The Unexpected President : The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur

20171014_112315~01.jpgI mentioned previously that my goal for this year (and most likely the next couple as well) was to read a biography of each US President, preferably in chronological order. I made it through the first five without incident (excepting the James Monroe bio, which took an extended amount of time) and then decided to take a break before diving into our 6th President, John Quincy Adams. During my break, I read several other non-Presidential books before receiving an email from a book publisher. This email asked if I would be interested in an advance copy of a biography about our 21st President, Chester A Arthur, with my only payment being a review of it. I agreed and here we are! The book I just finished is called “The Unexpected President : The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur” by Scott S. Greenberger.

My initial trepidation at being asked to review a book that I received complimentary related to the objectivity of my thoughts on its presentation of the subject matter. I would love to be eligible for another “screener” if the opportunity presents itself, but if I lambaste the book would that honesty be appreciated? Thankfully, I really enjoyed the book and am in no way stretching the truth by saying I would recommend this to anyone interested in our 21st President’s awkward and unplanned place in history and how Arthur turned his public persona and avaricious nature around to become a relatively popular President.

Now that I’ve told you that I would recommend you read this one, I’d like to discuss the points throughout the book that prompted me to jot down notes. Every President so far has prompted me to write down my thoughts (for discussion with other folks who have read Presidential bios, most notably Steve over at “My Journey Through The Best Presidential Biographies”) as I am reading through the book and although I jumped ahead 15 Presidents, Arthur’s legacy is just as interesting and warrants some further discussion.


After the initial obligatory childhood anecdotes, we find that Arthur (and by extension the Stalwart faction within the Republican Party led by Roscoe Conkling) had done quite well for himself, financially. While he and his wife Nell enjoyed the “good life”, plenty of people had been observing that many of their government officials had no business being in the lofty positions that they held. The ineptitude of certain politicians seemed in no way to affect their ability to hold office, a fantastic display of what the book refers to as “patronage” and more commonly known as “the spoils system”.

I have mentioned previously that certain characters come and go in the periphery of each President’s biography, and this book was no different. The author alludes to President Grant and how much corruption and unanswered incompetence ran throughout his administration, benefiting Arthur and his Stalwart compatriots through the aforementioned rampant patronage. My curiosity is most definitely piqued for President Grant’s biography.

When Arthur went into the Vice President spot under President Garfield, he was despised by quite a few people who believed him to be forwarding the Stalwart agenda (and operating as Conkling’s lackey within the White House). Once Garfield was assassinated, however, Arthur had to walk a difficult line between appearing eager to take the reins of the highest office in the land or show some sort of reluctance and genuine grief. It appears that Garfield’s assassination, along with the heartfelt letters of a young woman named Julia Sand addressed to Arthur, really seemed to have changed his outlook and where he saw his loyalties fall before he took over the most powerful office in the land.

A couple more random things I found interesting;

1) Arthur was instrumental in rebuilding our Navy after it had dwindled down to 52 ships from earlier estimates of 700’ish ships.

2) The death of Arthur’s first son at 2 1/2 years old and his attributing it to “overtaxing his brain” was interesting. Considering that he and his wife thought they had pushed their son too hard intellectually (his death was actually caused by a swelling of the brain), they refused to push their second son as hard, instead lavishing him with gifts and spoiling him.

3) Arthur was “interviewed” by the Chicago press, and the way the author wrote it seems that the technique was a new thing in the later part of the 1800’s. That’s definitely worth more research, seeing as I’d never really thought about journalists NOT interviewing for articles. Perhaps they started being more proactive in getting the information from the source?

4) Arthur was a strong believer in civil rights and expressed his displeasure at the Supreme Court’s 1883 overturning of The Civil Rights Act of 1875 (the history of this legislation and Reconstruction overall warrants its OWN research and it sounds fascinating that the reason the Supreme Court overturned it appears to be due to the inability to enforce the discriminatory actions of private citizens).

I enjoyed this book and have once again found more peripheral items to research and read about, most notably the Reconstruction and Civil Rights Act of 1875, seeing as I’m currently reading “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and she’s mentioned it.

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