to push for education of Native Americans, which shows his own imperialist views (which were not dissimilar from many of his time) in which the idea that the Native American peoples needed to be adjusted to white society. He ultimately sided with “settlers” who encroached on protected Native American lands after being assured the land was not protected, even though the treaty was found that gave the land to the Native Americans after his Presidency.

After his Presidency, Arthur died in less than a year. His legacy remains one that is difficult to pin down. Undoubtedly corrupt and willing to backstab anyone and play any political game to rise to power, once he’d finally gained the highest power in the nation, he seemed to moderate himself and work for at least a few good causes. How does one truly evaluate such a legacy? He died so soon after his Presidency, it is hard to evaluate what changes he made to himself during the tenure in office and how they came about. An enigmatic President, but not, necessarily, a bad one.

Chester Arthur’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Chester Arthur (21st President – Original Ranking #11)- Overall, Arthur as President was very, very different from Arthur as political machine proponent, and, again, it’s difficult to evaluate him because of that. He pushed for reform of the appointment system as well as disenfranchising political machines in Washington while doing what he thought was right regarding people of non-white backgrounds. Though many of his efforts failed, this was in part due to the opposition from the very political machines he’d used to rise to power. How does one evaluate such a man, who seemed a despot hungry for money and power one moment, and a reasonable, even-handed person once in power? The test of time has shown us little of his impact directly, though our Naval power is one tangible evidence. Arthur was a corrupt man who, strangely, turned towards a more moral rule once he gained the Presidency.


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