A Review of Scott S. Greenberger’s “The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur”

Just ahead of the one year anniversary for the publication of Mr. Greenberger’s book, we finally review “The Unexpected President” published by Da Capo Press. “Unexpected” achieves the unexpected: stepping into an era about which most Americans know nothing and consequently leaving us with a sense of its newness and color.

Many know so little about Chester Arthur – aside from those signature muttonchops – that, for many readers, learning who he was may seem like meeting a new President altogether.

Mr. Greenberger, a journalist himself, infuses the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the places we encounter in this book, in the spirit of the descriptive reporting that defined New York’s news coverage at the Times, Sun, Tribune, and Herald during the late nineteenth century. He is the former editor of Stateline, focusing on state-related news and policy, as well as a co-author in 2009 with former Senator Tom Daschle of Critical: What We Can Do about the Health Care Crisis.

The central question is simple but profound: Can making a man President change him for the better? Does the office improve the man, carrying the potential to overcome the worst, self-serving pasts? Chester Arthur certainly had such a past, in servitude to a political clique openly employing public office for personal advantage. When Arthur succeeded to the Presidency in September 1881, it seemed certain the country would soon rush headlong into a corrupt abyss, merchandising public trust and remaking the Presidency into the likeness of New York’s political boss, the vain and promiscuous Roscoe Conkling. It was one quiet, reclusive woman, from Arthur’s own New York — Julia Sand — who refused to accept this as a foregone fate. In the first of nearly two dozen letters she wrote between 1881 and 1883, Sand answers this question resoundingly in the affirmative. It is her faith in Arthur’s ability that arrives just when it seems most needed, as then Vice President Arthur stands friendless on the cusp of succeeding the wounded Garfield. It is this faith of an unknown, regular American lady that certainly helps Arthur find the courage to do what was right, to overcome what he had become, to rekindle his moral integrity, and to serve the office and the nation, not himself or his cronies, with honor.

For those of us who study the underrated and oft undeservedly forgotten Presidents, Chester Arthur shares some remarkable similarities with another Vermonter and later tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Calvin Coolidge. Both serving as Vice Presidents who succeeded upon the tragic deaths of their predecessors, they possessed an abiding reverence for the Office. Both emptied themselves to serve the whole people, knowing fully that the people had not elected them. Of course, in Coolidge’s case, they would enthusiastically do so the following year of his tenure. Both understood the somber, lonely duty the Office extracted and they still poured everything they had into its obligations. The Office demanded the best they had to give and they gave all in keeping with the sacred oath they would take as Presidents. Remarkably, both took the oath of office at around the same early morning hour, though in very different settings forty-two years apart. Both lawyers by profession, Arthur would enter the New York bureaucracy while Coolidge would steadily earn promotion in the state government of Massachusetts. Both would take office after the taint of public scandal and political corruption had impacted members of their own party, in Arthur’s case…his own association with Conkling. Both would experience the loss of a son and, in Arthur’s case, a wife as well. The intense grief would not incapacitate either man when the need to serve summoned. Still, the Office would carry a heavy toll on both men, arguably hastening their own deaths at ages 57 (Arthur) and 60 (Coolidge). They were unafraid to exercise the veto power to check Congressional pork spending, even more remarkable for Arthur whose life had been built upon perpetuating that very system. They dissented on the limitation of immigration, especially from the Far East, but recognized the constitutional authority Congress possessed to legislate in that field. They understood their limitations and knew themselves well enough to recognize power is deceptive, fame is fleeting, and no leader is indispensable. They knew when to leave, as gentlemen do. They left the nation better than they came to it but neither cherished much concern for their legacies. This presents hardship at times for the historian but it leaves us admiring the men all the more.

