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Chester Alan Arthur: The American Presidents Series: The 21st President, 1881-1885 Hardcover – June 21, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Series: The American Presidents
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books; 1St Edition edition (June 21, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805069518
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805069518
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #266,657 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Andrew S. Rogers VINE VOICE on August 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Zachary Karabell set a challenge for himself, no question: Take one of America's most forgotten presidents and try to find enough to say about him to fill a book -- even one fitting the relatively short length of the titles in The American Presidents series. And give the man credit, he's done it. More than that, he even makes a case for Arthur as -- if still not quite memorable, let alone important -- at least somewhat interesting.

Karabell's challenge was made all the greater by the shadows surrounding Arthur's personal life. Not only did Arthur prefer it that way himself (p. 108), but most of his personal papers were destroyed shortly after his death. Consequently, Arthur the man is a little thin in these pages ("thin" being an adjective probably never applied to Arthur himself during his lifetime). But while anyone looking for People Magazine-style "hidden secrets" about our twenty-first president is bound to be disappointed, the author more than makes up for this with a fine capsule portrayal of the Gilded Age and its politics. This is important, for Arthur was very much a man and a politician of his time.

Indeed, the most noteworthy part of Arthur's term in office was his own transformation from "Gentleman Boss" to simply "Gentleman." Despite his history as the veritable poster boy of spoils-system, backroom machine politicking, Arthur "grew in office," as we'd say today, into perhaps one of the best men to help shepherd through important civil service reforms. Karabell argues, I think convincingly, that the new political culture Arthur helped create still affects us today.

Chester Alan Arthur wasn't a crusader or a firebrand. He wasn't driven by a lust for power or glory.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Steven A. Peterson TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Chester Alan Arthur was a surprise president. He was selected to run for VEEP from pure political reasons. However, he fell into the presidency and, against many fears, did not mess up in that office. As the author states (Page 143): ". . .some men are neither born great, nor achieve greatness, nor have it thrust upon them. Some people just do the best they can in a difficult situation, and sometimes that turns out just fine."

Chester Arthur was one of the United States' "accidental presidents," thrust into office because of the assassination of James Garfield. This book, as others in the series, provides a thumbnail sketch of Arthur (text is 143 pages long). Born in Vermont, his family moved to New York when he was ten years old. He began his political work as a bureaucrat and patronage administrator. While he was enmeshed in the "spoils system," he was not corrupt and was generally pretty well liked. In 1871, he received a coveted position--collector of the New York customhouse. He earned plenty in that role.

Comes the 1880 presidential race. Garfield, a "dark horse," won the nomination and Arthur was selected as his V-P partner, as a result of torturous Republican politics. And he had never been elected to any office prior to that!

The Republicans won, Garfield was assassinated, and Arthur became president. One comment says a great deal, when someone said (Page 61): "Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!" Against the expectations of many, he served without any great errors, and with some positive contributions. (1) While he did not take an active role, he did sign the Pendleton Law, providing Civil Service reform. (2) He did take steps to modernize the embarrassing United States Navy. (3) He was involved with reducing the tariff. (4) Etc.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By E. E Pofahl on December 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The author, Zachary Karabell, writes an interesting, brief biography of Chester Alan Arthur the obscure 21st president of the United States. The text states "Chester Alan Arthur hadn't wanted to become the nation's chief executive. He certainly hadn't aspired to be vice president" and Karabell further notes "....Chester Alan Arthur may have the distinction of being the president who derived the least amount of pleasure from being president." Prior to becoming vice president he had been custom collector for the Port of New York, a well-paid lawyer and head of the New York Republican Party but had never been elected to public office.

He ran as Garfield's vice president in 1880, a campaign notable for what it lacked; "It was a contest of organization and will, not a battle over the future direction of the country." Ideology was ignored with politicians viewing "order as the most important good." With Garfield's assassination, Arthur became president on September 20, 1881. The text notes "No one knew what direction the Arthur administration would take, not even Arthur himself" and observes "As it turned out, the qualities he did possess allowed him to rise farther than many others who were more intelligent, dynamic, and driven."

He was president in an era when "the White House had shed much of the power it had acquired during the Civil War" and each national election was a patronage contest. The assassination of Garfield placed the issue of civil service reform on the front burner. The response was the Pendleton Civil Service Act, the most memorable legislation to emerge from Arthur's presidency. Zachary Karabell's account of Arthur's presidency is brief but informative.
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