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ChesterArthurChester A. Arthur often seems just another forgotten president of ambiguous importance who may, on a good day, have the name recognition of the Under Secretary of the Treasury for Domestic Finance. (Potential) apologies to Antonio Weiss…

To my surprise, historians currently rank Arthur ahead of such notables as Ulysses Grant, Calvin Coolidge and George Bush (#43…to be clear).

He is also viewed more favorably than Richard Nixon, Millard Fillmore, Herbert Hoover, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and Jimmy Carter, among others.

But I’m not yet certain how much optimism I should bring to the Chester Arthur “reading experience.” So far, the most flattering thing I’ve seen written about him is that he was somewhat more honest than expected. Gulp…

During the Grant and Hayes administrations Arthur was the Collector of the Port of New York – a lucrative post he occupied thanks to a powerful ally: New York Republican party boss Roscoe Conkling. When Arthur was removed from this post by President Hayes (in an attempt to “clean up” government) a firestorm ensued.

After James Garfield was later chosen the Republican presidential nominee (over New York state’s preference, Ulysses Grant) the convention selected Arthur to be Garfield’s running mate. Republicans knew that without New York’s 35 electoral votes, the 20th president of the United States would have been Democratic nominee Winfield Hancock.

The strategy worked – just – and Arthur became vice president. Upon Garfield’s death (after 200 days as president), an apparently reluctant Chet Arthur became the 21st president of the United States.

The first biography of Arthur I’m reading is Thomas Reeves’s “Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur.”  Published in 1975 this seems to be an “old classic” and is a member of a presidential series made available by American Political Biography.  It has the appearance of being comprehensive and carefully written so my hopes are high…

Next, and last, I will be reading Zachary Karabell’s “Chester Alan Arthur.” This 2004 member of the American Presidents Series is far shorter and also more frequently read than “Gentleman Boss.” This will be the eighth American Presidents Series biography I’ve read so I know what to expect: a biography that is concise, punchy, direct and unpretentious. It may lack the penetrating insight that a longer, more careful study could provide, but this is Chester Arthur so shorter may be sweeter?

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