This is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Manuscript Division. It is excerpted from an essay she wrote for the Library’s collection of the Chester Alan Arthur Papers.
“The hours of Garfields life are numbered—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.”
Julia Sand letter to Chester Arthur, Aug. 27, 1881. Manuscript Division.
With this startlingly frank statement, Julia I. Sand of New York City began her Aug. 27, 1881, letter to Vice President Chester A. Arthur, then in near seclusion at his home in New York City while President James A. Garfield fought for his life in Washington, D.C. It was the first of 23 extraordinary letters Sand wrote to Arthur between 1881 and 1883, which form part of the Chester Alan Arthur Papers at the Library.
On July 2, 1881, a mentally-disturbed office seeker named Charles J. Guiteau shot President Garfield in Washington, D.C. Guiteau’s self-proclaimed motive for shooting Garfield was to remove the reformist Garfield from office to make way for Arthur, who represented the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party dedicated to the status quo, which included political patronage.
“What President ever entered office under circumstances so sad!” Sand continued. “And now your kindest opponents say: ‘Arthur will try to do right’—adding gloomily—‘He wont succeed, though—making a man President cannot change him.’” “But making a man President can change him!” Sand predicted. “At a time like this, if anything can, that can. 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.”
Chester Arthur, 1882. Prints and Photographs Division.
She appealed to his sense of history. “Your name now is on the annals of history. You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence, shool [sic] 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 whether your record shall be written in black or in gold. For the sake of your country, for your own sake & for the sakes of all who have ever loved you, let it be pure & bright.”
Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881. After taking the oath of office at his home, Arthur became the 21st president. Sand continued to write with unsolicited advice and a sense of humor, hoping to ensure that Arthur’s record would be written in gold.
Born in New York in April 1848, Julia Isabella Sand was educated, witty and exceptionally literate. She was well-versed and opinionated on politics of the day. She was knowledgeable about the reputations of the men with whom Arthur interacted.
Whereas Sand’s mind was expansive, her physical world was confined, and once described herself as an invalid. “…I have not been in society for years,” she once wrote Arthur. “I rarely go out of the house.” She made allusions in other letters to physical “disadvantages,” such as “deafness, lameness,” spinal troubles, and headaches.
She asked no favors of Arthur, sought no position for herself and felt free to speak to him with honesty. She referred to herself as his “little dwarf” who served much like a dwarf in a royal court who could tell the king hard truths.
Sand’s strong opinions on the Chinese exclusion bill, March 1882.
She expressed strong opinions on Chinese exclusion legislation in 1882, for example, and appealed to Arthur to veto the bills passed by Congress. “A congress of ignorant school boys could not devise more idiotic legislation,” she thundered. “It is not only behind the age, but behind several ages—not only opposed to the spirit of American institutions, but opposed to the spirit of civilization all the world over. … It is mean & cowardly—more than that, it is a step back into barbarism.” Arthur’s initial veto of the Chinese Exclusion Bill “delighted” Sand, but his signature on a revised bill brought her wrath down upon him. She reminded him again of his legacy, in that “nothing that you can do after will obliterate your Presidential record. That will stand, for, or against you.”
Arthur apparently never replied to these letters. But on Aug. 20, 1882, the day after she wrote him a plaintive letter, the president arrived at her door “in a very smart brougham with two horses and two men on the box dressed in claret colored livery,” a nephew later recalled.
To Sand’s chagrin, most of her family was at home and she felt too flustered to have the substantive, private conversation with Arthur she desired. A comment Arthur made to her, however, confirms that he had read her letters. “You said you would like sometime to tell me the real truth on several points, in regard to which I had fake impressions.” (Julia relied heavily on newspapers for information, and she eagerly wished to hear Arthur’s perspective on what the media had gotten wrong.)
Though she continued to write him, she never saw or heard from him again. He served out his presidency and died of a kidney ailment in 1886. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Sand was committed to a “lunatic asylum” that same year, and appears to have remained institutionalized until her death in 1933.
Her relationship with the president might have been lost to history if not for one odd detail. Though Arthur had ordered the burning of most of his personal papers shortly before his death, her letters were spared. Were her letters just overlooked? Or did Arthur want later generations to know of her influence on him?
For Sand’s sake, let us think President Arthur intended for her letters to be read someday. “If I could think that I had influenced you in the smallest degree” in following “the path of duty,” she wrote him in May 1882, “I should feel that I had not lived in vain.”
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free! — and the largest library in world history will send cool stories straight to your inbox.