The Little Dwarf
Listen to “The Little Dwarf” by Fred Smith
I am a Facebook fan. Not only for posting what is interesting to me but dipping into other conversations. So it was recently with author Steven Garber and poet Luci Shaw. As he does, Steve had published a provocative piece leaving the readers feeling responsible for what he asks time and again. What does it mean to be implicated? “Broken and bent, wounded and hurt, we are and our world is. How do we make sense of ourselves in it? None of us can be content with contemporary accounts that allow us to say, “Of course I know that but who cares?” Instead, we begin to understand …what is ours to love in this life, what is ours to care about, living as we are stretched taut between the way things ought to be and the way things someday will be.” My poet friend, Luci Shaw, responded with a short question, “What are we to do?” Somewhat impulsively, I wrote to Luci, “Write poetry.” I was not being flip as I am convinced when we do what we are gifted to do we need not worry about fixing things or even the larger impact. I remembered an account I had read years ago about President Chester Arthur and a woman unknown to him – Julia Sand.
After his presidency, Chester Arthur directed his aides to burn three large garbage cans full of his personal letters and documents – everything except 23 letters written to him by Julia Sand, an unmarried invalid woman who had first written him shortly before he became the President following James Garfield’s assassination. Anyone familiar with Arthur’s past was convinced the prospect of his presidency would be “a pending calamity of the utmost magnitude,” Arthur, the son of a Baptist minister, was a political pawn of the powerful Roscoe Conklin machine. It was said that Arthur was rarely at work before 11:00 and he was known for his parties and elegant clothing. Woodrow Wilson described him as “a non-entity with side whiskers.” Having become wealthy by selling and collecting fines on illegal imports as an appointed customs official in New York, he ignored the laws and squeezed public employees to make financial contributions to the Republican Party as a condition for keeping their jobs. Even his closest friends were dismayed that such a corrupt political hack would become the next President.
But Julia Sand believed in him. Writing him in August of 1881, the first few lines echoed what many people seemed to think of Chester Arthur: “The people are bowed in grief but – do you realize it? – not so much because Garfield is dying but because you are his successor.” The letter continued, “Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant 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 and brave. Reform!” And, to the surprise of everyone, he did just that.
He shocked the nation, his party, and his closest friends by calling on Congress to pass the Pendleton Act, the nation’s first Civil Service reform. Sand continued to write Arthur and in nearly two dozen letters she “advised, cajoled and scolded him on policy matters large and small, from whom to keep in his cabinet to major pieces of legislation, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, which halted immigration from China and prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming American citizens.” During his administration he instituted many reforms and changed corrupt practices that everyone assumed would only become worse when he entered the office. When he died one journalist wrote, “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur and no one ever retired more generally respected alike by political friend and foe.”
We have no record of Arthur having responded to any of Julia’s letters although he did make a surprise visit to her New York City home one evening in August 1882. We have no solid proof that her belief in him expressed in her letters affected his decisions but it would be difficult to imagine otherwise. In her letters, she called herself his “little dwarf” as her way of saying that she was the only one of his court who would dare tell him the truth. In one of her last letters she wrote, “It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or gold. For the sake of your country, for your own sake, and for the sakes of all who have ever loved you, let it be pure and light.”
Art by Rupert Shephard
You can purchase my book “Where The Light Divides” here.