In poll after poll of rankings of U.S. presidents, Union’s own Chester A. Arthur is typically near the bottom. Few Americans are familiar with his story, and he appears destined to be known more for his prominent mutton-chop sideburns than his political acumen.
But there may be a shift in Arthur’s standing as one of history’s most obscure presidents.
Thanks to journalist Scott Greenberger, Arthur, a member of the Class of 1848, was the focal point Thursday when the campus community gathered in Memorial Chapel for Founders Day. The event commemorated the 223rd anniversary of the College’s charter, the first granted to a college by the Board of Regents of the State of New York.
Author of “The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur,” Greenberger provided an encyclopedic overview of the life and legacy of the country’s 21st president.
It is a story of redemption.
Greenberger shared anecdotes of Arthur’s time at Union. Known as “Chet” to his classmates, the tall, popular and fashionably conscious Arthur pursued the traditional classical curriculum. He was a member of Psi Upsilon and the Delphian Institute debating society. He was elected into Phi Beta Kappa his senior year. At graduation, for his oratory, he spoke on “The Destiny of Genius.”
He also had a mischievous streak.
“He once threw the West College bell into the Erie Canal, and he carved his name at least twice into college buildings,” Greenberger said. “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.”
After Union, Arthur moved to New York City to practice law. He served as a quartermaster general for the Union army during the Civil War.
“But in the years following the war, Arthur’s quest for power and wealth led him down a darker road,” said Greenberger, executive editor of Stateline, the daily news service of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
He became a flunky of the powerful and corrupt New York Republican machine. Later, when it seemed like his political career was fading, he was nominated to be James Garfield’s vice president in 1880. And when Garfield was assassinated in 1881, Arthur became the unexpected president. Americans trembled at the thought of the seedy, inexperienced Arthur leading the nation.
Yet the enormity of the office changed him. This was due, in part, to the suffering and death of Garfield. A series of letters from an admirer named Julia Sand also played a role. A fellow New Yorker, she offered counsel and wisdom to Arthur, urging him to seize the moment for the good of the country. He heeded her advice.
“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,” Greenberger said. “He also began the much-needed rebuilding of the U.S. Navy, which set us on the road to becoming a world power.”
Arthur died from a kidney ailment at his home in New York City on Nov. 18, 1886, a year-and-a-half after leaving office. But the story of his transformation is timeless, Greenberger said.
He recalled the warning shortly before the 2016 election from then-President Barack Obama that the presidency doesn’t change a person, “it magnifies who you are.”
“After more than a year it’s hard to argue that the presidency has changed Donald Trump,” Greenberger argued. “But the story of Chester 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.”
Greenberger's complete remarks can be found here.
In his final Founders Day greeting, President Stephen C. Ainlay reminded the audience that it was also the 100th anniversary of the death of Andrew Van Vranken Raymond, a member of the Class of 1875 and the ninth president of the College. He initiated what is now known as Founders Day.
“Many have argued that he saved Union College, plagued as it was with in-fighting, fiscal woes, facility needs and declining enrollments before he took the position,” Ainlay said.
“As president, he sold off assets to reduce debt, recruited a first class faculty (including Charles Steinmetz), convinced Frank Bailey to serve as College treasurer, and convinced Andrew Carnegie to help build what is today the Reamer Campus Center and what was then a general engineering building. He also convinced GE to help build an electrical engineering facility. Let us remember him today as representative of the many people who poured their hearts and souls into ensuring this institution not only survived but thrived.”
Also at Founders Day, Stephanie Nichols, a math specialist and former math teacher at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., was presented with the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award. Named for the 1809 graduate of Union who was New York State’s first superintendent of public education, the award is given to secondary school teachers who have had a continuing influence on the academic life of Union students.
Nichols was nominated by Sophie Huther ‘20, a mechanical engineering major and visual arts minor.
The ceremony also featured the Union College Choir, led by Shou Ping Liu, lecturer in choral and orchestra music and director of performance, performing a traditional Jewish tune, Hine Ma Tov. It featured Palma Catravas, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, on piano and Norman Thibodeau on flute.
The celebration opened with remarks from William A. Finlay, College marshal and chair of the Theater and Dance Department; John E. Kelly III ’76, chair of the College’s Board of Trustees; Peter Bedford, the John and Jane Wold Professor of Religious Studies and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee; and Jasmine Nakkab ’18, president of Student Forum.
The hour-long ceremony concluded with Ode to Old Union, led on organ by Professor of Music and College organist Dianne McMullen.
Scott Greenberger, the author of “The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur,” was the keynote speaker.