Review of Zachary Karabell’s biography of Chester A Arthur

In the opening chapter of his biography of our twenty-first President, Zachary Karabell says, “Arthur 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. The first club has eight members…[the] second club has a more fluid membership, depending on historical fads and whether or not a new biography has been published that reverses decades of opinion one way or the other…It is impossible to remover Arthur from the first club-membership there is permanent. And as to the second, well, maybe, or maybe not.”

One of the values of this personal reading project, is that I am learning new things about American history and the lives and legacy of its most important “citizen leader.” With regard to Arthur, one of those new things is that he was the son of a minister in New York State. The other is that he presided over the passing of a landmark bill that eventually paved the way for what we now call the Federal bureaucracy. A bill that was, in part, a response to the assassination of James A Garfield.

Karabell’s assessment of Arthur is placed against a very good understanding (noted in chapter 1) of the state of America in the two decades after the Civil War. Decades that was shaped by the industrialization of America and the expansion westward. To Karabell, Arthur appears to be a better president than he is given credit for, especially as he came to power without having served in elected office (though he held the New York customs collector position, a very powerful office) and having no apparent desire to be president.

Part of Holt’s American President series, Karabell’s work provides a good introduction to Arthur (whose papers were burned after his death) that seeks to assess his service as President. Much is given to his rise to power through the New York Republican party with a cursory look at his personal life prior to and during his term as President. I believe that Karabell makes a case that Arthur’s contribution to both the presidency and the nation should not be overlooked.


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