We agree with Mr. Greenberger that the Gilded Age is severely misunderstood and unknown. It seems so foreign to us not so much because it is unstudied (though, it is!) but because the era has been characterized for us as unworthy of our attentions for too long by the supposedly larger, more challenging events of the twentieth century. Such ingrained emphasis on what came after (as if that were the starting point of history) remains a disservice to our comprehension of events unfolding now and yet to unfurl in the future. It was in the latter half of the nineteenth century that much of the form and character of the America we know developed. The War of 1861-1865 changed what the nation would be forever but it was in Reconstruction and its aftermath, the Gilded Age, that we would define what we are and who we will be in fundamental ways. Like the Presidency, can America change what it is? To work out the ongoing obligations of citizenship, we will find the task impossible of perspective if we do not reckon honestly with the Gilded Era.

Though no book can do everything, Mr. Greenberger’s “The Unexpected President” is a popular history and as such does not venture into a detailed discussion of the policies and particulars of President Arthur’s administration: from modernizing the U.S. Navy, implementing genuine civil service reform, to facing the immigration debate raging even then. A welcome care is shown by the author for the primary source material and with only a few exceptions, does he deviate from this respect (though Julia Sand’s frankly unknown views about the 1883 Supreme Court repudiation of the 1875 Civil Rights Act is a conspicuous exception). Arthur certainly saw what was coming in 1884, with his own retirement and the election of Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat President since James Buchanan in 1856. Arthur observed greater courage in Cleveland and admired it, a courage that extended to a public association with freedmen like Frederick Douglass and his wife at official functions (something neither Garfield nor Arthur were willing to do). When tackling perhaps the least known President of the latter half of the nineteenth century, one cannot avoid relying substantially on the scholarship of Arthur’s leading biographer, Thomas C. Reeves, as the author freely acknowledges. Mr. Greenberger slides past much of the drama surrounding Garfield’s assassination and his subsequent, slow decline, leaving those to Candice Millard (whose 2011 Destiny of the Republic reintroduces Reeves’ discovery of Julia Sand and her letters to President Arthur). Having been over forty years since Reeves’ biography of Arthur, the author introduces to us a virtually brand new study. It is unfortunate, however, that the author declines to reference equally insightful and important studies by Michael J. Gerhardt (who devotes an entire chapter in his The Forgotten Presidents: Their Untold Constitutional Legacy to Chester Arthur) and Jean Edward Smith (whose biography Grant published in 2001). Smith documents President Grant’s substantial achievements on civil rights, reduction of the nation’s debt, return to solvent finances, and his pivotal role as a peacemaker when the nation needed healing after four terrible years of War and four more of Congressionally-imposed Reconstruction.  Unfortunately, in “The Unexpected President,” Grant is only seen through the eyes of the basic narrative about him (reinforced by a few sideways frowns from Julia Sand). Grant’s fault, like Coolidge’s predecessor Harding, was not personal corruption but a trusting loyalty in untrustworthy subordinates who lived Arthur’s pre-White House credo. That Arthur himself would condemn them in keeping with the honor due the Office is the timeless and inspiring reminder of Mr. Greenberger’s fine book.

“The Unexpected President” has a welcome place in a renewed study of America’s forgotten past, especially the Gilded Age. That era, like Calvin Coolidge’s Roaring Twenties, reminds us that the nation is best served when our leaders empty self, earning honor not for what they receive but for what they give. By upholding their oath, revering the Office, and validating the faith regular citizens reposed in them, the legacies of Presidents like Arthur and Coolidge shine brighter when others tarnish with time.

On Garman

Surveying the immensely strong faculty of Amherst during the time Calvin Coolidge came into contact with the school, Claude M. Fuess, in his book on Amherst, turns to Charles Edward Garman, the professor of philosophy from 1882-1907. It was of Garman’s courses Coolidge would later observe, “all the other studies ‘were in the nature of a preparation’ ” and though Garman’sactual career at Amherst covered less than a quarter of a century,” he “left behind him an influence such as almost no other college teacher in the United States has exerted.” Graduating from Amherst with the Class of 1872, ironically the year Coolidge was born, Garman went to Yale but his desire to teach brought him back to his alma mater by 1880 through the capable leadership of President Seelye. By 1882, Professor Garman had taken up his signature course in philosophy. Using no textbooks, he had a masterful grasp of dialectics and used it to great effect. “He tried to compel his students to think for themselves, to weigh evidence, to accept nothing on authority, and to follow the truth no matter where it led. He would permit them to build up one after one erroneous systems of belief — would, in fact, assist them in doing so; and then, by questioning, often by fierce discussion, he would destroy the heresy which they had come to regard as infallible. It is characteristic of his modernity that he used a wealth of illustrations from science…he compared public opinion to a cake of ice, which yields to slow pressure but cracks under a sharp blow.”

