Scott Greenberger's Founders Day remarks

Greenberger is author of “The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur”
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Scott Greenberger's Founders Day remarks


Scott Greenberger

Thank you Chairman Kelly, President Ainlay, trustees, faculty, staff and students. It’s an honor to be here to help mark Founders Day.

I’ll start by setting a scene.

In the United States, amazing new technologies are creating vast fortunes—but only for a select few. Many other Americans are stuck in poverty, and the gap between rich and poor has grown to an unprecedented level.

Large corporations and the super-rich are exerting tremendous influence on the political process, using money and lobbyists to bend government policy to their benefit. Reformers believe that the money sloshing around in politics is a threat to American democracy.

Immigrants are transforming the country. Slavery is a thing of the past, but African Americans still face discrimination, and they still struggle for their civil rights.

The previous president of the United States, a family man from the Midwest with impressive academic credentials and high morals, had come out of nowhere to win the presidency.

His replacement couldn’t be more different. The new president, a Republican, is a wealthy New Yorker who made a chunk of his fortune in shady real estate deals. He enjoys living the high life, and takes great pride in wearing the finest clothes, and eating and drinking the best that money can buy.

The country is shocked that this man has landed on the threshold of the highest office in the land – but no more shocked than he is. In his heart, he fears that he is unqualified for the job – and most of his countrymen, even many Republicans, agree with him. His only loyalty, they fear, is to his friends and to himself.

Big-city elites are especially horrified. They mock the new president as unfit for the Oval Office. They say he’s corrupt, a criminal who belongs in jail, not the White House. Even some of the people around the new president fear that he is mentally unbalanced, and that he may be on the verge of an emotional collapse.

Leading newspapers fear for the future of the Republic. The Chicago Tribune laments “a pending calamity of the utmost magnitude.” The New York Times calls him “about the last man who would be considered eligible” for the presidency.

I should note that this man also has remarkable hair.

I’m speaking, of course, about the situation in America in the summer of 1881, and our 21st present, Chester Alan Arthur.

Arthur often lands on lists of the most obscure presidents. To tell the truth, based on a regular poll of college students, he is the most obscure. Few Americans know anything about him, and even history buffs mostly recall him for his distinctive facial hair, those magnificent mutton-chop sideburns.

Sure, many people flock to Arthur’s former home at 123 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, a brownstone that still stands. But they are there to shop at Kalustyan's, a store that sells Indian and Middle Eastern spices and foods, not to see the only site in New York City where a president took the oath of office. Arthur’s statue in Madison Square Park, erected by his friends in 1899, is ignored.

So why write a book about Chester Arthur? Believe it or not, I get that question a lot. Though not here at Union, of course!

The easy answer is: Somebody had to do it. As my brother said, “any fool can write about Lincoln.”

I don’t want to disparage Doris Kearns Goodwin, and I readily acknowledge that Abe Lincoln is a worthy subject for biographers.

But so is Chester Arthur.

Arthur because he rose to prominence and served as president during a crucial period in American history – one with many parallels to our own time. We frequently dissect and rehash the events of the Civil War (and rightly so), but we often ignore the crucial decades immediately following the war. We shouldn’t. The social, political, and economic changes that shook America during the 1870s and 1880s were the birth pangs of the society we have today.

Arthur became president 136 years ago, but the era Mark Twain dubbed the “Gilded Age” doesn’t feel distant at a time when political corruption, economic inequality, and corporate malfeasance are once again shaking people’s faith in the American experiment.

Arthur also has an amazing story – one that has been almost entirely forgotten.

He was born in Vermont in 1829, the son of a rigid abolitionist preacher. Even in the North, abolitionism was not popular the first decades of the 19th century, and Arthur’s father—known as Elder Arthur—was so outspoken and uncompromising in his beliefs that he was kicked out of several congregations, forcing him to move his family from town to town in Vermont and upstate New York.

In the summer of 1844, the Arthurs moved to Schenectady, where Elder Arthur became pastor of the First Baptist Church.

Schenectady was struggling economically, but it had two well-respected educational institutions: the Lyceum and Academy, and Union College.

As a teenager, Chester continued his formal education at the Lyceum, which was housed in a three-story octagonal building at the corner of Union and Yates streets. After a year, he enrolled as a sophomore at Union.

