|Chester A. Arthur
(Presidential Leaders Series)
Lerner Publishing Group, 2006
Reading Level: Grade 7
For ages 11 and older
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When Chester Arthur became president of the United States, shortly after James Garfield died in 1881, he was known for his corrupt New York politics. He was a stylish, wealthy lawyer who had made his money selling and collecting fines on illegal imports as a customs official. But Arthur realized the magnitude of his new responsibility as president. He worked for changes that would improve the lives of all Americans: supporting legislation to strengthen the navy and signing the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which reformed the corrupt system for hiring federal workers. Arthur never sought reelection, but his reform to honesty and integrity in politics surprised his public and left the lasting legacy of a fairer system of government.
Normally, Arthur would have been traveling the country or
giving speeches instead of staying at home with his family. He
was, after all, the vice president of the United States.
The president was James Garfield. Garfield was known as an honest, hardworking politician. Chester Arthur, by contrast, was known for throwing elegant dinners, wearing fashionable clothes, and taking part in the corrupt politics of New York City. Although both men were Republicans, they came from opposing factions of the party. Republican leaders had chosen Arthur as Garfield’s running mate mostly because they had needed New York’s votes in the presidential election.
A few people worried that Chester Arthur might not be fit for the job of vice president. But some noted that even if he weren’t, the vice president rarely played an important role in running the country. One commentator wrote, “[T]here is no place in which the powers will be so small as in the vice presidency.”
Only a few months later, the commentator found out how wrong he was. On July 2, 1881, a deranged man, who supported Arthur’s faction of Republicans, fired two shots at President Garfield. The shooter believed he had killed Garfield, paving the way for Arthur to take over as president. “Arthur will be President!” the man shouted shortly after he fired his gun. But President Garfield did not die. He clung to life throughout the summer.
Rumors circulated that Chester Arthur had had something to do with the shooting. These rumors deeply upset Arthur. He tried hard to avoid all contact with newspaper reporters and people on the street. He didn’t want to become president under such circumstances and didn’t want to discuss the situation. He clung to the hope that Garfield would recover.
Toward the end of August, a letter came to the house from someone named Julia Sand. The first few lines echoed what many people seemed to think of Chester Arthur: “The people are bowed in grief,” Sand wrote, “but—do you realize it?—not so much because [Garfield] is dying, as because you are his successor.” In other words, Sand said, Americans were upset that Arthur might become president.
Arthur read further. “Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant [sleeping] half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine. . . . Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you—but not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult & more brave. Reform!” With these words, Sand urged Arthur to give up his corrupt dealings and become a better man.
Arthur did not know anyone named Julia Sand…. What he did know was that Julia Sand was one of the few who had faith in his “better nature”—one of the very, very few.
Meanwhile, Arthur kept the green blinds closed throughout the house, shutting in his children and shutting out anyone who might look in the windows. He waited. And he saved the letter.