For an obscure and mostly forgotten former president, Chester Arthur’s story is remarkably interesting.
Don’t get me wrong – PBS is unlikely to ever produce a docudrama on the Arthur presidency. And the ten or so minutes he received in the History Channel’s DVD series “The Presidents” may be all the Big Media attention he ever receives.
But there is something enchanting about one of the Gilded Age’s most infamous spoilsmen becoming one of the period’s most honorable and decent presidents.
Chester Arthur is an even more sympathetic figure when you realize how desperately he wanted to avoid becoming President of the United States. More than anyone – other than President Garfield’s wife – Vice President Chester Arthur fervently hoped Garfield would survive the attempt on his life.
Prior to being nominated for the vice presidency Arthur had never even been elected his town’s dog-catcher. Instead, he climbed briskly up the patronage ladder on the coattails of influential friends, finding himself in the nation’s top public post without ever pandering for a vote.
Although he tolerated the notion of being vice president, finding himself at risk of becoming the nation’s chief executive was something he was extremely unexcited about. And yet, following Garfield’s death, Arthur became known as a surprisingly respectable and honest president.
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* Thomas Reeves’s “Gentleman Boss: The Life and Times of Chester Alan Arthur” was the first of two biographies of Arthur I read. Published in 1975, this is undoubtedly the definitive biography of Chester Arthur – and I don’t imagine it will ever be replaced as such.
Despite the fact that Arthur ordered the destruction of most of his personal papers just prior to his death, Reeves produced a remarkably thorough accounting of Arthur’s life. And while a biography of an obscure president based on exhaustive research could easily be tedious and dull, “Gentleman Boss” is often fascinating and downright…interesting.
From time to time there are chunks of the biography which prove too detailed, too dry or too tangential for my interest. But on balance this is an excellent biography of Chester Arthur – and the Gilded Age generally – and is well worth reading. (See review here)
* Zachary Karabell’s 2004 biography “Chester Alan Arthur” was the last biography of this president I read. As member of The American Presidents Series, Karabell’s biography is just one-third the length of Reeves’s but only slightly less potent.
Missing in this brisk tour through Arthur’s life is a more complete discussion of his evolution from one of the nation’s preeminent patronage parasites to a universally admired president. But nearly every important theme about Arthur’s life receives appropriate mention. And even some of the more trivial, but flavorful, nuances of his personality found their way into the book.
By design, Karabell’s biography passes by much of the colorful granularity in Arthur’s personality and character that was captured by Reeves’s biography. But overall it proves an excellent abbreviated biography of a president most Americans know very little about. For anyone unwilling to invest the time to read Reeves’s 424-page biography, Karabell offers a compelling 143-page alternative. (See review here)
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Best Biography of Chester Arthur: Thomas Reeves’s “Gentleman Boss“