Synopses & Reviews
The Gilded Age bon vivant who became America's unlikeliest chief executive-and who presided over a sweeping reform of the system that nurtured him
Chester Alan Arthur never dreamed that one day he would be president of the United States. A successful lawyer, Arthur had been forced out as the head of the Custom House of the Port of New York in 1877 in a power struggle between the two wings of the Republican Party. He became such a celebrity that he was nominated for vice president in 1880-despite his never having run for office before.
Elected alongside James A. Garfield, Arthur found his life transformed just four 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 increasingly 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 pushed through the Pendleton 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 largely forgotten today, but Zachary Karabell eloquently shows how this unexpected president-of whom so little was expected-rose to the occasion when fate placed him in the White House.
"'Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!' is a refrain that punctuates this new biography of the 21st president, the latest in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s American Presidents series. Readers today may confess bewilderment rather than surprise Chester who? but this brief but masterful portrait of Arthur's life and times deserves an attentive audience. Karabell (The Last Campaign; Parting the Desert), freely admits his mission impossible: to rescue his subject from the dustbin of history occupied by obscure late 19th-century presidents, more famous for their facial hair than their tenures in office. Despite limited archival materials (Arthur's papers were destroyed after his death), Karabell tackles this task with considerable literary aplomb. Charting a career that catapulted Arthur to the presidency after James Garfield's assassination, Karabell investigates whether Arthur was an active reformer or a mere 'placeholder.' To frame this challenge, he explores the post-Civil War era's simmering politics, which hinged on the 'spoils system,' a long-entrenched formula whereby victorious politicians distributed federal and state jobs to supporters and cronies, later mining their appointees' pockets for future campaign 'contributions.' When calls for reform peaked, Arthur spurned the system that spawned him and signed the landmark Pendleton Civil Service Act, which launched the professionalization of the federal bureaucracy, replacing patronage with merit-based examinations. But Arthur was not a true reformist; in the end, Karabell says, he simply 'conducted himself with honor when politics was venal and petty.' Karabell also salutes the wealthy gourmand as a White House style-maker in a league with Jacqueline Kennedy. Arthur spruced up the dour mansion, in part by hiring the then-unknown decorator Louis Comfort Tiffany. By exploring the Gilded Age's parallels with our own divisive political scene, Karabell does an excellent job of cementing the volume's relevance for contemporary readers." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
About the Author
is the author of several works of American and world history, including The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election
and Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal
. He has taught at Harvard and Dartmouth, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times
, and Newsweek
. He lives in New York City.