The Unpredictable Nature of Change
Candice Millard the author of “Destiny of the Republic” a biography of President James A. Garfield tells the story of Chester Arthur the Vice-President who became the President after Garfield’s assassination.
Chester Arthur the son of a Baptist minister was selected to be the Vice-President of James Garfield’s as a way to secure the electoral votes of N.Y. where Arthur was a political pawn of the powerful Roscoe Conklin machine. It was said that Arthur was rarely at work before 11. and was known for his parties and elegant clothing. He was very wealthy having made his money selling and collecting fines on illegal imports as a customs official in New York the largest and busiest Customs House in the country. He could not have been more unlike President Garfield who was known as a hardworking and incorruptible politician. On July 2 1881 a man supporting Arthur’s faction of Republicans shot President Garfield. As he shot the president the man shouted “Arthur will be president.” Garfield held on to life as Arthur hid in seclusion.
Toward the end of August a letter came to the house from someone unknown to Arthur named Julia Sand. The first few lines echoed what many people seemed to think of Chester Arthur: “The people are bowed in grief Sand wrote, but—do you realize it?—not so much because [Garfield] is dying as because you are his successor.” In other words Sand said Americans were upset that Arthur might become president. The letter continued “Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant [sleeping] 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 & more brave. Reform!” With these words Arthur became the President determined to reform. During his administration he instituted reforms and changed corrupt practices that everyone assumed would only become worse when he entered 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.”
In a time when many of us are skeptical about the quality of political leadership and the corruption of the process and the people it is good to remember that change can come from the most unlikely places.