During the course of Barack Obama’s first term as President, much has been made of his group of czars. I honestly don’t know much about the people involved, but there is much consternation, particularly from his opposition on the Republican side. It is claimed that these men and women (I’m assuming both men and women are included) are influencing decisions being made by the President without the benefit of being elected by the people or appointed or approved by Congress.
But as Today’s History Lesson uncovers, President Obama isn’t the first Commander-in-Chief to get a little “outside help”. And while it’s true that our example isn’t nearly as far-reaching or controversial as what we see in the White House today, it had a truly profound effect on the President in question.
The assassination attempt on President James Garfield not only shocked and angered the nation, it terrified Chester Arthur, the Vice President. As we may recall, Garfield had been elected the previous year (1880) in most unlikely fashion, having been nominated at the Convention without ever being a candidate. A groundswell of emotion and good will swept him into the White House.
And Chester Arthur?
He was actually a political opponent of Garfield, and was controlled by Roscoe Conkling, the senior Senator from New York who was, until the election, probably the most powerful man in America. He was also very unpopular, so much so that when the news broke that Garfield had been shot, conspiracy theorists immediately pointed at Conkling and, by extension, Chester Arthur. In her masterful book Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard writes, “It was widely assumed that he [Arthur] was in close and constant discussions with the man who had made him, planning for the day when he would be king, and Conkling his Cromwell. So little respect was there for the vice president and so openly had he aligned himself with the president’s fiercest enemy, that to accuse him now of conspiring with Conkling was simply stating the obvious.”
But to the contrary, Arthur was distraught over the President’s plight. A journalist, finally gaining an audience with the Vice President who had largely disappeared from the public eye, noted that “His whole manner, rather than the words he uttered, showed a depth of feeling. . .which would astonish even many of those who think they know the man well.”
Unknown to many, Chester Arthur had a “czar”. Thirty-two year old Julia Sand was not elected and was not appointed. And while she may have been an invalid, she knew how to write a letter. Arthur received his first letter from her shortly after the President was shot, and she didn’t mince words. “The day he was shot,” she penned, “the thought rose in a thousand minds that you might be the instigator of the the foul act. Is not that a humiliation which cuts deeper than any bullet can pierce?” She continued, “Your kindest opponents say: ‘Arthur will try to do right. He won’t succeed, though – making a man President cannot change him.’ ” She then worked to encourage the troubled Arthur. “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 and more brave. Reform!”
The letter clearly affected Chester Arthur…he kept it. The letters from Julia kept coming, urging him Arthur to be strong and courageous, to think for himself, and to free himself from the bonds with which men like Roscoe Conkling would tie him, which is exactly what he did following the death of Garfield and his swearing in as the country’s 21st President. And while Arthur would only serve out Garfield’s term, he did so as a respected and hard-working President.
On August 20, 1882, President Arthur made a special trip and met Julia Sand for the first time. She was stretched out on the sofa, and Millard writes, “Arthur would stay for nearly an hour, pleased to finally have a face-to-face discussion with one of his most trusted advisers.”
Recommended Reading: Destiny of the Republic – If you read just one book of history this year, read this one. It’s that good.