Chester Alan Arthur (American Presidents Series)

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The Gilded Age bon vivant who became America's unlikeliest chief executive-and who presided over a sweeping reform of the system that nurtured him

Chester Alan Arthur never dreamed that one day he would be president of the United States. A successful lawyer, Arthur had been forced out as the head of the Custom House of the Port of New York in 1877 in a power struggle between the two wings of the Republican Party. He became such a celebrity that...

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Chester Alan Arthur: The American Presidents Series: The 21st President, 1881-1885

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The Gilded Age bon vivant who became America's unlikeliest chief executive-and who presided over a sweeping reform of the system that nurtured him

Chester Alan Arthur never dreamed that one day he would be president of the United States. A successful lawyer, Arthur had been forced out as the head of the Custom House of the Port of New York in 1877 in a power struggle between the two wings of the Republican Party. He became such a celebrity that he was nominated for vice president in 1880-despite his never having run for office before.

Elected alongside James A. Garfield, Arthur found his life transformed just four months into his term, when an assassin shot and killed Garfield, catapulting Arthur into the presidency. The assassin was a deranged man who thought he deserved a federal job through the increasingly corrupt "spoils system." To the surprise of many, Arthur, a longtime beneficiary of that system, saw that the time had come for reform. His opportunity came in the winter of 1882-83, when he pushed through the Pendleton Act, which created a professional civil service and set America on a course toward greater reforms in the decades to come.

Chester Arthur may be largely forgotten today, but Zachary Karabell eloquently shows how this unexpected president-of whom so little was expected-rose to the occasion when fate placed him in the White House.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
An unmemorable president earns a fitting biography. Freelance historian Karabell (Parting the Desert, 2003, etc.) has the unenviable task, in this latest in Arthur Schlesinger's American presidents series, of chronicling the life and times of Chester Arthur (1829-86), who "belongs to two select, and not altogether proud, clubs: presidents who came to office because of the sudden death of their predecessor, and presidents whose historical reputation is neither great, nor terrible, nor remarkable." Arthur was indeed a strong supporter of his predecessor, James Garfield, felled by the bullet of a disgruntled jobseeker; although by no means charismatic or even interesting, he was useful to Garfield as an entree to and liaison with the powerful Republican leadership of New York. Arthur seems to have sought elected public office only reluctantly, and for good reason: as an appointed customs official in New York City, he earned more than $50,000 annually in the 1870s, an astonishing sum of money that owed to an astonishing level of official corruption, though Arthur himself seems to have been honest enough. Though popular precisely because he represented a moderate balance between two competing wings within the GOP, Arthur ran afoul of powerful rivals, including Rutherford B. Hayes, U.S. Grant, and James Blaine, the last of whom essentially forced Arthur out of the White House after he served out Garfield's term. Arthur's tenure was not without its accomplishments, Karabell dutifully writes, including a thoroughgoing reform of the civil-service system to professionalize the government and reduce favoritism. On the negative side, Arthur oversaw an immigration exclusion act aimed against theChinese, which he vetoed at first but then surrendered to; on this and other issues he stepped away from his base of support within his party, and, as Karabell notes, alienating his allies after having "earned the near-permanent distrust of competing factions and of the opposing Democrats."A dry life of a dry man, with a few intriguing glimpses into the Gilded Age.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805069518
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/21/2004
  • Series: American Presidents Series
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 204,764
  • Product dimensions: 5.73 (w) x 8.43 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of several works of American and world history, including The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election and Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal. He has taught at Harvard and Dartmouth, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chester Alan Arthur: 1881-1885

By Zachary Karabell

Times Books

Copyright © 2004 Zachary Karabell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-805-06951-8

Chapter One

A Man of Some Importance

"Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!" It was not exactly what he would have wanted to hear, but then again, it was not exactly the best way to become president. Chester Alan Arthur hadn't wanted to become the nation's chief executive. He certainly hadn't aspired to be vice president - after all, who did? But he had been asked, and he had said yes, never imagining that he would inadvertently set in motion a series of events that would culminate with the assassination of President James A. Garfield and his own elevation to the presidency.

