23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
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. In fact, Karabell describes him as perhaps America's most reluctant president -- a man who never in his life wanted to be chief executive. He slipped back into obscurity almost as soon as he left office, and if anything is even more forgotten today. But "in an age of low expectations, he was more than satisfactory" (p. 139). That the author is able to make that case, not only convincingly but interestingly and even sometimes entertainingly as well, is a credit to him as well as to his subject.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
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. Perhaps more important, he made no major blunders (as many had expected).
He was diagnosed with a dreadful disease, Bright's Disease, which made the last part of his stint as President miserable. While he would have liked another term, such was not to be. He left the presidency with dignity, but with a disease that doomed him.
All in all, a nice biography of a little known and not very great president--but one who did not make things worse than when he entered office.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 9, 2004
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. Besides civil service reform, the text covers Arthur's handling of Indian affairs, the Anti-Chinese sentiment, and his veto of the Rivers and Harbors Bill. However, in 1882 the Republicans lost control of the House and Arthur's chances for a second term were slim. Perhaps Author's most important contribution to the country was his resuscitation of the military. The army was somewhat sustained because of the Indian wars, but in less than twenty years since the Civil War, the navy had lost almost 90 percent of its ships. Arthur emphatically supported a plan to build ships "designed for offense and attack" and the text notes without Arthur "....[Teddy] Roosevelt and McKinley might not have had a navy capable of annihilating the Spanish in 1898." In addition, this helped to prepare the United States for the foreign affair challenges of the twentieth century.
Having lost his base support, Arthur was not nominated for a second term. The 1884 election was won by Grover Cleveland, a Democrat. As he left office Arthur was the object of warm political eulogies and the author writes "Arthur had become president with perilously low expectations, which he then exceeded. In essence, most people concluded that the Arthur administration hadn't been half bad." He died at age 56 less than two years after leaving office.
In conclusion, Karabell states Arthur "....tried to serve the general good rather than the interest of his faction..." and he "....did for civil service reform what he had done for most things in his life: he added a note of grace and honor, and the result was a balanced piece of legislation at a time when that was rare." The author concludes "In everything he did, Chester Alan Arthur was a gentleman and that is rare and precious" and closes stating "Arthur managed to be a decent man, a decent president in an era when decency was in short supply."
Americans would do well to read this brief biography of a somewhat obscure, laidback; but decent, honest, gentleman president.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2010
This is the fourth presidential bio I've read (fifth if you count Dark Horse by Ken Ackerman, which I don't), as well as a biography on William Jennings Bryan and the memoirs of "Uncle" Joe Cannon, a former Speaker of the House. (This is also the third I've read of the American Presidents series.) This is my favorite, and that is due to Karabell's creative writing. Not creative in revising history but creative in his writing style.
Karabell does a great job with description. Though I've read other books that mentioned the feud between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, I didn't really know its origins or what it was about until reading this book. I also smiled when one individual was described as a 6'3" peacock. Additonally, Karabell ended his chapters in a way that created interest in reading on, which is unique among the bios I've read.
Was Arthur a great president? No, but he was a president, and this book helped me appreciate his limited place in history. We too often focus on the people who accomplished the most, and neglect the fact that even those considered unexciting or "mediocre" are of value as well.
As a minister, I was curious about Arthur's faith, which Karabell didn't deal much with. Arthur was a Baptist Minister's son, and married in an Episcopalian church, but did his faith have an impact on his life, especially following Garfield's assassination? Maybe I'll never know this side of heaven.
Two more things I'll mention. First, two of the three books in this series I read helped make lesser known presidents become better appreciated (McKinley was the other; Hayes' was more boring). Second, this book pointed out that things haven't changed much, with immigration, pork barrel spending, and complex tax codes being in common between Arthur's days and ours.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2008
I've read most of the books in this series and, along with Ted Widmer's volume on Martin Van Buren, I consider Zachary Karabell's story of Chester Alan Arthur among the most pleasant surprises of the list.
At the outset, Karabell concedes the challenge he faces in bringing Arthur and his presidency to life: "Arthur belongs to two select, and not altogether proud, clubs: presidents who came to office because of the sudden death of their predecessor, and presidents whose historical reputation is neither great, nor terrible, nor remarkable."
