#21 Chester A. Arthur

Life: October 5, 1829 – November 18, 1886

Presidential Years: 1881-1885

Vice President: None

The book: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves (500 pages)

Date finished: May 22, 2017

A man no one wanted to be president becomes president. The public has very little faith in him, thinking he’s corrupt and in the pockets of businessmen from New York. Will it turn out OK?

As Arthur ascended to office, one of the prevailing quotes of the day was, “Chet Arthur President of the United States. Good God.”

Before that, he was the son of a preacher. He was born in Vermont and grew up in Albany, N.Y. He joined the Union Army but never really saw battle, getting close while examining troops in the South in 1862. He spent most of his time in the military building political connections.

After the war, he became connected with New York’s governor and was elected to the Century Club, where he “could now meet the likes of J. Pierpont Morgan, the actor Edwin Booth” and others. His election “undoubtedly involved Arthur’s literary proficiency but it mostly bore evidence of his increasing status within the Republican party.”

And that was a positive for Arthur, as it was a time when Tammany Hall had a firm grip on all of New York’s politics.

“The postwar years were infected with corruption; the decay of standards seems to have been triggered by the cynicism that followed the crusade to end slavery and the emergence of Big Business. … The Gilded Age was fire with thievery, bribery, fraud and personal irresponsibility.”

And though by all accounts, Arthur, a snappy dresser who was devoted to his wife even after she died in 1880 and was fervently anti-slavery, was hardly an irresponsible man, he did partner with some of the shadiest, self-promoting characters in the country. His rise up the Republican Party ranks after the war set the stage for two lifelong relationships — a friendship with the irascible Roscoe Conkling and a rivalry with James G. Blaine.

His partnership with Conkling began in earnest 1868 upon Arthur’s appointment as chairman of the New York City Republican executive committee. Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur to the “lucrative and politically powerful” New York port Collector, solidifying him as a member of the Republican Party’s Stalwart faction. Collector was an important job, but also one that lined his and many others’ pockets, as he took a cut from every item that came through the port.

The Stalwarts controlled the majority of the party and reigned in a machine that doled out jobs through patronage. In fact, their only real platform was keeping the spoils system intact. But when Rutherford B. Hayes became president, he aimed to remove the patronage system as he had removed liquor from the White House — quickly and with much fanfare. He fired Arthur from his post and issued an executive order forbidding federal employees from managing political campaigns and requiring “donations” to campaigns. This set up a huge fight with Conkling, who initially was going to run for president in 1880, and James Blaine, a reform-minded senator who also was running.

The 1880 Republican convention was a stalemate until votes started moving over for James Garfield. To placate the Stalwarts in the party, he offered the vice presidency to Arthur. Conkling tried to persuade Arthur to decline, but Arthur, saying “the office of the Vice-President is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining,” accepted.

The race was close, but Garfield prevailed. Arthur used his connections–and more importantly, his money–to secure victory in New York and, likely, the country.

Arthur wanted Garfield to fill federal jobs with Stalwarts and worked hard to secure the secretary of treasury for the Stalwarts, but not only would Garfield not agree (even though the Stalwarts claimed he had promised them a position upon his nomination), he appointed Blaine as secretary of state. To make matters worse for the Stalwarts, Democrats had an advantage in the Senate due to four vacancies. With their newfound, if not permanent, majority, the Democrats moved fast to establish a speaker and gain control of the Senate. Conkling continued to try to influence the process, trying to delay votes and get his cronies nominated to important posts. When Garfield continued to refuse him, he and New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned in protest. It didn’t work, and their careers were over.

And Arthur’s was just beginning. He was in Albany on July 2 when Garfield was shot and laid low while Garfield hung onto life for the next few months. No one seriously believed that Charles Guiteau had shot Garfield to get Arthur in office, but there were still rumblings that patronage would make a comeback under President Arthur.

To everyone’s surprise—and especially Conkling’s—that didn’t happen. Though many assumed he’d revert back to his ways, especially after he was linked to the 1870s Star Route scandal, in which remote post offices were set up with low bids and grossly overpaid for their services, he came to champion civil service reform. In fact, he was preparing to be a good legislator while Garfield suffered. After attending Garfield’s funeral, he sent a sealed envelope requesting a special session of Congress to name a President Pro Tempore in the event that he died en route to Washington, since there was no vice president. He later destroyed the envelope and though the Senate did fill its empty seats, he never had a vice president.

