In my recent overview of the U.S. presidency (the four parts are now combined on a single page under “Rule Book” above), I noted that our 21st President, Chester A. Arthur, was one of my personal favorites and an Ethics Hero. He confounded all predictions and his previous undistinguished background, not to mention a career marked by political hackery and toadying to corrupt Republican power broker Roscoe Conkling, to rise to the challenge of the office and to effectively fight the corrupt practices that had elevated him to power. Most significantly, he established the Civil Service system, which crippled the spoils and patronage practices that made the Federal government both incompetent and a breeding ground for scandal.
I did not mention, because I did not then know, the unlikely catalyst for his conversion. Recently a good friend, knowing of my interest in Arthur, his tragic predecessor, James Garfield, and presidential assassinations sent me a copy of Destiny of the Republic, the acclaimed history of the Garfield assassination and its aftermath by Candace Millard. It’s a wonderful book, and while I knew much of the history already, I definitely did not know about Julia Sand. Her tale is amazing, and it gives me hope. If you do not know about Julia and Chester, and it is not a well-known episode, you should.
Allow me to tell it to you?
James Garfield, an Ohio Congressman, had been the dark horse nominee of the Republican Party in 1880, foiling the ambitions of many powerful politicians, the most powerful among them being Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York. In order to cement New York’s electoral votes, the convention gave the Vice Presidential nomination to Conkling’s lackey, the dignified-looking but otherwise unimpressive Chester A. Arthur, who may have been the least qualified individual ever to run for that office. The highest position he had ever held was Collector of Customs of the Port of New York, which had been handed to him by Conkling, and he was later removed from that post for incompetence and corruption. He’d never been elected to significant office or been any kind of executive. Arthur’s career before becoming Vice President makes Sarah Palin look like Winston Churchill.
After the election, Arthur got to work being a disloyal Vice-President, acting as Conklin’s agent in the White House. (Arthur, a widower, even lived as a guest in Conkling’s Washington mansion.) He actively undermined Garfield’s efforts at government reform, at one point going so far as signing a petition supporting Conkling when Garfield refused to appoint only Cabinet members with the Conkling stamp of approval. Then, on July 2, 1881, less than six months after taking office, the impressive Garfield was shot in Washington D.C.’s Union Station by Charles Guiteau, easily the craziest of the various crazies who have taken a shot at our leaders. (He was also the only lawyer in that group.)
Everybody was horrified, initially at the crime, but also at the prospect of Arthur becoming President. Some even suspected him of being complicit in the act; Guiteau didn’t help by writing Arthur a letter prior to his attack telling him what he needed to do as President. Most, however, were just aghast at the prospect of the brilliant, courageous, skilled and honorable Garfield being replaced by this utter non-entity under Conkling’s thumb.
None were more aghast than Chester A. Arthur. He may have been a hack, but he was no fool, and he knew he wasn’t up to the job. It was reported that when he learned of Garfield’s shooting, Arthur began weeping like a child. During the nearly three months it took the hardy Garfield to die—he was killed by sepsis induced by the unsanitary prodding of his doctors as they searched for Guiteau’s bullet: the wound itself was probably survivable—Arthur descended into panic, shock, and depression. For nearly two months, he stayed at home with the blinds drawn, fearing his own assassination. So invisible was he that there were rumors that Arthur had poisoned himself.
Then Arthur received a letter, dated August 27, 1881, from a woman he did not know, Julia Sands. It immediately got his attention, for she addressed him in a manner he had never been spoken or written to before. The remarkable letter said in part…
Before this meets your eye, you may be President. The people are bowed in grief; but – do you realize it? – not so much because he is dying, as because you are his successor. What president ever entered office under circumstances so sad?…The day [Garfield] was shot, the thought rose in a thousand minds that you might be the instigator of the foul act. Is not that a humiliation which cuts deeper than any bullet can pierce?
Your kindest opponents say ‘Arthur will try to do right’ – adding gloomily – ‘He won’t succeed though making a man President cannot change him.’…But making a man President can change him! 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 & brave. Reform! It is not proof of highest goodness never to have done wrong, but it is proof of it, sometimes in ones career, to pause & ponder, to recognize the evil, to recognize the evil, to turn resolutely against it…. Once in awhile there comes a crisis which renders miracles feasible. The great tidal wave of sorrow which has rolled over the country has swept you loose from your old moorings & set you on a mountaintop, alone. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest of aims.”
