The Unexpected President – Scott S Greenberger


The book is a biography of Chester Arthur and the title refers to his becoming president after James Garfield was assassinated.  Arthur had been added to the ticket purely as a sop to the New York contingent at the Republican convention, not because anyone thought he would make a good president.  So he was unexpected in that no one obviously anticipated an assassination, but also because he turned into a faithful president even though his career to that point was marked by his association with machine politics and corruption in New York City.

I really enjoyed this book.  It’s well-written and hugely informative.  I’d read the story of Garfield’s death – he was shot, but the bullet didn’t kill him as much as his doctors who effectively tortured and infected him to death over the ensuing months – but had never read anything on Chester Arthur (and I’m guessing I’m not alone in that).  This book gives a great feel for the times and also for what kind of man Arthur was both before and after becoming president.

The one criticism I’d have of the book is the author’s contention that a woman who wrote a series of letters to Arthur once he became president had a large impact on how he conducted himself in office.  Most of the letters have been saved so he’s able to reproduce them and discuss what she said.  And it’s known that Arthur saved them in a special file and even visited her once at her home.  However, he never responded to any of the letters so we don’t really know what his perspective was of them.  And to say that they were so influential that he suddenly found political virtue seems a bit overstated.

That’s not enough to recommend against the book, however.  I’d recommend it to anyone who likes Presidential or nineteenth century American history.  Greenberger is a good writer and the book keeps your attention throughout.  It’s also a relatively quick and easy read.

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