Arthur worked with Congress on immigration reform and vetoed a measure to severely restrict Chinese immigration to the US. The Senate propose an all-out ban of 20 years, but Arthur said it was too harsh. He did approve a revised ban of 10 years and signed that into law, however. He also worked to build up the navy, establish relations with Central and South America and brokered peace between Mexico and Guatemala.

Arthur’s sister, Mary Arthur McElroy served as White House hostess. Arthur liked fancy dress, a good drink and a good party and threw many shindigs as president.

But he also was a sound legislator. Or as Journalist Alexander McClure wrote, “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired … more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.”

Shortly after his inauguration, he was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, a serious kidney ailment that he was able to keep secret until 1883 when he began to show signs of weakness and weight loss. He began to take trips to Florida in the hopes that he’d get better. He decided against running for election in 1884 and retired to New York, where the Stalwarts tried to get him to run for Senate, but he declined. He died in 1886.

States Admitted to the Union: None


#20 James Garfield

Life: November 19, 1831 – September 19, 1881

Presidential Years: 1881

Vice President: Chester A. Arthur

The book: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (339 pages)

Date finished: Feb. 7, 2017

In a train station in Washington, DC, just weeks into his presidency, James Garfield was shot by an insane man who believed he was doing God’s and Garfield’s enemies’ work. Ten doctors immediately rushed to his aide. And if they had done nothing, Garfield would have survived. Instead, they poked and prodded him with unsanitary fingers and probes, relentlessly for hours, days, weeks, months. Garfield’s body filled with pus and infection and in September 1881, he died from infection, not his assassin’s bullet, which his body had isolated on his left side. Doctors kept probing his right side, convinced that his bullet was underneath his liver. In fact, it was behind his pancreas and caused him no danger.

While sterilization was a source of discussion in the medical community– Joseph Lister had been “traveling the world, proving the source of infection and pleading with physicians to sterilize their hands and instruments,” most doctors in the US shunned his theories. The first doctor “inserted an unsterilized finger into the wound in his back, causing a small hemorrhage and almost certainly introducing an infection that was far more lethal than Guiteau’s bullet.”

Alexander Graham Bell was even brought in to test his new induction machine on the president in the hopes of finding the bullets. But Garfield’s controlling doctor, Bliss, would only allow him to examine the side he believed the bullet was in. In fact, Bliss made all of the doctors leave, downgraded Garfield’s family doctors essentially to nurses and controlled the information so strongly that it wasn’t until the very end that the nation knew just how bad it was.

Born into poverty in Ohio, James Garfield was destined for a life of education leadership. He graduated with honors from Williams College and came back to Ohio to teach at the Eclectic Institute, where he became school president at 26. But in 1859, a state senator died and Garfield was asked to stand for election. He won the election and then joined the Union Army, where he earned a promotion to colonel by 30. In his first major battle, his Ohio troops were outmanned by troops in Kentucky. But by studying the maps, he developed a strategy that made it seem that the army was bigger than it was and he scored a major victory.

While still in the army, he was elected to Congress, but stayed on the battlefield until Abraham Lincoln personally asked him to come to Washington in 1863. As a politician, he was known as a great speaker. He was also fully anti-slavery.

“Although Garfield had chosen a life of calm, rational thought, when it came to abolition he freely admitted that he had “never been anything else than radical.” He found it difficult to condemn even the most violent abolitionists, men like John Brown whose hatred of slavery allowed for any means of destroying it.”

In 1880, he was tasked with giving the nominating speech for John Sherman at the Republican Convention. But his speech was so great–and opposed Roscoe Conkling, leader of the Stalwarts, a segment of the party that favored the spoils system–that he was held up for nomination instead. The balloting lasted two days  and after more than 60 ballots, “Garfield was left with 399 votes, 20 more than were needed to win. Having never agreed to become even a candidate— on the contrary, having vigorously resisted it— he was suddenly the nominee.”

