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Chester Alan Arthur
The American Presidents Series: The 21st President, 1881-1885
The American Presidents
Zachary Karabell; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor
Times Books, June 2004
ISBN: 978-0-8050-6951-8, ISBN10: 0-8050-6951-8,
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 192 pages, Includes one black and white photograph,
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United States: 1860 to 1900
United States & Canada
Chester Alan Arthur never dreamed that one day he would be president of the United States. He had enjoyed a long and successful career as a lawyer and Republican Party operative in New York City, where he served as collector of customs for the Port of New York, the biggest plum on the tree of political patronage. But in 1878 a power struggle between two wings of the Republican Party resulted in Arthur's forced removal from his post. The controversy made him a political celebrity and led to his nomination for vice president—despite his never having run for office before.
Elected with James A. Garfield in 1880, Arthur found his life transformed just months into his term, when an assassin shot and killed Garfield, catapulting Arthur into the presidency. The assassin was a deranged man who thought he deserved a federal job through the corrupt "spoils system." To the surprise of many, Arthur, a longtime beneficiary of that system, saw that the time had come for reform. His opportunity came in the winter of 1882-83, when he played a crucial role in the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which created a professional civil service and set America on a course toward greater reforms in the decades to come.
Chester Arthur may be one of our lesser-known chief executives, but Zachary Karabell, the author of several highly regarded works of American and world history, shows how this president of whom so little was expected rose to the occasion when fate placed him in the White House. Arthur grew in office, frustrated those who demanded special treatment, and left the presidency in better shape than he found it. In many ways, he was an exceptional president who deserves more from history than he has received.
"Remarkably detailed [and displaying a] breezy writing style."—
"Though popular precisely because he represented a moderate balance between two competing wings within the GOP, Arthur ran afoul of powerful rivals, including Rutherford B. Hayes, U.S. Grant, and James Blaine, the last of whom essentially forced Arthur out of the White House after he served out Garfield's term. Arthur's tenure was not without its accomplishments, Karabell dutifully writes, including a thoroughgoing reform of the civil-service system to professionalize the government and reduce favoritism."—
"Presidents come no more obscure than Arthur; in this American Presidents series volume, Karabell shows why. Arthur's papers were destroyed shortly after his death, which makes guesswork out of ascertaining his thoughts about his administration. More important to his least-known status is the fact that he didn't want or expect to be president. A consummate Republican Party hack, he obtained the then-enormously important position of U.S. customs collector in New York via the then-legal political spoils system. Asked to be Garfield's 1880 running mate, he dutifully obliged. Inaugurated in March 1881, Garfield was shot in July and died in September: Arthur was president. He rose to the occasion, angering Republican bosses, but didn't sacrifice the short working day to which he was accustomed. His light management style was okay for an era in which presidential politics mattered far less, his reform of the still-new civil service was a crucial early step toward 'big government' in the twentieth century, and most important, Karabell suggests, he was a gentleman among knaves."—
"Chester Alan Arthur is one of the forgotten presidents. His reputation is neither bad nor good; instead, it is almost nonexistent. But though he was an accidental president at an inopportune time, he is part of the tapestry of who we are—more than most ever have been or most of us ever will be. It is rare to have the chance to write about an influential historical figure about whom so little is known, and that makes Arthur an appealing subject. It turns out that he was also an appealing person, a man of grace and dignity who surpassed expectations, calmed a restless country, and helped end the corrupt system of political patronage that brought him to power."—
Zachary Karabell on Chester Alan Arthur
About the Author(s)
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
is the author of several award-winning works of American and world history, including
The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election
A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams and What Lies Ahead
Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal
. He has taught at Harvard and Dartmouth, and his essays and reviews have appeared in
The New York Times
Los Angeles Times
. He lives in New York City.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
, is the preeminent political historian of our time. The recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities Medal, he published the first volume of his autobiography,
A Life in the Twentieth Century
, in 2000.
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