Chester Alan Arthur

Despite limited archival materials (Arthur’s papers were destroyed after his death), Karabell tackles this task with considerable literary aplomb.
— Publishers Weekly


"'Chet Arthur? President of the United States? Good God!' is a refrain that punctuates this new biography of the 21st president. Readers today may confess bewilderment rather than surprise — Chester who? — but this brief but masterful portrait of Arthur’s life and times deserves an attentive audience. Karabell, freely admits his mission impossible: to rescue his subject from the dustbin of history occupied by obscure late 19th-century presidents, more famous for their facial hair than their tenures in office. Despite limited archival materials (Arthur’s papers were destroyed after his death), Karabell tackles this task with considerable literary aplomb. By exploring the Gilded Age’s parallels with our own divisive political scene, Karabell does an excellent job of cementing the volume’s relevance for contemporary readers."
— Publisher's Weekly read full review >

"Presidents come no more obscure than Arthur; in this American Presidents series volume, Karabell shows why. Arthur's papers were destroyed shortly after his death, which makes guesswork out of ascertaining his thoughts about his administration. More important to his least-known status is the fact that he didn't want or expect to be president. A consummate Republican Party hack, he obtained the then enormously important position of U.S. customs collector in New York via the then-legal political spoils system. Asked to be Garfield's 1880 running mate, he dutifully obliged. Inaugurated in March 1881, Garfield was shot in July and died in September: Arthur was president. He rose to the occasion, angering Republican bosses, but didn't sacrifice the short working day to which he was accustomed. His light management style was okay for an era in which presidential politics mattered far less, his reform of the still-new civil service was a crucial early step toward "big government" in the twentieth century, and most important, Karabell suggests, he was a gentleman among knaves."
—  Booklist

"In an effort to rescue Arthur from the pit of historical anonymity, Zachary Karabell has written this slim biography, part of a series on the American presidency edited by the noted historian Arthur Schlesinger. If Karabell doesn’t entirely persuade us that Arthur should be remembered, he is more convincing that he has been unjustly ignored."
The NY Post | read full review >

""[Karabell] does a nice job of condensing Arthur's 56 years into a compact and readable 143 pages."
The Washington Post |  read full review >

Also listed among The Washington Post's "The Best Biographies of All 44 Presidents."




The Gilded Age bon vivant who became America's unlikeliest chief executive-and who presided over a sweeping reform of the system that nurtured him

Chester Alan Arthur never dreamed that one day he would be president of the United States. A successful lawyer, Arthur had been forced out as the head of the Custom House of the Port of New York in 1877 in a power struggle between the two wings of the Republican Party. He became such a celebrity that he was nominated for vice president in 1880-despite his never having run for office before.

Elected alongside James A. Garfield, Arthur found his life transformed just four months into his term, when an assassin shot and killed Garfield, catapulting Arthur into the presidency. The assassin was a deranged man who thought he deserved a federal job through the increasingly corrupt "spoils system." To the surprise of many, Arthur, a longtime beneficiary of that system, saw that the time had come for reform. His opportunity came in the winter of 1882-83, when he pushed through the Pendleton Act, which created a professional civil service and set America on a course toward greater reforms in the decades to come.

Chester Arthur may be largely forgotten today, but Zachary Karabell eloquently shows how this unexpected president-of whom so little was expected-rose to the occasion when fate placed him in the White House.