Meanwhile, Charles Guiteau, a grifter, conman and sometime preacher was stalking Garfield, convinced first that he would give him an ambassadorship because he plagiarized a speech and gave it once, which convinced him he helped elected the president. When that failed, he became convinced that God told him to kill the president to help Arthur and the Stalwarts gain the office. As the two men’s lives ran in parallel, Garfield assumed the White House, complete with a view of the unfinished Washington Monument. The White House was also in disrepair and Lucretia Garfield convinced Congress to give her the $30,000 it would not give Lucy Hayes for needed repairs.

Because of his desire to improve education in the South and finish joining them back into the Union, he was seen as president by North and South. It was the first time in a long time that had happened, and made his assassination all the worse.

States Admitted to the Union: None

#19 Rutherford B. Hayes

Life: October 4, 1822 – January 17, 1893

Presidential Years: 1877-1881

Vice President: William A. Wheeler

The book: Rutherford B. Hayes and His America by Harry Barnard (606 pages)

Date finished: Dec. 21, 2016

Rutherford B. Hayes is one of those forgotten presidents who, when you learn about him, you wonder why. He had some interesting views–he was a teetotaller, sort of and mostly because his wife wanted him to be; he thought Ohio was the greatest thing in the world; and he very much cared about education and social justice. He was a very accomplished lawyer, soldier and politician and was the only president to be wounded in the Civil War.

And mirroring recent events, his victory in the 1876 was one of the most contentious ever. He lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden, although because of voter suppression in the South, it’s not completely known who actually won the popular vote. He won the electoral college after a Congressional Commission, conveniently formed of more Republicans than Democrats, awarded him 20 contested electoral votes.

But unlike some today, he did believe in education for all.

“Hayes point—that it was difficult for a demagogue to manipulate an educated electorate—was well taken. Demagogues routinely exploited poor southern whites by plaing the race card when there were issues in which poor blacks and poor whites shared common interests.”

He helped found Ohio State University, sat on two major educational boards and championed equal rights for blacks and education for the poor. He also tried to eliminate the spoils system in government and civil service, believing that everyone should be in a meritocracy, regardless of race or status. He met with limited success.

Hayes married Lucy Webb in 1852 and often spoke of his love for her throughout his life. They had been married nearly 40 years when she died in 1889.

Before politics, he was a lawyer and Cincinnati solicitor from 1858-61. He felt drawn to the military at the beginning of the Civil War and served as an officer. He served in Congress from 1865-67 and as governor of Ohio from 1868-77, serving three terms. His first term, he was still in the Army when elected. When urged to abandon the Army to campaign, he reportedly said, “an officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer for a seat in Congress ought to be scalped.”


As president, he followed his wife’s lead and made the White House dry, allowing some to quip that the “water flowed like wine.” He tried to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments but congress didn’t want to provide military support or monetary support for education to the South. And he had to deal with the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which prompted workers from numerous railroads to walk off their jobs and started riots in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis. Hayes was reluctant to send in federal troops until the governor requested them. Ultimately he did send in federal troops to put down the riots and public opinion forced the railroads to improve benefits and not cut service.

Hayes trusted Interior Secretary Carl Schurz with the American Indian policy, preventing the War Department from taking over the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Their policies included assimilation, education and household land division. Hays wanted the Native Americas to be self-sufficient and have peace with whites. He dealt with uprisings by the Nez Perce, Utes, Ponca and Sioux over land disputes.

In 1880, he and Lucy took a 71-day tour of the American West. This made him the first sitting president to go west of the Rockies. They took the railroad from Chicago to Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. After visiting Sacramento and San Francisco, they went to Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash., then Seattle and San Francisco. On the way back to Washington, he stopped in Ohio to vote in the 1880 presidential election. But he wasn’t running–having promised to only serve one term. So he voted for fellow Ohioan James Garfield. He was happy to have another Ohioan in office and mentored both Garfield and future Ohioan president William McKinley.  After leaving office, he Hayes advocated for federal education subsidies for all children. He believed only education could raise people out of poverty and ignorance. 


He also oversaw the building of the Washington Monument, whose design continued to change and sometimes suffered from funding issues. But not under Hayes.