But Karabell nonetheless succeeds in crafting a most enjoyable read. The secret I think is Karabell's careful elaboration of Arthur's era, the context of the times, that being the post-Civil War era, a time of ideological fatigue, much like another later, tumultuous period after the first world war that would be described as a "return to normalcy". In that sense, Arthur, who grew up in New York, was very much a man of his times.
Arthur became a firm party man, but not an ideologue. Nor was he a controversial leader or front man. Arthur was instead the consumate "insider", loyal to his patrons, first New York's governor Edwin Morgan, and later, that state's U.S. Senator, Roscoe Conkling. As a largely behind the scenes man, Arthur excelled at organizing, raising money, and handling people. He ultimately arose in the state's party to become the Collector of the New York Customs House, a critical post at the time, responsible for handling much of the country's world trade and in the era before income taxes, much of the federal government's revenue. It was a lucrative position, but one which would become an early, central focus of the civil service reform battles through the 1870's and '80's.
Prior to his nomination as vice-president on the ticket headed by James A. Garfield in 1880, Arthur had never been elected to, or ever run for, any public office; rather, Arthur held a series of appointed positions and benefited greatly from that era's patronage, or spoils, policies, practiced by both political parties.
But the spoils era was fast coming to an end, and ironically Arthur would be on hand to help usher in a new period of a more professionalized public service. The shooting death of President Garfield by someone originally thought to be a "disgruntled office-seeker" in 1881, followed by large gains by the Democrats in Congress in the 1882 elections, led to the passing in Congress of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in January of 1883. Arthur, the poster-child of party patronage, signed the bill into law. Although it initially covered only a small portion of the federal workforce, the Pendleton Act set the stage for the greater standardization of the civil service in later years and helped end the spoils system.
Long used to acting behind the scenes to more well-known political leaders, Arthur nonetheless asserted himself once he inherited the presidency. Arthur largely kept his former patron, Conkling, out of the patronage loop upon taking office. He also accepted the resignations of most of Garfield's cabinet--including that of the all-important James G. Blaine, Secretary of State, giving himself the opportunity to choose his own cabinet. Arthur also vetoed a popular, anti-immigrant bill, objecting to its interference with the nation's existing diplomatic relations with China, and vetoed a pork-barrel internal improvements bill as being too expensive and inequitable. Arthur also objected to a bill in Congress to provide former, and indebted, President Grant the rank and salary of an active general. Arthur opposed the bill on the grounds that the appointment of generals fell under the executive's purview and to accede to the legislation would weaken executive authority. Thankfully, but essentially too late to do much good, Arthur did approve an enhanced pension for the former general and president, albeit shortly before Grant died.
Like his predecessors and most of his initial successors, however, Arthur took no action in aiding the former slaves in the South or ensuring fairer treatment for the Indians of the Plains as America continued to expand across the continent. Not that there existed the administrative capacity or public will for Arthur (or any other chief executives of the era) to have done so, had he wanted to. Arthur did, however, publicly state his opposition to a Supreme Court ruling overturning the Civil Rights Act of 1875. But beyond that Arthur did not rise above the politics of the era or any further ways distinguish himself. Arthur's political style did not create great opposition, but nor did it lend itself to strong support or passion. Consequently, Arthur failed to be renominated in 1884. The Republicans nominated Garfield's former Secretary of State, James G. Blaine of Maine, instead, and Blaine went on to lose the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
Arthur returned to New York to practice law in 1885, but an existing kidney condition soon incapacitated the former president. Arthur died November 1886, at the age of 57, and was buried in Albany, NY.
Karabell doesn't attempt to recreate Arthur, to make him appear as a heroic visionary. But the picture of Arthur that does emerge is one of a moderate, decent man who faithfully executed the office of president, and presided over a relative period of calmness in the nation's history. And while not noteworthy, sometimes, as Karabell concludes, that is just good enough.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2009
Not many people today know who Chester A. Arthur is. And that's a shame.
Arthur may not have been the greatest president or even a good one, but as Zachary Karabell demonstrates, Arthur deserves as lot
better than to be relegated to forgotten status among the pantheon of our presidents.
