Why Union College graduate Chester A. Arthur is an underrated leader

Author will speak about 21st president during Founders Day celebration
This painting of Chester A. Arthur is the official White House portrait by artist Daniel Huntington.
This painting of Chester A. Arthur is the official White House portrait by artist Daniel Huntington.

Scott Greenberger isn’t sure exactly where Chester Alan Arthur belongs on any list of U.S. presidential rankings, but he’s convinced of one thing. History hasn’t been all that fair to the one-time Schenectady resident and Union College graduate.

Arthur is the subject of Greenberger’s latest book, “The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur,” and the author will speak about the nation’s 21st commander in chief at Union College’s Founders Day celebration Thursday at 1 p.m. in Memorial Chapel.

Born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829 and an 1848 graduate of Union, Arthur went on to become president in September of 1881 following the death of James Garfield. He is one of five vice-presidents who finished out the term of a predecessor who had died in office, and then lost the next presidential election, or in Arthur’s case, failed to win his own party’s nomination.

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An 1859 daguerreotype of Arthur taken by Rufus Anson. (National Portrait Gallery)

The son of an abolitionist preacher, Arthur also spent time as a youth in Greenwich and Hoosick along with Schenectady, and enrolled in Union College at the age of 16. He became a school teacher in Schaghticoke and soon began pursuing a law degree, also spent time as a school principal in Cohoes, and eventually headed to New York City where he began working in a law firm and was admitted to the bar in 1854.

He became an active member of the Republican Party and was appointed quartermaster general of the New York State Militia during the Civil War. Although Arthur was never elected to a public office, when Garfield was looking for a running mate during the 1880 election campaign, the party bosses thought having a New Yorker on board would help balance the party’s ticket.  Garfield, a Union General during the Civil War, defeated another Union General, Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock, to gain the presidency, but the new president was shot just a few months into his first term by disgruntled office seeker Charles Guiteau. Garfield lingered for a few months before passing away on Sept. 19, 1881, making Arthur, a man who never  aspired to elected office, president of the U.S.

A member of Roscoe Conkling’s New York political machine, Arthur surprised critics by not being a party hack, and actually performed his duties as president in a competent manner. His most lasing legacy is civil service reform. He died in 1886, less than two years after leaving the presidency and is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery along side his wife, “Nell” Arthur, who died a year before her husband became vice-president.

Greenberger’s book came out in September and was received favorably by both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. A Yale University graduate and former newspaper reporter, Greenberger lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, and is currently executive editor of Stateline, the daily news service of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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The 9-foot statue of 21st President Chester Arthur, created by Eli Peyser, was unveiled on the Union College campus in 1941 to honor the school’s 1848 graduate. (Daily Gazette file photo)

Question: Why write a biography of Chester Arthur?

Answer: I get that question a lot. I was looking to write about something or someone who hadn’t been done before, and he certainly qualifies. I got the idea after reading a book about James Garfield, an excellent book by Candice Millard, “Destiny of the Republic,” and in the section about Garfield’s death there were a couple of paragraphs about Arthur and how he had been a machine politician and widely viewed as unqualified, corrupt, unfit, ended up on the Republican ticket sort of by accident and ended up as president when Garfield dies. Then, as president he surprises everybody and became a reformer, turning against the very spoil system that had created him. I thought that was fascinating, and another thing I should mention was the whole Julia Sand sub plot; this idea there was this young woman, a fellow New Yorker, who wrote Arthur about two dozen letters that really seemed to have had an impact on him, in terms of how he behaved in office. He promotes civil service reform, and his administration is very honest. He really ends up rising to the occasion

Q: Did you do any research for the book in Schenectady?

A: Yes I did. I went to Union College and the library there to look at some old class catalogues and some history about Union College that could only be found there. Arthur seems like a very popular student and while he did pretty well academically, he did have a mischievous streak. He carved his name into one of the windowsills on campus. He seemed like a young man who enjoyed having a good time.

Q: According to C-SPAN’s 2017 poll of nearly 100 historians, Arthur is 35th in the presidential rankings. Is that fair?

A: I haven’t sat down and ranked everybody to see where he would fit, but generally speaking I would say he’s underrated, and a lot of that is because people don’t know that much about him. He was so ashamed of his political life before he was president he had almost all of his political papers burned, so it’s tough to get a handle on him because there’s not that much material on him. He did, however, ask that the letters from Julia Sand be saved, which i think is interesting. And also during the summer after Garfield was shot and before he died, Arthur was treated very roughly by the press. Some even suggested he was involved in the assassination. I think he was very shy in terms of the press and not very adept at cultivating the press. It was a different time, of course, but he didn’t do very much to burnish his reputation or actively promote himself with the press. It’s also a period of American history that a lot of people just aren’t that familiar with.  To many people he’s just one of a succession of four or five Republican presidents during that period who had a lot of facial hair and no one’s really sure what they did.

Q: What did his contemporaries think of his presidency?

A: He was not renominated for a variety of political reasons, but by the time he left he was considered to be one of the best presidents we’ve had up to that point, which was incredible. Mark Twain, who certainly wasn’t shy about criticizing politicians, said shortly before Arthur left office that it’d be hard to find someone who had done a better job, so I think that’s meaningful.

Author Scott Greenberger.

Q: What was Arthur like as a person?

A: He was very tall for his time, very handsome, and a very social animal. As a machine politician in New York, that was his great strength. His boss, Roscoe Conkling, though a very talented politician and orator, was not a politician who liked people very much. Arthur loved people, and he liked nothing better than staying up late at night drinking and smoking cigars, and talking politics.

Q: He died at a relatively young age.

A: Yes, he was only 57. He had what they called Bright’s Disease, which was a kidney ailment. I think if he had been healthier, he would have made a more enthusiastic bid to be renominated, but his health was a big factor in his decision not to actively seek re-election. He was very often tired and nauseous, and he knew it was quite possible he didn’t have long to live.

When Arthur defended a black woman thrown off a streetcar

Long before there was Rosa Parks, there was Elizabeth Jennings.

While Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus on Dec. 1, 1955, more than 100 years earlier, on July 16, 1854, Jennings, another black woman, also resisted giving up her seat. A school teacher who was on her way to church to play the organ, Jennings was thrown off a streetcar onto the sidewalk by a New York City policeman for riding on a segregated city vehicle.

With the help of her father, a prominent black tailor in New York, and a group of black abolitionist ministers and businessmen, Jennings fought back and wrote a letter detailing the incident to Horace Greeley at the New York Daily Tribune. Also, her father visited a young attorney in his New York City office, Chester Alan Arthur, then just 24 years old.


Pictured: This image of Elizabeth Jennings Graham was taken around 1895, nearly 40 years after she was represented by Chester A. Arthur in a lawsuit against the New York City transit system for being thrown off a segregated streetcar.

“Elizabeth Jennings was an early Rosa Parks story,” said Scott Greenberger, who wrote “The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur.” “She was violently removed from a street car after a dispute with the conductor on a segregated car. She shared that story with her own community, Frederick Douglas got involved, the newspaper got involved. They filed a suit against the streetcar company and Arthur represented her and won the case.

“That led eventually to the de-segregation of all New York City streetcars,” added Greenberger. “The verdict was viewed as so significant that for years afterward the black community would celebrate the anniversary of the verdict. It was a very significant victory for Arthur.”

While Arthur went on to become president of the U.S., Jennings continued to teach in New York City and after the Civil War established the first kindergarten for black children on the first floor of her home at 237 West 41st St. She died in her home in 1901.

— Bill Buell

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