Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in potus_geeks,

Potus Geeks Book Review: The Unexpected President by Scott Greenberger

Chester Alan Arthur is generally ranked first or second in polls about which Presidents of the United States people know the least about. He makes for a difficult biography subject because for much of his life, as a backroom politician whose name was only ever on a ballot once in his life, he operated in the shadows. Before he died, he had a lot of his personal papers burned, and even during his presidency, he was a private man, especially protective of his children. Scott Greenberger has written a 242 page biography of the 21st President that is representative of what one might expect from such an intensely private subject.


The book is entitled The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur, and indeed much of the book's pages are filled with stories of many of the peripheral events in Arthur's life and the stories of other important figures in the politics of the day. First among these is Senator Roscoe Conkling, the leader of the "Stalwart" faction of the Republican Party, the man that Arthur served as a political hack, and the master he was expected to serve as President, contributing to the "unexpected" part of the book's title. Other prominent figures are President James Garfield, the man whose assassination led to Arthur's presidency; James G. Blaine, leader of the rival faction in the Republican Party; and Julia Sands, a young woman whose health and gender prevented her from being a political player in the "Gilded Age" of American politics, but who the author believes became the conscience of the former spoilsman in the White House.

The book is lean on the details of Arthur's presidency, and provides little guidance in assessing whether Arthur was a leader or a follower in the changes that occurred during his presidency in the areas such as civil service reform, the Chinese Exclusion Act or Native American policy. It tells us virtually nothing about economic or foreign policy during Arthur's watch. The analysis of the issues that are addressed is quite simplistic. For example, the book suggests that Arthur vetoed the first Chinese Exclusion Act on principled grounds, and signed the replacement legislation, which contained many of the worst aspects of the original bill, because he changed his mind. In fairness to the author, this may be because Arthur left little to explain much of his thought process as president, though other biographers have been more substantive in their analysis.

Much of the book looks at the 23 letters that Julia Sands wrote to Arthur, and these portions of the book read much like a novel, as the author takes considerable liberties in speculating what was in the minds of the correspondents. While some of this comes from accounts provided by Sands' nephew, it is difficult to know how much reliance can be placed on the author's account of what was in the minds of Sands and Arthur, and what importance, if any, these letters played in shaping Arthur's decisions. His conclusion that Arthur was a crooked politician who had an epiphany because of the faith that a young letter writer had in him is naive and is likely an oversimplification.

Notwithstanding the sparsity of detail about Arthur's presidency and the excess speculation, Greenberg's research does provide some fascinating detail about Arthur and his interaction with the public and of their perception of him, especially in his description of two of Arthur's presidential goodwill trips, one to Florida and one to Yellowstone Park. His account of Arthur's final days is also well written and very informative and insightful.


Taking on the challenge of writing a biography of Chester Alan Arthur is a daunting task for any biographer and is fraught with difficulty. While Greenberger provides little in the way of new insight into who Chester Alan Arthur was, and what made him tick as president, this is still an interesting book for the reasons its title suggests. For someone as private as Arthur was, any insight on the man in helpful. There is much about both his life and the times that he lived in that provide a fascinating story.
Tags: book review, chester alan arthur, james g. blaine, james garfield, presidential bios

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