The president of the college was Eliphalet Nott, who was in his fifth decade at the helm. Seventy-two years old when Arthur arrived, Nott was a beloved figure who rode around campus in his custom-made three-wheeled carriage. Raised “pious and poor” on a hardscrabble farm in Ashford, Connecticut, Nott spent much of his childhood living and working in the home of his brother Samuel, a Congregationalist minister 19 years his senior. Samuel beat his little brother regularly. When Eliphalet grew up to become a teacher and principal, he made up his mind to “substitute moral motives in the place of the rod” in his own dealings with young people.

From the time he became president of Union in 1804, Nott welcomed the admission of many young men (the college did not admit women) who had been expelled from other institutions, earning Union the nickname of “Botany Bay,” a reference to the first planned penal colony in Australia.

Nott believed in instilling self-discipline in young men, rather than subjecting them to strict external control.

“Disgraceful punishments are not inflicted,” the course catalogue assured Arthur and his fellow students, a group that included a future governor of Pennsylvania, a future Tammany mayor of New York City, and James Roosevelt, whose son Franklin would lead the country through depression and war. “But no young man who indulges in gaming, intemperance, or other vice, who is absent from his room at night, or who habitually neglects his studies, can be allowed to remain.”

Union was non-denominational, but it was firmly Christian. Monday through Saturday, the 300 students were required to attend morning prayers (about 10 minutes) and late afternoon prayers (about 20 minutes) in the college chapel, and on Sundays they had to attend services in a local church designated by their parents.

Each day started at 6:30 a.m., when bells rung across campus to awaken students for early morning prayers, which began at 7 a.m. After that students attended the first recitation, then breakfast, study at 9 a.m., another recitation at 11 a.m., study at 1 p.m., another recitation at 4 p.m., and study at 7 p.m.

The unpopular bells were a frequent target of student mischief. In one incident, students “offended with the bell-ringer” tried to blow up the South Colonnade bell in the middle of the night. Another time, students stole the clapper and left it on President Nott’s doorstep. Chester, known to his classmates as Chet, was an eager participant in such pranks. He once threw the West College bell into the Erie Canal, and he carved his name at least twice into college buildings. He was fined for breaking a pane of glass, and for skipping out on chapel. During his senior year, he had to pay a hefty 50-cent fine for writing in ink in a book.

In addition to being an educator, Nott was a well-known inventor who had patented 30 different kinds of stoves and designed an innovative steamship boiler. Under his leadership, Union became one of the first colleges in the United States to offer courses of study in natural science and engineering. But Chet opted for the traditional classical curriculum, which meant three years poring over Horace, Thucydides, Cicero, and Homer in the original Greek and Latin.

Like all Union students, in his senior year Chet took a class taught by Nott, which was nominally based on the 1762 book Elements of Criticism by the Scottish jurist Henry Home, or Lord Kames. In fact, it was a lesson in independent thinking, and it became so famous that students transferred to Union just to take it.

Nott wanted students to “believe nothing merely because it is asserted by any author.” William James Sullivan, a Union student who took Nott’s course the same year Arthur did, remembered it as “a perpetual contest of our wits against his; he showed us the shallowness of our acquisitions, and dissected mercilessly both textbook and the responses to the questions he had drawn from it, admitting nothing and pushing the pupil perpetually into the deeper water as soon as he began to think his foot had touched firm land.”

Slender and sociable, with fashionably long hair and a cheerful disposition, Chet was popular among his classmates. He was elected to one of the social fraternities, Psi Upsilon, and was president of the Delphian Institute, a debating society. Though not a particularly diligent student, he still ranked high in his class. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa—though a third of his 78 classmates were, too.

Arthur’s graduation ceremony in July 1848 featured 44 student orations, in addition to prayers, Greek and Latin salutatories, four musical interludes, and the awarding of the degrees. Chet, the eleventh speaker, spoke on the “The Destiny of Genius.”

After graduating from Union, Arthur studied law and worked as a teacher and principal in North Pownal, Vermont, and in Cohoes, New York, about a half-hour drive from where we are now.

But Arthur wanted to paint on a broader canvas. So in 1853, he did what many ambitious young men do – he moved to New York City. Once there he became a lawyer, joining the firm of a friend of his father’s, who was also a staunch abolitionist.

He started out on the right path. As a young attorney, Arthur won the case that desegregated New York City’s streetcars. During the Civil War, when many were enriching themselves on government contracts, he was an honest and efficient quartermaster for the Union army.

But in the years following the war, Arthur’s quest for power and wealth led him down a darker road.