After his presidency, he spoke in favor of education and against the disparity between rich and poor. He died in 1893 on trip to give a speech.

Fun facts: He was the first president to have a telephone and a typewriter in the White House and was the first president to visit the West Coast. He loved Oregon.

States Admitted to the Union: None

#18 Ulysses S. Grant

Life: April 27, 1822 – July 23, 1885

Presidential Years: 1869-1877

Vice President: Schuyler Colfax, Henry Wilson

The book: Grant: A Biography by William S. McFeely (608 pages)

Date finished: July 1, 2016

War Hero. Business Failure. President with corrupt administration. Tried to annex the Dominican Republic to make it Liberia. But also championed racial harmony and presided over the longest stretch of war-free presidency to that point.

Both complicated and misunderstood, Grant was a celebrated war-hero, a failure in business and known to have led the most corrupt presidential administration until Harding’s in the 1920s. But he was not a drunk as everyone said. He was not simple, and he liked to disappoint his detractors, especially his father.

He went into West Point at 16. In 1843, he graduated from West Point and was assigned to St. Louis. He served in the Mexican–American War  where he became known for his horsemanship and bravery. He also began studying military strategy. After the war, he was stationed in Detroit and then in Oregon, where he went by himself since his wife Julia was pregnant. He was miserable and considered quitting the military. He started a number of business ventures but they all failed. He retired in 1854 but rejoined the Army for the Civil War and quickly took Kentucky and Tennessee for the Union. In 1863, he seized Vicksburg and earned control of the Mississippi River. In 1864, he was promoted to lieutenant general and commanding general of the US Army. After victories in Virginia and Sherman’s march to the sea, Robert E. Lee surrendered to him at Appomattox in 1865. 

As Lincoln looked toward the 1864 election, he worried that Grant may try to take the nomination from him, but Grant was not interested in leaving the Army yet. After the Civil War, Grant remained commander of the Army and oversaw Reconstruction in the South. He also opposed Andrew Johnson’s attempts remove Stanton as war secretary and install Grant in the position. This move gave him the upper hand in the 1868 election, which Grant won handily.

As president, Grant urged Congress to pass the 14th amendment, created the Justice Department to enforce laws in the South, passed the Enforcement Acts to weaken the Ku Klux Klan, enacted a peace policy toward Native Americans and named Ely Parker, a Native American, to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tried to annex the Dominican Republic for the United States. But Congress wouldn’t appropriate the money. He tried to set monetary policy and passed laws that established the gold standard.

But his administration was also tarnished by corruption, as the pace of expansion in railroads, oil and steel led to government corruption. Although he was never implicated, many members of his administration and the government were. Grant decided not to run for a third term and was replaced by Rutherford B. Hayes.

The Grants embarked on a world tour, where they were celebrated everywhere they went. Grant came home to try to run for a third term but did not win the Republican nomination. So he went home to New York City and worked on his memoirs. Throat cancer killed him in 1885.

States Admitted to the Union:

  • Colorado (38) 1876

#17 Andrew Johnson

Life: December 29, 1808 – July 31, 1875

Presidential Years: 1865-1869

Vice President: None

The book: Andrew Johnson (The American Presidents, #17) by Annette Gordon-Reed (192 pages)

Date finished: January 12, 2016

When your boss says to Congress,  “oh don’t worry, he ain’t a drunk” when you show up to be inaugurated as vice president, perhaps it’s a sign that your political career isn’t going well. That’s what Abraham Lincoln said upon Johnson showing up drunk on whiskey to the 1865 presidential inauguration, his first as vice president.

A few weeks later, he’d be president. He was a complete contrast to Lincoln — Democrat, southern, not really feeling the whole Reconstruction thing. He became the first president to be impeached, though he avoided prosecution by one vote.

Before turning to politics, Johnson was a poor man in North Carolina and Tennessee. He was a mayor, US rep and senator as well as governor of Tennessee.  Because he was the only confederate senator not to resign his seat when his state seceded, Lincoln named him military governor of Tennessee, an important border state.

