#21: Review of “The Unexpected President” by Scott Greenberger Chester (1881-1885)
Arthur was born to a fiery, Free Baptist preacher in Fairfield, VT. He graduated from Union College in NY where he graduated Phi Betta Kappa. He became a lawyer and eventually rose the rancid ranks of the New York Customs House, “the machine” for the Republican Party. The Customs House carried out all the shipping taxes for the entire New York City harbor (which was a lot of money!). With so much money within the system, it was ripe for corruption. Basically, part of everyone’s pay was deducted into a Republican fund for making sure things went their way. Bad news bears.
The head of “the machine” was a profoundly power-hungry character by the name of Roscoe Conkling (shoutout to my friend on this newsletter, Roscoe, who is the opposite of Conkling in every way; nice, humble, thoughtful). Arthur was Roscoe’s right-hand man.
At the 1880 Presidential Election, Arthur was put on the Republican ticket as VP mostly to garner New York’s electoral votes. It worked, and Garfield won the election catapulting Arthur to VP of the United States. Long story short, Garfield dies after being assassinated by a true lunatic of a dude, Charles Guiteau, making Arthur President. Once he received word that Garfield had in fact died (it was 3 months between Garfield being shot and his death. People were constantly worried/wondering about Garfield’s status), he “wept like a baby” is how the book put it out of fear and trepidation.
I, along with a lot of Americans at the time, had little hope in Arthur upon Garfield’s death. They all figured he’d just be Conkling’s puppet. But then…Julia Sand! So there was this random woman, Julia Sand, that took a genuine interest in encouraging Garfield. She wrote him tons of letters calling him to rise to the occasion of the Presidency & be a better man. He largely responded which is incredible! (To all the Christian reading this it reminds me of Phil 1:27 which talks about how our lives should be lived in a manner worthy of the gospel) Arthur cut ties with Conkling and pledged to continue Garfield’s efforts for civil service reform. He also claimed he’d only do one term which he stuck to.
I think Arthur surpassed all expectations making him a not bad President, but it’s hard to place him anywhere near the top having only tried to be good for the four years of his Presidency compared to a Lincoln or Adams that seemed committed to good for much longer. Unfortunately, Arthur passed away only a year and half after he left office from a kidney disease called nephritis or Bright’s disease.
6 fun facts about Chester Arthur from the book
- He taught penmanship at a school in Vermont shortly after graduating college. Three years later, ole James Garfield himself taught the same class at the same school. I love when this happens, don’t you?!
- He defended a black woman who was illegally asked to get off a streetcar in New York City. It led to streetcars being desegregated in New York City at the time.
- Alright, alright, I admit. I didn’t learn this next fact from my book, but I hope it’s true! It could be argued that Arthur prompted the first White House Yard Sale. The White House was in bad shape upon Garfield’s death, so to clear out and raise some money there was apparently a yard sale at the White House that included some of Abraham Lincoln’s pants and one of John Quincy’s hats. eBay could’ve been born right then and there if only the internet was a thing then!
- One of the White House doorkeepers, Colonel William Crook, served in this role from Lincoln to Wilson (1861-1913)…how cool!!
- Arthur’s father-in-law, Captain William Herndon, died in a tragic ship sinking off the coast of North Carolina on Sept 12, 1857. Two things are crazy about this event: 1) It inspired Arthur to be a better person because Herndon was considered a hero going down with his ship to save others. 2) The boat called the Central America had a ton of gold on it that b/c of it all disappearing to the bottom of the ocean historians believe contributed to the financial panic of 1857…nuts!! Learn more about the sinking and recent excavation of the gold here!!
- President Hayes tried to replace Arthur as head of the New York Custom House with a new-to-politics player by the name of Theodore Roosevelt Sr., Teddy’s Dad.
- Shoutout to Alex and Cathy with MullenMemory.com (Alex won the US Memory Championship a few years back), and he sent me this video on how they’d recommend YOU memorizing all 45 of our Presidents in order. It’s 16 minutes. After watching it I had them all memorized. Check out me doing it live here!! You should try it too! Let me know if you do.
- My brother said I should do a series on Tiktok, so I did! I’m doing a 1-minute tiktok on 2-3 things I bet you don’t know about every President. Love to have you follow along and learn!
- This podcast on Presidential Power that one of my readers, Ralston, mentioned that looks really good. It shows how Presidents’ powers have expanded over time and why.
- This podcast (it is explicit, they say the f-word quite a bit, so be warned!) with black historian and author of the now-popular book called How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi. If you’re maybe like “heck no…this sounds super liberal,” I’d still encourage you to give this a listen! I found it really helpful and would like to read his book at some point.
- This good-looking NPR podcast that answers how and why more white people are interested in the Black Lives Matter movement. Super interesting.
Shoutouts/updates FROM YOU:
This week’s update is brought to you by SHAKE SHACK (they’re recent How I Built This podcast episode’s fire!!), my favorite chain food place that offers pure frozen custard. To win a $5 Shake Shack gift card, all you have to do is retweet my tweet about it and I’ll randomly select one of you by next update (only 1 person retweeted it last time, so your chances are really good!!).