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.

Calvin Coolidge Institute

Calvin Coolidge Institute

Following Coolidge’s lead to preserve our foundational principles from neglect and misuse, the Calvin Coolidge Institute is performing a vital work in the state of Nevada. They are setting an example for what is desperately needed all across America: to encourage and elect candidates with Cal’s integrity, courage and conviction. In fact, a Coolidge Coalition is forming in our area of Gulf Coast Florida. How about where you live? In studying Coolidge for some time, the more I have learned the more I come to respect and admire what he accomplished through a genuine leadership grounded on moral consistency, political wisdom, and personal resolve. While he would not have wanted any institution to bear his name, he would have taken great satisfaction in those who shoulder the high demands, not merely the blessings, of citizenship and public service. He praised those who kept our institutions true to the ideals of limited government, economic freedom, religious liberty, and individual responsibility. Anchored by the Golden Rule, progress is measured not by cutting ties with the past but by doing what is right not what is expedient, upholding the good of all not favoring the benefit of a few. Hardly outmoded, these ideals are downright indispensable. Party platforms and campaign pledges are not things to be cast aside on victory night, they furnish the direction of leadership and are the substance of a voter’s voice. This is why party cohesion is so crucial to sound government. He also understood that principles mean nothing if not kept practiced and practical, requiring brave and involved citizens prepared to govern their own government. The government, as he often paraphrased President Cleveland, works for the people, not the people for the government. In this way, we grow worthy of America. The Calvin Coolidge Institute deserves every encouragement and support.

"If there is to be responsible party government, the party label must be something more than a mere device for securing office. Unless those who are elected under the same party designation are willing to assume sufficient responsibility and exhibit sufficient loyalty and coherence, so that they can cooperate with each other in the support of the broad general principles of the party platform, the election is merely a mockery, no decision is made at the polls, and there is no representation of the popular will. Common honesty and good faith with the people who support a party at the polls require that party, when it enters office, to assume the control of that portion of the Government to which it has been elected. Any other course is bad faith and a violation of the party pledges. When the country has bestowed its confidence upon a party by making it a majority in the Congress, it has a right to expect such unity of action as will make the party majority an effective instrument of government" -- March 4, 1925.

“If there is to be responsible party government, the party label must be something more than a mere device for securing office. Unless those who are elected under the same party designation are willing to assume sufficient responsibility and exhibit sufficient loyalty and coherence, so that they can cooperate with each other in the support of the broad general principles of the party platform, the election is merely a mockery, no decision is made at the polls, and there is no representation of the popular will. Common honesty and good faith with the people who support a party at the polls require that party, when it enters office, to assume the control of that portion of the Government to which it has been elected. Any other course is bad faith and a violation of the party pledges. When the country has bestowed its confidence upon a party by making it a majority in the Congress, it has a right to expect such unity of action as will make the party majority an effective instrument of government” — March 4, 1925.

On Ulysses Grant

Dedication of the Grant Memorial near the foot of the Capitol Building, where Vice President Coolidge delivered these remarks, 1922.

Dedication of the Grant Memorial near the foot of the Capitol Building, where Vice President Coolidge delivered these remarks, 1922.

Ninety-two years ago, 1922, marked the occasion Vice President Coolidge dedicated the Monument to General Ulysses S. Grant in Washington, coinciding with the centennial of President Grant’s birthday, April 27. As with many of his predecessors in the Presidency, Coolidge (though yet to rise to that great office) would have some very thoughtful and profound assessments of the man and his contributions to our institutions, our republican system and to liberty itself.

Grant was, and rightly belongs, among those we honor as a “great American, who was sent into the world endowed with a greatness easy to understand, yet difficult to describe: the highest type of intellectual power–simplicity and directness; the highest type of character–fidelity and honesty. He will forever hold the admiration of a people in whom these qualities abide. By the authority of the law of the land, with the approving loyalty of all his fellow countrymen, in the shadow of the dome of the Capitol which his work proved and glorified fittingly, flanked on either side by a group of soldiers in action, looking out toward the monuments of Washington and Lincoln, this statue rises to the memory of General Ulysses Simpson Grant. It is here because a great people responded to a great man.”

“…He had the ordinary experiences of the son of an average home maintained by a moderately prosperous business. He went to West Point, not so much with the purpose of becoming a soldier as from a desire to secure an education. He liked horses and rode well. He did not appear brilliant, but he had industry. He worked. He made progress. He had that common sense which overcame obstacles. After his graduation he remained in the army for eleven years, rising to the rank of captain” serving through the Mexican War, resigning voluntarily in 1854. “Destiny sent him to private life, where he could better feel the rising tide of freedom. The next few years he spent as a farmer and a business man. He still worked hard, but he did not prosper, scarcely making a living. He had little taste for small things; it required an emergency to call forth his powers.” The “great crisis” of Union found him in Illinois, working his father’s craft, leather. Volunteering himself again, he declared, ‘Whatever may have been my political opinions before, I have but one sentiment now. That is, we have a government and laws, and a flag, and they must all be sustained.’

