An unmemorable president earns a fitting biography.
Freelance historian Karabell (Parting the Desert, 2003, etc.) has the unenviable task, in this latest in Arthur Schlesinger’s American presidents series, of chronicling the life and times of Chester Arthur (1829–86), who “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.” Arthur was indeed a strong supporter of his predecessor, James Garfield, felled by the bullet of a disgruntled jobseeker; although by no means charismatic or even interesting, he was useful to Garfield as an entrée to and liaison with the powerful Republican leadership of New York. Arthur seems to have sought elected public office only reluctantly, and for good reason: as an appointed customs official in New York City, he earned more than $50,000 annually in the 1870s, an astonishing sum of money that owed to an astonishing level of official corruption, though Arthur himself seems to have been honest enough. Though popular precisely because he represented a moderate balance between two competing wings within the GOP, Arthur ran afoul of powerful rivals, including Rutherford B. Hayes, U.S. Grant, and James Blaine, the last of whom essentially forced Arthur out of the White House after he served out Garfield’s term. Arthur’s tenure was not without its accomplishments, Karabell dutifully writes, including a thoroughgoing reform of the civil-service system to professionalize the government and reduce favoritism. On the negative side, Arthur oversaw an immigration exclusion act aimed against the Chinese, which he vetoed at first but then surrendered to; on this and other issues he stepped away from his base of support within his party, and, as Karabell notes, alienating his allies after having “earned the near-permanent distrust of competing factions and of the opposing Democrats.”
A dry life of a dry man, with a few intriguing glimpses into the Gilded Age.