After Lincoln’s assassination, he was sworn in three hours later. Johnson changed course on reconstructions, enacting proclamations allowing the states to hold elections to renew their governments, leading to the return of many old leaders and black codes to deprive blacks of freedom. He opposed the 14th Amendment, which gave former slaves citizenship and vetoed bills intended to deprive southern states of racist representation. In response to his moves, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which lowered the president’s ability to fire Cabinet members. Still, he tried to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, leading the House to impeach him. Though he lost the 1868 election to Grant, he was elected senator again in 1875.  

States Admitted to the Union:

  • Nebraska (37) 1864

#16 Abraham Lincoln

Life: February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865

Presidential Years: 1861-1865

Vice President: Hannibal Hamlin, Andrew Johnson

The book: Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years by Carl Sandburg (762 pages)

Date finished: December 24, 2015

What is there to be said about “Honest Abe” that isn’t already known. As an Illinoisan and in honor of his greatness, I felt I should read something significant about him. I chose an abridged version of Carl Sandburg’s Pulitzer Prize winning canon on Lincoln. Abridged to 762 pages. And Sandburg certainly gave Lincoln his due. From his birth in Kentucky, to his time as a riverboat man, rail splitter and then lawyer and politician in Illinois to his presidency and assassination, this was a very in-depth account of a man many already know.

As a state senator, he successfully blocked an attempt to sell the six northernmost counties of Illinois to Wisconsin, which would’ve included Chicago. He was a great debater and a slight eccentric, often seen carrying notes in his top hat.

He supported growth of the country through the rail system as a senator and congressman. He switched from the Whig party to the new Republican party and was almost named a vice president candidate in 1856. He won election in 1860 on a platform of unifying the country and opposing slavery in expansion areas. Seven states seceded before he even took office. Changing his vice president to Tennessee’s Andrew Johnson helped him secure reelection, though a big victory by Grant at the Battle of Five Forks, which led to Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, helped. As did the South not voting, since they were a foreign country then. Sort of.

As the war ended and Reconstruction began, Lincoln signed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill to aid former slaves. But he didn’t see Reconstruction as a way to force social change. He believed voting requirements should be set by states, but had he not been assassinated, many assume he would’ve listened to civil rights arguments.

But progress came to a halt with a bullet from John Wilkes Booth’s gun. Andrew Johnson was far less hospitable, despite being a friendly southerner. Lincoln’s funeral train traveled a circuitous route from Washington, DC, to Springfield, Ill., for three weeks so the nation could mourn.

Fun fact: When Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Chicago, at Michigan Ave. and 12th Street, “bar owners were busy. As were pickpockets.” The more things change….

Fun fact 2: President Obama used Lincoln’s bible for his swearing in in both 2008 and 2012.

States added to the Union:

  • West Virginia (35) 1863
  • Nevada (36) 1864

#15 James Buchanan

Life: April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868

Presidential Years: 1857-1861

Vice President: John C. Breckinridge

The book: James Buchanan (American Presidents, #15) by Jean H. Baker (192 pages)

Date finished: December 12, 2014

And now the man who did the most damage to the Union. The only bachelor president, Buchanan was rumored to also be the only gay president; he and his friend, Alabama senator (and Pierce’s vice president) William Rufus King, had a special relationship, living together in a Washington boardinghouse for 10 years. Andrew Jackson called them Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy. He developed a romanticized view of the south and refused to act against the states looking to secede from the Union because, though secession was illegal, so too was using the military to stop it.

Prior to becoming president, he served in the House and the Senate from Pennsylvania and as minister to Russia when Jackson was president. He then served as Polk’s secretary of state and is the last secretary of state to serve as president. He refused an offer to serve on the Supreme Court and accepted Pierce’s appointment as ambassador to the UK. It was because he was out of the country during the Kansas-Nebraska Act and wasn’t responsible for its mess that gave him a primary victory over Pierce and an election victory over John C. Fremont and Millard Fillmore (running as a Know Nothing).

But he sympathized with the South and tried to get Kansas admitted as a slave state, angering most of the country. And when Ft. Sumter was fired upon and South Carolina started the secession process, he did nothing. Still, he believed he would be looked upon favorably in the future. He’s not.

Fun facts: Buchanan was the last president to be born in the 18th century.

States Admitted to the Union:

  • Minnesota (32) 1858
  • Oregon (33) 1859
  • Kansas (34) 1861