Arthur didn't want to be president. He never sought the office. But his is a truly American story. Arthur was a self made man who gained prominence as an attorney then became active in Republican politics in New York state where he ultimately landed the best patronage job the country had to offer - head of the New York customs house. He could have given in to the temptation of the times to steal from the coffers. But he didn't. Arthur's tenure was above board and much praised.
Though he was a party loyalist, Arthur resisted pressure when he ascended to the presidency to bow to party wishes, most notably to his patron Roscoe Conkling, the boss of New York, whom he owed his career to.
Nobody expected much from Arthur as president, but he turned out to have done a good job while in office. He vetoed unfair immigration legislation, and while he didn't introduce civil service reform, put his signature on the bill which effectively ended the spoils system, and undertook to modernize the Navy. Arthur was also a gracious social host while in the White House and a true gentleman.
I learned a lot from this book and found new appreciation for a president that I did not know a lot about. Karabell's writing style is very enjoyable. It breezes along and does an good job capturing the politics of the times. While not a great president, Arthur certainly did nothing to injure the prestige of the office while on his watch and was a competent chief executive.
This is a highly readable and interesting entry in the series and well worth the time.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Not all presidents are created equal. While there are plenty of big name presidents - Washington, Lincoln, FDR, etc. - there are also plenty of obscure ones who are mere footnotes in American history. Chester Arthur definitely fits in this latter category. As Zachary Karabell's brief biography relates, this obscurity is well-deserved. Arthur was neither good nor bad and served in a time that had no real crises.
Arthur spent most of his career in appointed positions, not seeking election until asked to be Garfield's running mate as an attempt to balance the two wings of the Republican party. Arthur was, to be blunt, a party hack, a loyal Republican who may have been honest but was no activist. Instead, Arthur was a realist who rarely let his ideals overwhelm his pragmatism. Accepting the vice presidency only out of party loyalty and with no ambition for the top office; when Garfield was assassinated, Arthur wound up being one of the most reluctant presidents ever.
Arthur did have some redeeming values and occasionally took risks, such as when he vetoed a clearly racist immigration bill. For the most part, however, he rarely pushed his ideas very hard. The most significant legislation to arise during his presidency dealt with civil service reform, but he didn't provide much leadership on the issue. When he did become president, he put the office above party loyalty, which would cost him any chance at the nomination in the next election.
As part of the American Presidents series, this biography is very brief (less that 150 pages) and focuses primarily on Arthur's tenure in office. With these editorial limitations, Karabell is restricted in giving much real details on Arthur, who winds us being a remote character who it's hard to get a feel for. Nonetheless, this is a well-written book and Karabell is able to put Arthur in the context of his times. As an introduction to this minor Chief Executive, this book works well.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2005
The wonderful thing about reading books concerning the US Presidents is that these men represent a finite group.....forty-two men and forty-three presidencies. Writing for "The American Presidents" series, Zachary Karabell has offered up a slightly expanded thumbnail sketch of our twenty-first president, Chester Alan Arthur.
Since Arthur held the office of president, someone has to write about him. The problem with President Arthur is that not much about him survives. Most of his papers were destroyed after his death, so Karabell must rely largely on newspaper accounts of the day mixed in with a few anecdotes regarding the president, which, as the author mentions, may or may not be true.
We know that Arthur was a bon vivant, never aspired to the presidency and was passable at being the chief executive during his tenure from 1881-1885. Indeed, most presidential ratings place Arthur squarely in the middle or slightly below. Even the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883, the most important piece of legislation passed during Arthur's presidency, was not a direct act of Arthur's leadership. (I think one more lasting thing to come out of the Arthur years, which Karabell doesn't touch on, is the adoption of Standard Time)
The author does his best to be fair. The few parts of this book with any real drama are Arthur's dealings with Senators Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine. The president certainly had a balancing act to do with these two bitter adversaries.