“…His influence on such men as Alfred E. Stearns, ’94, Harlan F. Stone, ’94, Calvin Coolidge, ’95, Dwight W. Morrow, ’95, and many other distinguished graduates of that period, cannot be overestimated. He has rightly been described as ‘a scholar with a keenly analytical mind, a masterly power of synthesis, and an ardent love of truth.”

His tenuous health required special care, creating an artificially tropical temperature in his room to protect his throat, riding in closed buggies and wearing a heavy coat and scarf even through the heat of summer. His infrequent public appearances combined with these eccentricities to create an atmosphere of mystery around the kindly man. “His heart was warm,” Fuess notes, “and he performed many good deeds which were never revealed.” It has been observed that the surest indication of a great teacher is preserved in the lives of his students. By such a test, Garman was one of the truly great. “He was to his pupils himself a model of intellectual curiosity, of tolerance, of idealism, whom they were eager to emulate.” Despite never publishing anything in his lifetime, the Amherst class of 1908, one of his last, set a tablet in the College Church inscribed with the simple tribute, “He chose to write on living men’s hearts.” The class of 1884 together with Garman’s widow prepared the only volume of his lectures, addresses and letters for publication in 1909, two years after his passing.

“But,” as Fuess continues, “in a very definite sense he still lives. Justice Stone declared recently that his work on the Supreme Bench had naturally brought him in touch with what were supposed to be the best brains in the country, but that he had yet to encounter an intellect that he considered equal to Garman’s. Coolidge is even more specific in his assessment of the man,

“We looked upon Garman as a man who walked with God. His course was a demonstration of the existence of a personal God, of our power to know Him, of the Divine immanence, and of the complete dependence of all the universe on Him as the Creator and Father ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’…The conclusions which followed from this position were logical and inescapable. It sets man off in a separate kingdom from all the other creatures in the universe, and makes him a true son of God and a partaker of the Divine nature. This is the warrant for his freedom and the demonstration of his equality. It does not assume all are equal in degree but all are equal in kind. On that precept rests a foundation for democracy that cannot be shaken. It justifies faith in the people…I know that in experience it has worked…In time of crisis my belief that people can know the truth, that when it is presented to them they must accept it, has saved me from many of the counsels of expediency.”

“…In ethics he taught us that there is a standard of righteousness, that might does not make right, that the end does not justify the means that expediency as a working principle is bound to fail. The only hope of perfecting human relationship is in accordance with the law of service under which men are not so solicitious about what they shall get as they are about what they shall give. Yet people are entitled to the rewards of their industry. What they earn is theirs, no matter how small or how great. But the possession of property carries the obligation to use it in a larger service. For a man not to recognize the truth, not to be obedient to law, not to render allegiance to the State, is for him to be at war with his own nature, to commit suicide. That is why ‘the wages of sin is death.’ Unless we live rationally we perish, physically, mentally, spiritually.

“…A great deal of emphasis was placed on the necessity and dignity of work. Our talents are given us in order that we may serve ourselves and our fellow men. Work is the expression of intelligent action for a specified end. It is not industry, but idleness, that is degrading. All kinds of work from the most menial service to the most exalted station are alike honorable. One of the earliest mandates laid on the human race was to subdue the earth. That meant work.

“If he was not in accord with some of the current teachings about religion, he gave to his class a foundation for the firmest religious convictions. He presented no mysteries or dogmas and never asked us to take a theory on faith, but supported every position by facts and logic. He believed in the Bible and constantly quoted it to illustrate his position.” In fact, to the surprise of all, he opened his remarks to the senior class of 1904 in chapel service with the unapologetic admission, “Believing as I do in the divinity of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ…” Coolidge continues, “He divested religion and science of any conflict with each other, and showed that each rested on the common basis of our ability to know the truth.”