Always an emotional man, Arthur was, by all accounts, devastated by the news that Garfield had been shot on July 2, 1881, by a deranged Charles Guiteau, who has been forever immortalized with the inaccurate moniker of "disgruntled office seeker." Arthur seemed frequently on the verge of tears in the days following, and he prayed as fervently as anyone that Garfield would survive his wounds. It would be nearly three uncertain months before Garfield expired and Arthur became, much to his own shock and that of the nation, the twenty-first president of the United States.

Arthur is one of the forgotten presidents. Mention him to the proverbial man-on-the-street, and blanknessis a likely response. "You're writing a biography of who?" was the most common refrain when this particular author mentioned that he was writing about this particular president. Even among those who consider themselves well educated, Chester Alan Arthur remains a cipher, one of those late-nineteenth-century inhabitants of the White House whose echo has been muffled by more memorable individuals and whose footprint - and in the case of the rotund gourmand Arthur a rather large footprint - has been trampled on and all but erased.

Arthur belongs to two select, and not altogether proud, clubs: presidents who came to office because of the sudden death of their predecessor, and presidents whose historical reputation is neither great, nor terrible, nor remarkable. The first club has eight members, and its founder was John Tyler, who replaced William Henry Harrison after the latter died a month into his term. Arthur was the fourth to join, after Andrew Johnson and before Theodore Roosevelt. The second club has a more fluid membership, depending on historical fads and whether or not a new biography has been published that reverses decades of opinion one way or the other. It currently includes Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore (who like Arthur also belongs to the first club), Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Gerald R. Ford, the first George Bush, and Chester Alan Arthur. It is impossible to remove Arthur from the first club - membership there is permanent. And as to the second, well, maybe, or maybe not. This isn't a long book, but there should be some suspense.

There is a nature-nurture question here. Arthur's time was not conducive to executive action. The White House had shed much of the power it had acquired during the Civil War, and Congress had asserted its traditional preeminence with the impeachment and near conviction of Andrew Johnson for the unpardonable sin of thinking that he could remove members of his own cabinet without the say-so of the Senate. Given the unelevated state of national politics, many otherwise talented individuals pursued more fruitful outlets for their skills. Why get involved with the rough-and-tumble of statehouses and Congress when fortune beckoned in the West or in industry? Just as the young, hungry, and talented tended to eschew Washington in the 1990s for the seemingly more fertile valleys of silicon, many took one brief look at Gilded Age politics and politicians and opted out.

Henry Adams, the disillusioned sage of the era, famously described the political life of the country after the Civil War in less-than-glowing terms: "The government does not govern. Congress is inefficient, and shows itself more and more incompetent to wield the enormous powers that are forced upon it, while the Executive is practically devoid of its necessary strengths by the jealousy of the Legislature." James Bryce, the English commentator who saw America with at least as much perspicacity as Americans saw themselves, remarked that "an American may through a long life never be reminded of the Federal Government, except when he votes at presidential and congressional elections, lodges a complaint against the post-office, and opens his trunks for a custom-house official on the pier of New York."

Chester Arthur was not well known to the general public before 1880, but he had been collector of the customhouse of the Port of New York. At the time, that was a position of greater influence than all but a handful of federal appointments. The size of the federal government grew rapidly in the 1870s, but the New York Customhouse remained the pinnacle.

It was the largest federal office in the country, and in an era before income tax, it accounted not only for three-quarters of all customs duties but for more than a third of the government's revenues. That the customhouse comprised such a large portion of federal activity simply reflects how much commerce subsumed politics in the late nineteenth century.

While the captains of industry - Rockefeller, Morgan, Frick, Gould, Vanderbilt, Villard, Stanford, Carnegie - carved out empires of wealth in the process of industrializing America, the federal government receded from the center of national attention that it had briefly occupied in the 1860s. Later generations exalted and lambasted the "robber barons," and benignly overlooked the denizens of Washington. As the novelist Thomas Wolfe (the one from Asheville, not Park Avenue) eulogized for the lost generation of American presidents, "Their gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together in the sea-depth of a past, intangible, immeasurable, and unknowable ... And they were lost. For who was Garfield, martyred man, and who had seen him in the streets of life? Who could believe that his footfalls ever sounded on a lonely pavement? Who had heard the casual and familiar tones of Chester Arthur? And where was Harrison? Where was Hayes? Which had the whiskers, which the burnsides; which was which?"