Chester Alan Arthur undoubtedly brought style and grace to the presidency and presided over a few relatively quiet and prosperous years in the United States. We should at least give him credit for that.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Chester Arthur (1829 --- 1886) served from 1881 -- 1885 as the 21st president. He became the president upon the assassination of President James Garfield by a deranged individual, Charles Guiteau. Upon his death, Arthur and his presidency were all but forgotten. In his short biography, Chester Alan Arthur" (2004), Zachary Karabell offers an assessment of Arthur's presidency. Karabell is a widely published author on American history with books on the 1948 presidential campaign and the Suez Canal, among other subjects. His book on Chester Arthur is part of the "American Presidents" series edited by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and by Sean Willenz, following Schlesinger's death.
The series aims to offer readers brief introductions to all the American presidents beyond the handful of famous names. The books can be read quickly. The series may indeed be more effective for obscure presidents such as Chester Arthur than for more familiar leaders. Besides introducting the presidents and offering overviews of their history, the series has another goal: to study the qualities of leadership in its various forms. It is valuable to read this books and to think about the qualities that may make for effective leadership at a particular time.
Karabell's book on Chester Arthur fulfills admirably the aim of the series. It is a biography and a history that can be read easily. More importantly Karabell offers his own perspective on his subject. Rather than seeing Arthur as a nonentity, Karabell finds much to admire in his administration. Arthur became president at a difficult time following an assassination and held the country together in a crisis situation. Instead of proving the political hack both his friends and detractors anticipated, Arthur quietly rose to the office. In an era known for corruption, Arthur served honestly and worked to reduce the power or cronyism. He vetoed the first Chinese Exclusion Act (although he yielded and reluctantly signed a more modest second version) as well as pork-barrel appropriations legislation. He signed the Pendleton Act which still provides the fundamentals for the Federal Civil Service. taking Federal employment out of the spoils system. He approved the prosecution for corruption of close political associates, approved funding for the revitalization of the Navy, and spoke out against the Supreme Court's 1883 decision ruling unconstitutional Reconstruction-era civil rights legislation.
Karabell shows that Arthur was an unlikely source for these accomplishments. Before he became Vice-president, Arthur had never held political office. He owed his place on the ticket to convention-floor brokering. Arthur had become a wealthy lawyer and customs-house official who loved to eat and to live opulently and in style. He was affable and sociable and owed much of his success to his ability to get along with people in addition to his boss, Roscoe Conkling. Conkling was the leader of one of the factions of the Republican Party of the day and a rival to the other faction leader James Blaine. Although he was a full product of the system, Arthur proved able to rise above it when he needed to do so. Besides offering a portrayal of Arthur, Karabell's book is effective in presenting the state of American politics during the Guilded Age of the 1870's and 1880's.
Karabell makes no exaggerated effort to inflate Arthur's reputation. Rather, he shows Arthur as a fundamentally decent if passive president who did more than might have been expected under trying circumstances. In assessing Arthur, Karabell writes:
"Physically stretched and emotionally drained, he strove to do what was right for the country. Given his close association with faction, spoils, and party, that itself was a surprise. The office of the presidency ... seems to alter the way its primary inhabitant views the world. The president may make wise decisions or dumb decisions, but to a man, presidents have confessed to a sense that suddenly partisan pettiness is inappropriate to the office. Some have been able to transcend partisan politics more than others, and on that score Arthur is certainly among the most honorable chief executives the country has seen. He tried to serve the general good rather than the interests of his faction."
"Arthur managed to be a decent man and a decent president in an era in which decency was in short supply."
There are no shortcuts to learning history and no substitutes for wide reading and the development of judgment. Karabell's book is a good summary and perhaps an invitation to read and think further. The book offers a good overview of a neglected president and his era. It is also a thoughtful meditation on the varied forms of leadership.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
A great indication of how a man reacts is when he is placed in adverse situations. I like the American President series because it shows the true mark of these individuals. Chester Arthur suceeded the murdered Garfield (whether by a assasin or his own doctors). He did not want the job but he did his best. He advocated reform of patronage, even though he benefited from the plushest job in the patronage career. He tried to help the black man. He tried to work with a coalition for the betterment of the nation. Ultimately he did not win reelection in his own right. However, he was a just man who died shortly after leaving office.
I liked this book as much as the rest of the American President series. These are great reads for those interested in the men who served this office.