the woman who shamed a president -- 10/23/17

Today's selection -- from The Unexpected President by Scott S. Greenberger. Chester A. Arthur, a preacher's son who was the 21st president of the United States, was a product of the New York political scene and a well-known practitioner of large-scale graft and corruption, especially through the civil service system. He had only been added to the Republican ticket in 1880 as the vice presidential nominee because the party knew it had to have New York to win the election for presidential nominee James Garfield, and few would be better than Arthur at extracting money from civil servants and using it to influence and buy New York votes. However, when he unexpectedly took office as president following Garfield's assassination (some actually blamed Arthur for Garfield's death), he shocked his party and the nation by embracing civil service reform and making it a centerpiece of his administration. One reason for the change, undiscovered until almost 80 years later, was a series of letters from a 31-year-old invalid woman named Julia Sand:

"On East 74th Street, a 31-year-old woman read the dire accounts [of Garfield's assassination] in the newspapers and sat down to write a seven-page letter to the vice president.

"Julia I. Sand was the unmarried eighth daughter of Christian Henry Sand, a German immigrant who rose to become president of the Metropol­itan Gas Light Company of New York. When Christian Sand died in 1867, his family left Brooklyn for Pleasant Valley, New Jersey. In 1880, the Sands settled at 46 East 74th Street, which was owned by Julia's brother, Theodore V. Sand, a banker. As the pampered daughter of a wealthy father, Julia read French, enjoyed poetry, and vacationed in Saratoga and Newport. But by the time she wrote Arthur she was an invalid, plagued by spinal pain and other ailments that kept her at home. As a woman, Julia was excluded from public life, but she followed politics closely through the newspapers, and she had an especially keen interest in Chester Arthur.

"[Chester Arthur] had never met Sand, or even heard of her. They were complete strangers. But her words penetrated the husk that had grown around the son of [a preacher]. 'The hours of Garfield's life are numbered -- before this meets your eye, you may be President,' the letter began. '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 he 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 best friends said: 'Arthur must resign -- he cannot accept office, with such a suspicion resting upon him.' And now your kindest opponents say: 'Arthur will try to do right' -- adding gloom­ily, 'He won't succeed, though -- making a man President cannot change him.'

"Julia Sand did not share that pessimistic view. 'But making a man Pres­ident can change him!' she declared. '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 & more brave. Reform! It is not the proof of highest goodness never to have done wrong -- but it is a proof of it, sometime in one's career, to pause & ponder, to recognize the evil, to turn resolutely against it & devote the remainder of one's life to that only which is pure & exalted. Such resolutions of the soul are not common. No step towards them is easy. In the humdrum drift of daily life, they are impossible. But once in a while 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 and set you on a mountain top, alone.

"As president -- especially one who had not been elected -- Arthur could sever his unsavory political associations and make a clean start, Sand argued. 'You are free -- free to be as able & as honorable as any man who ever filled the presidential chair.' She continued with words that could have come from the pen of Elder Arthur:

Your past -- you know best what it has been. You have lived for worldly things. Fairly or unfairly, you have won them. You are rich, powerful­ -- tomorrow, perhaps, you will be President. And what is it all worth? Are you peaceful -- are you happy? What if a few days hence the hand of the next unsatisfied ruffian should lay you low & you should drag through months of weary suffering in the White House, knowing that all over the land not a prayer was uttered in your behalf, not a tear shed, that the great American people was glad to be rid of you -- would not worldly honors seem rather empty then?

"It was still possible, she contended, for Arthur to chart a different course. 'Rise to the emergency. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest aims,' she wrote. 'It may be difficult at once to inspire confidence, but per­severe. In time -- when you have given reason for it -- the country will love & trust you.'

"'Your name is now on the annals of history,' she concluded. 'You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence, school boys will recite your name in the list of Presidents and tell of your admin­istration. And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold.'

"Arthur was intrigued -- who was this mysterious woman who dared to challenge him so boldly? She signed the letter, 'Yours Respectfully, Julia I. Sand,' but she included no other personal information. Eager to learn more about her, Arthur checked the return address. On a card embossed with 'The Union League Club' at the top, he jotted down what he discovered:
'Theodore V. Sand, Banker, 54 Wall St (Sand, Hamilton & Co.) lives at No. 46 East 74 St.' Then he folded Julia Sand's letter and filed it away in a safe place."



Scott S. Greenberger


The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur


Da Capo Press


Copyright 2017 by Scott S. Greenberger


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