And yet these men did live, and breathe, and think. The newspapers and journals of their day took their actions seriously enough to scorn and ridicule, to praise and assess. They often struck their contemporaries as a questionable assemblage, but there they were, on center stage and playing roles that had consequences. More than most, they added their voices to history. Chester Arthur was an accidental president at an inopportune time, but he is part of the tapestry of who we are more than most ever have been or most of us ever will be.

He was president in an unideological era. The Senate would shortly be dubbed the "Millionaires' Club," and the House of Representatives was an unruly place of loose coalitions and influence trading. State and local politics were controlled by party machines that prized loyalty. Politicians genuflected to the concept of the public good, and they occasionally spoke of public service. But they didn't seem to hold either very dear. Their careers did not depend on bold acts of legislation, stunning moments of oratory, or fighting for an ideal. The years before, during, and immediately after the Civil War had been characterized by an excess of ideology. The politicians of the Gilded Age, perhaps mirroring the mood of the public, turned away from troubling intractables like freedom, democracy, equality, and attended instead to order, stability, and prosperity.

America's cities were growing rapidly. Immigrants flowed into New York and then out into the West, and millions took advantage of the opportunities created by railroads. The dual pressures of burgeoning demographics and industrialization meant chaotic growth. The population of some towns doubled and then doubled again in the span of a decade. In the face of such flux, big ideas took a backseat to daily needs: food, water, shelter, transport, order.


Excerpted from Chester Alan Arthur: 1881-1885 by Zachary Karabell Copyright © 2004 by Zachary Karabell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Editor's Note xiii
1. A Man of Some Importance 1
2. The Early Life of Chet 11
3. Onto the National Stage 29
4. To the White House 45
5. "Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!" 61
6. A New House and an Eventful Year 75
7. Reform 93
8. Travels, Tariffs, and Travails 113
9. The Final Days 129
Epilogue: The Gentleman President 139
Milestones 145
Selected Bibliography 149
Acknowledgments 153
Index 155
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2013

    Another Excellent Volume of this Great Series

    I'll say up front, that this book may not be for everyone. If one doesn't particularly care for the history of the Republican party, specifically the conflict between Half Breeds and Stalwarts, then this probably won't appeal to them.

    Zachary Karabell has seemingly done the impossible. He took one of the forgotten names of the presidency, and made a strong argument for him being amongst the best presidents our country has ever had. Arthur is probably best known for being the man who became president following Garfield's assassination, and for signing the Pendleton act. But Karabell shows that there was a lot more to him than those two things.

    Karabell also doesn't pull any punches, he freely admits how much Arthur benefited from the kickbacks that he received as Collector of the Port of New York, and his very loose work ethic (he never did today, what could be put off until tomorrow). So it's not like he paints Arthur as being something he wasn't. But, shortcomings like that are counterbalanced with some of his great achievements in office, in addition to the Pendleton act, his veto of a bill that would have deported millions of immigrants, his push to use some of the country's $100 Million dollar surplus to advance the U.S. Navy, and a veto of a Rivers and Harbors Act that would have appropriated federal funds in a manner he thought excessive.

    In addition to Arthur, Karabell also gives the reader great insight to other names of the time period such as Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine, who were very important to Arthur's political career.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2007

    About Time

    Having read about fifteen of the series I can say that the author's writing style of this long-needed account of Chester A. Arthur's obscure Presidency is by far superior to any of the other prominent historians read so far. A very interesting premise is posed by the author that Arthur's support for the Pendleton Act and Civil Service Reform lays the basis for the latter day Progressive movement and growth of governmental sprawl. More of Arthur's interesting personal life should ,however, been included. Once again a tremendous writer in the author--Zachary Karabell.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2004

    The Greatest President

    Chester Alan Arthur was the greatest president of the United States. Chester A. Arthur (The American Presidents Series) clearly displays the amazing turnaround of Arthur from corruption to outstanding leadership at home and abroad. He deserves the praise of all Americans. If he had not had such a difficult Congress to work with, the nation would know more about Arthur and some of the quite fascinating ideas he had. Arthur was a leader, and should still be among the United States of America and the world.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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