Appointed by the Governor to lead the 21st Illinois Regiment, he took command with characteristic directness, ” ‘Men, go to your quarters.’ Within four years he was to be recognized as the greatest soldier in the world.” His capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, his struggle at Pittsburgh Landing and finally his success at the surrender of Vicksburg combined to make Grant a major-general in the regular army. However, it was at Lookout Mountain and his maneuvers at Chattanooga that “demonstrated his great military genius, both of plan and execution.” The following March would find him taking command of the Army of the Potomac, unleashing “blow upon blow from the Wilderness to Appomattox…”


“…His work finished, though the President had invited him to attend the theatre, he left the city on that fatal evening of April 14. He mourned the loss of Lincoln, but his first allegiance was to his country. His attitude toward Johnson was all that could be required of a general toward his commander-in-chief, until the President, seeking to embroil him in his own political disputes, charged him with bad faith…While Johnson sank in the public estimation, Grant rose, being unanimously nominated and handsomely elected President of the United States.” Coolidge was four months old. As a boy, he would acquire a deepening respect the more he learned of the first President he would recall in youth.

Grant “had little taste for political manuevres. He found his eight years fell on a time of confusion, both of thought and action. He worked as best he could with the contending elements which made up Congress…Although he broke with a well-meaning reform element of his party, which supported Horace Greeley, he was triumphantly re-elected. One of the important contributions which he made to the public service was his veto of the bill which provided for the inflation of the currency by issuing $400,000,000 in greenbacks. At a time when the political ideals of the country were very low, President Grant held to his own high standard of honorable public service…”

“…Through the contested election of Hayes and Tilden, in 1876, he took a course marked by a high spirit of patriotism. ‘No man worthy of the office of President, should be willing to hold it if counted in or placed there by fraud. Either party can afford to be disappointed in the result. The country cannot afford to have the result tainted by the suspicion of illegal or false returns.’ When the man who knew how to command armies took this position for the enforcement of the law, the country stood behind him and peacefully accepted the decision of the electoral commission.”

Grant in retirement

“His closing years were marked with great tragedy. Betrayed by one whom he trusted, he saw his property dissipated and large obligations incurred. A lingering and fatal malady added anguish of the body to the anguish of his soul. Never was he greater than in these last days. With high courage, without complaint, on a bed of pain, seeking to retrieve his losses, he was preparing his memoirs…He was still thinking of his country, not as a partisan but as a patriot, not even as the general the armies he had led but as an American.” Being near death, he observed, “I have witnessed since my illness, just what I have wished to see since the end of the war–harmony and good-will between the sections.”

“…Great as he had been, his armies had been greater still…As they supported him in the field, their bronze forms support him here.”

Coolidge would reflect on Grant’s great enemy, General Robert E. Lee, seeing two equally noble champions of integrity, recalling that both reflected what was best about America just when it was most needed.

“Men are made in no small degree by their adversaries. Grant had great adversaries. They fought with a dash and a tenacity, with a gallantry and an enduring purpose which the world has known in Americans, and in Americans alone. At their head rode General Robert E. Lee, marked with a purity of soul and a high sense of personal honor which no true American would ever stoop to question. No force ever quelled their intrepid spirit. They gave their loyalty voluntarily or they did not give it at all.”

“It is not so much the greatness of Grant as a soldier but his greatness as a man, not so much his greatness in war as his greatness in peace, the consideration, the tenderness, the human sympathy which he showed toward them from the day of their submission, refusing the surrender of Lee’s sword, leaving the men of the Southern army in possession of their own horses, which appealed to that sentiment of reconciliation which has long since been complete. It was not a humiliation but an honor to remain under the sovereignty of a flag which was borne by such a commander…”


Summing up the significance of this great American and honorable President, never an easy task, seems effortless in the words of Coolidge,

“Our country and the world may well consider the simplicity and directness which marked the greatness of General Grant. In war his object was the destruction of the opposing army. He knew his task was difficult. He knew that the price would be high; yet amid abuse and criticism, amid misunderstanding and jealousy, he did not alter his course. He paid the price. He accomplished the result. He wasted no time in attempting to find some substitute for victory. He held fast to the same principle in time of peace. Around him was the destruction which the war had wrought…He refused to seek refuge in any fictions. He knew that sound money values and a sound economic condition could not be created by law alone but only through the long and toilsome application of human effort put forth under wise law. He knew that his country could not legislate out its destiny but must work out its destiny…His policy was simple and direct, and eternally true. In the important decisions of his life his fidelity and honesty are equally apparent…He never betrayed a trust and he never deserted a friend. He considered that the true test of a friend was to stand by him when he was in need. When financial misfortunes overtook him he discharged his obligations from whatever property he and his family could raise. Here was a man who lived the great realities of life…There was no artifice about him, no pretense, and no sham. Through and through he was genuine. He represented power.”

“A grateful republic has raised this monument not as a symbol of war but as a symbol of peace. Not the false security, which may come from temporizing, from compromise, or from evasion, but that true and enduring tranquility which is the result of a victorious righteousness. The issues of the world must be met and met squarely. The forces of evil do not disdain preparation, they are always prepared and always preparing…The welfare of America, the cause of civilization will forever require the contribution of some part of the life of all our citizens to the natural, the necessary, and the inevitable demand for the defense of the right and the truth. There is no substitute for a militant freedom. The only alternative is submission and slavery.” What Grant gave, “America shall give.”