Some rank Chester Alan Arthur among the worst presidents of all time. I think his life story is exactly what we need to hear this Yom Kippur.
For inspiration, many people look with reverence to founding fathers like George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt led the nation in times of peril. Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt made tough decisions at a crucial crossroads.
I look to Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, for inspiration. Even though some experts rate him as one of the worst presidents, a leader who was not even technically elected to serve in the White House, I believe his life story conveys a number of great lessons that are particularly relevant as we prepare for Yom Kippur.
Arthur found himself on the map of American history during a tumultuous time. Besides the challenges of rebuilding the country after the civil war, the country was plagued by corruption that had existed since the founding of the republic and had worsened over time.
Chester Alan Arthur, 21st President of the United States
The federal patronage system (or loot system) approved political appointments as a reward for those who kept the party political machine running, regardless of ability. Many presidents had been elected on a platform to reform the loot system, but none had been able to stand up to those who propelled them to power.
In 1869, Americans thought they would finally turn the page with the election of Civil War hero General Ulysses S. Grant, whom many saw as another George Washington. Instead, they had eight of the most corrupt years of the US presidency. Grant was followed by Rutherford B. Hayes who attempted to reform the Spoils system but ultimately succeeded in only one thing, further dividing the Republican Party.
At that time, the Republican Party was deeply divided on the issue of clientelism. The Stalwarts, led by New York Senator Rosco Conkling, wanted to keep the patronage system in place, and the Métis vowed to reform the country. The internal division boiled over at the Republican National Convention of 1880. In the days leading up to the binding primary elections, the convention alone would choose the presidential nominee, and 14 men vied for the nomination.
A surprise victory
The Stalwarts backed Ulysses S. Grant for an unprecedented third term. They felt that his image had rehabilitated somewhat over the past four years and that he was eligible again. The Métis supported Maine Senator James Blain. Treasury Secretary John Sherman, brother of William Tecumseh Sherman, was also considered a frontrunner. 379 votes were needed to win.
On the 36th ballot, Garfield received 399, winning the nomination he did not want.
In the first round, Grant got 304, Blain got 284, and Sherman got 93. In the second round, James A. Garfield, the Congressman from Ohio, received one vote even though he didn’t had not been named. Voting continued, with 33 ballots taken over several days without any major changes. On the 34th ballot, a dark horse began to emerge from the pack – Garfield got 17 votes! He immediately challenged the legitimacy of this as he did not seek the nomination. His challenge was rejected by the president, who secretly backed his candidacy.
On the 35th ballot Garfield received 50 votes, and on the 36th ballot he received 399, winning the nomination he did not want.
Conkling, Chief Stalwart, was furious at what had happened. The Republicans knew they had to show a united front to beat Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock in the general election, so they nominated one of Conkling’s proteges as Vice President, Chester Alan Arthur. Arthur was a real Stalwart who had lined his pockets for years thanks to the referral system. The only post he had previously held was that of New York Harbor Collector, a job built for the crooked politician.
The general election recorded the highest voter turnout ever at 78.4%. The Republican ticket won the popular vote by just 7,018 and an Electoral College victory of 214 to 155. After the inauguration, Vice President Arthur worked in vain to secure cabinet positions for his cronies, but the President Garfield made it clear from the start that he would. working on civil service reform. He did not name a single Stalwart in his cabinet.
Senator Conkling quickly clashed with the President and, in a power play, he resigned from the equally divided Senate, leaving Garfield’s nominations in jeopardy and fully expecting to be reappointed to his post by the US Legislative Assembly. New York State. During the summer vacation of 1881, Conkling and Arthur returned to Albany to make this happen. In the end, Conkling had overplayed his hand and New York picked another.
On July 2, 1881, the Spoils system motivated Charles J. Guiteau, a deranged evangelical preacher who thought he deserved to be ambassador to France, to shoot President Garfield after failing to secure a nomination. After shooting the president, Charles J. Guiteau boasted, “I’m a faithful, and Arthur will be president!” In his delirium, he expected to be broken out of prison by Ulyssys S. Grant’s militia, and then receive his early appointment.