More letters arrived from Julia, and Arthur read them all. When he died, all of her letters were found in his files, carefully preserved and cataloged, and while he directed that most of his papers be destroyed, those were among the artifacts that he believed should survive him.
Julia was far from an admirer when the one-way correspondence began (Arthur, as far as we can determine, never wrote to her.) Another letter, in September of 1881, exhorted him:
“You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence, school boys will recite your name in the list of Presidents & tell of your administration. And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose….”
The letters, 23 in all, continued after Arthur ascended to the Presidency upon Garfield’s death. As he began to confound his critics and enemies, as well as his patron Conkling who was shocked and infuriated at his transformation, Julia cheered Arthur on. In an October 27, 1881 letter, she wrote to him regarding his first month in office:
“What a splendid Henry V you are making!…Garfield is really dead, & you are the President…what the nation needs most at present is rest. If a doctor could lay his finger on the public pulse, his prescription would be, perfect quiet! Do you remember what sort of man Lincoln was in ’60 and what in ’65? He was alive in every fibre – he grew from day to day – if he made a mistake once, he never repeated it – he was a larger man in heart & soul & mind,when he died, than he was when he first came into office. I believe you have some of that power of growth in you…Persons not inclined to admire you, are ready to admit that you have excellent taste and tact. Just what that means cannot be easily measured. Taste and tact may be merely the polish of which any hard surface is capable. But I do not like to think of men as blocks of marble, things that may be cut down in the finishing, but cannot be made to expand. I prefer to think of them as things with infinite powers of growth. And to me tact and taste are the sweet-scented flowers which spring from the root of true sentiment and deep feeling….”
Who was Julia Sand? She gave some personal information in her letters, but Arthur knew little about her. Part of what made her advice appealing was probably her stated disinterest in politics, as she wrote, “I know that my opinion, as mine, can have no weight with you. If it has any value, it is because we are strangers, because our paths have never crossed and are not likely to meet, because, while taking an interest in politics, I have no political ties.” While so many of the men who have struggled with the burdens residency in the White House brings were bolstered, advised and inspired by loving, supportive and sometimes brilliant spouses, Arthur was alone: no wife, his closest friend, Conkling, estranged from him, few advisors and associates he could trust to have his best interests in mind. This mysterious and blunt stranger must have seemed to be the only one he could rely on for counsel: Julia described herself as the equivalent of a king’s jester, who would tell the monarch hard truths others wouldn’t dare mention.
In August of 1882, President Arthur surprised Julia with a visit, discovering her to be a 32 year-old spinster in poor health, confined to a wheelchair and becoming deaf. She was so embarrassed that she stayed behind a curtain for their hour-long discussion, during which she asked him if he had forgiven her for the harsh assessment of her early letters. He replied, perhaps in jest, “No.” They never met again, though she continued to write.
We can never know for certain the impact Sands’ letters had on Arthur. He never mentioned her. We do know that she found him in a state of despair and confusion, that she expressed a belief in his ability to rise to the challenge of the Presidency that literally no one else seemed to possess, that he read and kept her letters and valued them, and that Chester A. Arthur did indeed rise above his past behavior, as Julia urged him to do. And, of course, the President of the United States came to her home as a gesture of respect and gratitude. Increasingly, historians are reaching a consensus that Sands indeed played a significant and perhaps pivotal role in the transformation of one of the nation’s least promising Chief Executives into a courageous and effective leader.
Arthur was not nominated to run for re-election in 1884, which he expected, having alienated the power-brokers in his own party. It was just as well, for he was dying, and perished of Bright’s Disease in 1886. One observer wrote of him, “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired more generally respected.”
And Julia? She lived until 1933. Her correspondence with Arthur wasn’t discovered until 1958, and still isn’t widely known. Yet she is an inspiring example of how the right words, sincerely and eloquently expressed, can be a persuasive force for good in the world.
She was one small, disabled woman who couldn’t vote or hold office. Her only qualifications to be a Presidential advisor were her citizenship and common sense, yet she was, it seems, able to play a major role in bringing about crucial government reforms, because she knew what ethical leadership is, and communicated its virtue so vividly that she inspired a President. To me, the story of Julia Sand proves that good ethics can prevail over all the factors that work to bury them, and that sometimes all it requires for a human being to change for the better is the guidance of a well-argued position, and a mind open enough to listen.
Pointer: Kathryn Fuller