“To Garman,” Coolidge wrote, “was given a power which took his class up into a high mountain of spiritual life and left them alone with God. In him was no pride of opinion, no atom of selfishness.” Finishing his course students discovered what commencement meant as they stepped from formal education into the beginnings of “their efforts to serve their fellow men in the practical affairs of life.” Some professors expect fawning adulation, gathering followers devoted to one’s personality rather those who will take what they can from him while continuing to think for themselves, building on what they had learned. A cult of personality was not Charles Garman. He was not the Alpha and Omega of all that life had to teach. Christ more than adequately held unchallenged title to that. Garman expected his course “to be supplemented. He was fond of referring to it as a mansion not made with hands, incomplete, but sufficient for our spiritual habitation. What he revealed to us of the nature of God and man will stand. Against it ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail.’ “

“As I look back upon the college I am more and more impressed with the strength of its faculty, with their power for good. Perhaps it has men now with a broader preliminary training, though they then were profound scholars, perhaps it has men of keener intellects though they then were very exact in their reasoning, but the great distinguishing mark of all of them was that they were men of character.” Perhaps that is the ultimate explanation to Fuess’ query as to what made Amherst so unique among America’s colleges and universities in the 1880s and 1890s. It was principally the character of the men who taught — and learned — there that so special an environment existed for the development of the whole person, so capable of producing “such a large proportion of famous men” who would go on to lead successful lives, leaving indelible marks through their service in business, law, ministry, and government (Amherst, pp.244-5).

Justice Stone, writing to Fuess, confirms this estimation, “I think you and President Coolidge understand the case. After forty years of contact with all sorts of men both in and out of educational institutions, Garman, Morse, and ‘Old Ty’ are still in my opinion great men…” What made men and institutions great was not in  some mystical attachment to “hocus pocus” or the nostalgia of youth, it was anchored firmly in the integrity of men like Garman whose reasoned conclusions merit renewed study and consideration. Experience has proven them to be more prescient and enduring than we may realize. Coolidge would agree.

"He was constantly reminding us that the spirit was willing but the flesh was strong, but that nevertheless, if we would continue steadfastly to think on these things we would be changed from glory to glory through increasing intellectual and moral power. He was right" -- Calvin Coolidge on Charles Edward Garman, The Autobiography, (New York: Cosmopolitan, 1929, p.69).

“He was constantly reminding us that the spirit was willing but the flesh was strong, but that nevertheless, if we would continue steadfastly to think on these things we would be changed from glory to glory through increasing intellectual and moral power. He was right” — Calvin Coolidge on Charles Edward Garman, The Autobiography, (New York: Cosmopolitan, 1929, p.69).

For further reading

Booraem V, Hendrik. The Provincial: Calvin Coolidge and His World, 1885-1895. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1994.

Fuess, Claude Moore. Amherst: The Story of a New England College. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1935.

Garman, Eliza Miner. Letters, Lectures and Addresses of Charles Edward Garman: A Memorial Volume. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909.

Waterhouse, John Almon. Calvin Coolidge Meets Charles Edward Garman. Rutland, VT: Academy Books, 1984.

Chapter One of Calvin Coolidge’s Autobiography

Chapter One of Calvin Coolidge’s Autobiography

Read by the new Program and Editorial Associate of the Coolidge Foundation, Rushad Thomas, here is the first installment of the finest Presidential memoirs ever written. It is aptly suited for reading, written as it was for child and adult alike. Listen carefully, take time to reflect on the observations and insights offered and be ready to learn from one of the wisest and most underestimated of our Presidents.

Calvin at age 3, 1875-76

Calvin at age 3, 1875-76. This was the year his grandfather carried him the to the Vermont State House in Montpelier. When little Calvin reached for the gavel, it was time to leave. Little could anyone suspect that the authority of a presiding officer would loom large in his future (The Autobiography p.18).