Arthur became a top lieutenant to U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling, the all-powerful boss of the New York Republican machine. At Conkling’s urging, in 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur collector of the New York Custom House, the largest single federal office in the nation and a valuable font of jobs and favors that was rotten with corruption.

When the Custom House fined merchants for violations, “Chet” Arthur took a cut. He lived in a world of Tiffany silver, fine carriages and grand balls, and had his Prince Albert coats and high hats imported from London. He owned at least 80 pairs of trousers. When an old college classmate told him his Custom House deputy was corrupt, Chet waved him away. “You are one of those goody-goody fellows who set up a high standard of morality that other people cannot reach,” he said.

Arthur held on to his lucrative post until 1878, when reform-minded President Rutherford B. Hayes, a fellow Republican, fired him.

Arthur’s political career seemed to be over. But in June 1880, GOP leaders resurrected it. When Republicans gathered in Chicago to pick their presidential nominee, James Garfield, a long-time congressman, upset former president Grant and emerged as the surprise choice. Party elders were desperate to appease Conkling, a Grant supporter, in order to secure his help in winning New York. The second place on the ticket seemed to be a safe spot for one of Conkling’s flunkys. Garfield was young and vigorous, and most believed that a Conkling man could do less damage as vice president than in many other posts. They chose Arthur as the vice presidential nominee, and the Republicans triumphed in November.

Just a few months into Garfield’s presidency – presidents then assumed office in March – on the morning of July 2, 1881, a deranged office-seeker named Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield in a Washington railroad station. To Arthur’s horror, when Guiteau was arrested immediately afterward, he proclaimed his support for the Arthur/Conkling wing of the Republican party – which had been resisting Garfield’s reform attempts – and expressed satisfaction that Arthur would now be president. Some newspapers even accused Arthur and Conkling of conspiring to kill Garfield!

Garfield survived the shooting, but he was mortally wounded. For months, as he lay dying in the White House, Americans prayed for their fallen leader and trembled at the thought of Conkling’s stooge leading the nation.

Prominent diplomat and historian Andrew Dickson White later wrote: “It was a common saying of that time among those who knew him best, ‘Chet Arthur President of the United States! Good God!’”

Arthur had never coveted the presidency, and could not conceive of leading the country. When newspapers accused him of conspiring to kill Garfield, he avoided appearing in public, fearing his own life might be in danger. His friends worried he was on the verge of an emotional collapse.

But at the end of August 1881, as Garfield’s condition deteriorated, Arthur received a letter from a fellow New Yorker, a bedridden 31-year-old woman named Julia Sand.

Sand was the unmarried eighth daughter of Christian Henry Sand, a German immigrant who rose to become president of the Metropolitan Gas Light Company of New York. Since 1880 she had lived at 46 East 74th Street, which was owned by her brother Theodore V. Sand, a banker. As the pampered daughter of a wealthy father, Julia read French, enjoyed poetry, and vacationed in Saratoga and Newport. But by the time she wrote Arthur she was an invalid, plagued by spinal pain and other ailments that kept her at home. As a woman Julia was excluded from public life, but she followed politics closely through the newspapers, and she had an especially keen interest in Chester Arthur.

Arthur had never met Sand, or even heard of her. They were complete strangers. But her words moved him.

“The hours of Garfield’s life are numbered—before this meets your eye, you may be President,” the letter began. “The people are bowed in grief; but—do you realize it?—not so much because he is dying, as because you are his successor.”

“What president ever entered office under circumstances so sad! The day he was shot, the thought rose in a thousand minds that you might be the instigator of the foul act. Is not that a humiliation which cuts deeper than any bullet can pierce? Your best friends said: “Arthur must resign—he cannot accept office, with such a suspicion resting upon him.” And now your kindest opponents say: “Arthur will try to do right”—adding gloomily, “He won’t succeed, though—making a man President cannot change him.”

Julia Sand did not share that pessimistic view. “But making a man President can change him!” she declared. “Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine.”

“Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you—but not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult & more brave. Reform! It is not the proof of highest goodness never to have done wrong—but it is a proof of it, sometime in one’s career, to pause & ponder, to recognize the evil, to turn resolutely against it & devote the remainder of one’s life to that only which is pure & exalted. Such resolutions of the soul are not common. No step towards them is easy. In the humdrum drift of daily life, they are impossible. But once in a while there comes a crisis which renders miracles feasible. The great tidal wave of sorrow which has rolled over the country has swept you loose from your old moorings and set you on a mountain top, alone.”