In his wildest dreams, Arthur never imagined he could be the president and he felt unfit for the task.
For two months, Garfield lingered between life and death. Meanwhile, other than the First Lady, no one was more upset by Garfield’s predicament than Chester Arthur. In his wildest dreams, he never imagined he could be the president, and he felt unfit for the task. There were even those who suspected Conkling and Arthur of being involved in the plot. On September 20, 1881 at 2:15 a.m., Chester Alan Arthur became the 21st President of the United States.
Engraving of the assassination of James A. Garfield, published in Illustrated diary of Frank Leslie. President Garfield is center right, hunched over after being shot. He is supported by Secretary of State James G. Blaine. At left, assassin Charles Guiteau is held back by members of the crowd, one of whom is about to hit him with a cane. (Wiki Commons)
Garfield’s assassination accomplished what 15 years of reconstruction could not. The country was unified, and surprisingly, their new president rose to the occasion. President Arthur refused to follow Conkling’s demands, understanding the American people’s distaste for the Spoils system and how they blamed him for the death of beloved Garfield.
A fierce reformer and a changed man
Arthur was a changed man. Swearing to the corruption of his past, he becomes a fierce warrior for the reform of the Social Service. On January 16, 1883, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. In just two years, an unrepentant Stalwart became the president who ushered in long-awaited civil service reform.
What gave President Arthur the strength to turn his back on all he had known to take the harder path of doing what was right?
In 1958 Chester Alan Arthur III, President Arthur’s grandson, sold his grandfather’s papers to the Library of Congress, and some light was finally shed on what prompted Arthur’s change.
In his papers were letters from a lady from New Jersey named Julia Sand. The first letter dated August 27, 1881 read:
Your kindest opponents say “Arthur will try to do good” – adding darkly – “He won’t succeed, even if making a man president can’t change him.” But making a man president can change it! Great emergencies awaken generous traits that have slept half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility within you, now is the time to let it shine. Faith in your better nature compels me to write to you – but not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult and courageous. Reform! It is not proof of the highest kindness to have never done wrong, but it is proof, sometimes in one’s career, to stop and reflect, to recognize wrong, to look back decidedly against him. Sometimes [sic?] comes a crisis that makes miracles possible. The great tidal wave of pain that has washed over the land has swept you from your old moorings and placed you on top of a mountain, alone.
Sand then wrote 23 letters to the president, encouraging him when he did the right thing and calling him out when he fell short. During her year of writing the president, Julia Sand never received a response.
On the evening of August 20, 1882, she received at her home an unexpected visitor, President Chester Alan Arthur! He came to thank her for being his moral conscience during the previous tumultuous year.
The words of the prostitute
The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 17a) tells us of a man named Elazar Ben Dordaya who was so debased that he visited every prostitute he knew. One day, in full action with such a woman, she spontaneously declares that Elazar Ben Dordaya will never change his ways. Her words – a prostitute – shook him to the core. He then went out looking for a place to place his blame1 and ultimately concluded that if he was to change, it would only be through his own actions. He then literally mourned his soul until he died.
At that time, a voice from heaven announced that Rebbi Elazar Ben Dordaya is destined for the world to come.
Chester Alan Arthur’s presidency echoes this story of repentance. Had he continued on the path he was on, his tenure would probably be remembered as more corrupt than that of Ulysses S. Grant. But his moral conscience kicked in, spurred on in the most unlikely places, making him a president who ushered in great reforms. This is why I find President Arthur so inspiring.
But there is another lesson here. Julia Sand wrote letters to a man she had never met, not knowing if her letters were even received, let alone read. She literally changed the course of American history.
As we enter this period of teshuva, repent, let’s all learn from this inspiring story. We all have the ability to change, no matter how big or small we are, and no matter what our past was like.
And we all have the ability to change the world, like Julia Sand. We just have to act and do what we can.
The historical accounts in this article are based on the books The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur and Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President
- Based on R’ Chaim Friedlander’s explanation