The “reform” that Julia Sand was most concerned about was civil service reform. Under the so-called “spoils system,” politicians doled out government jobs to loyal party hacks, regardless of their qualifications.

The nation’s intellectual elite believed that without civil service reform, American democracy was doomed. They wanted to destroy the spoils system, to root out patronage and award federal jobs based on competitive examinations, not political connections or contributions. Now, after more than a decade of struggle, they watched in horror as Roscoe Conkling’s puppet prepared to bring the worst features of New York machine politics into the White House.

Sand believed that Arthur’s actions—or failure to act—on civil service reform would define his presidency. “The vital question before the country is civil service reform,” she wrote to Arthur in January 1883. “The vital question before you is how you will meet it.”

“Evasion in any form will be a proof of weakness. Yet if you fight the rampant evil—though more than half the country will back you—you will do it at your own risk. Are you a coward? Do you fear to face the same danger that Garfield faced? It is for you to choose. Are you content to sit, like a snake charmer, & let loathsome serpents coil about you, priding yourself on it that not one of them dares sting you? I would rather think of you, like St. George, in shining armor, striking death to the heart of the dragon.”

Still, it seemed unlikely, if not impossible, that Chester Arthur would disavow the spoils system that had been the whole basis of his political career.

As vice president, Arthur had not hesitated to use his position to help his New York cronies, and Conkling and his associates looked forward to reaping the benefits of his elevation to president. But they underestimated the impact of Garfield’s suffering and death on their old friend.

Arthur was no longer the man he had been before Garfield was shot in July 1881. As president he shocked everybody and became an unlikely champion of civil service reform, laying the groundwork for the progressive presidents, especially Teddy Roosevelt, who came after him. He also began the much-needed rebuilding of the U.S. Navy, which set us on the road to becoming a world power.

Julia Sand continued to write to Arthur throughout 1882 and 1883, and the president heeded much of her advice—and even paid her a surprise visit at her home at 46 East 74th Street.

Before concluding, I want to read one more letter that I love, because it is a striking illustration of Julia Sand’s incredible intimacy with the president of the United States.

“Are you offended with me—really—seriously? Do the few harsh things that I have said to you outweigh all else—the fact that for a whole year I have thought of & felt with you in your cares & perplexities—that last summer, when you were bowed down in gloom & seemed almost broken in spirit, I did my best to arouse your manhood & your courage—that I had faith in you, when hardly anyone who had the welfare of the country at heart, hoped anything good of you? I did not ask you to answer my letters, for I knew you could not speak to me on the subjects I chose to discuss—but it never crossed my mind, till now, that you distrusted me.”

Ashamed of his pre-White House political career, Arthur ordered that most of his papers be burned upon his death—but he spared Sand’s letters, 23 of which reside at the Library of Congress.

Arthur would not serve a second term. He had earned the enmity of his old machine buddies without winning reformers’ trust, so he had no natural base of support. He also secretly suffered from Bright’s disease, a debilitating kidney ailment that may have dampened his enthusiasm for serving another four years. In any case, the GOP did not nominate him in 1884.

By the time he left the White House in March 1885, however, the public’s perception of him had been transformed. “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired from the highest civil trust of the world more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe,” one newspaper editor wrote.

Mark Twain, who certainly was not afraid to mock politicians, observed, "[I]t would be hard indeed to better President Arthur's administration."

So if Arthur was so great, why has everybody forgotten about him?

I’ve already alluded to two reasons – he burned his papers, creating a challenge for historians, and he served during an era that is foggy in the minds of most Americans. He also was very suspicious of the press, after the way they had treated him during the summer of 1881, and he did little to cultivate the reporters who covered him.

But Arthur’s story is an important part of American history. And the story of his transformation – his redemption – is timeless.

Many people make moral compromises as they strive for wealth and power. The challenge of reconciling one’s ethics with one’s ambition resonates in the 21st century just as it did in the 19th century – and every other period of human history.

Shortly before the 2016 election, then-President Barack Obama warned voters that the presidency doesn’t change a person. “Who you are, what you are, it doesn’t change after you occupy the Oval Office,” he said. “It magnifies who you are. It shines a spotlight on who you are.”

After more than a year, it’s hard to argue that the presidency has changed Donald Trump.

But the story of Chester Alan Arthur calls into question Obama’s view. His redemption in the White House suggests that the presidency can change a person – at least, it did once.

Thank you very much.

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