If you haven’t listened to the great Presidential podcast by Lillian Cunningham of the Washington Post, now’s the time. Her latest episode concerns Chester Arthur and they discuss Julia Sand’s influence on his presidency. You can listen here:
JULIA I. SAND (1850 – 1933) was an American woman who corresponded with the American President Chester A. Arthur, beginning in late August 1881 (Reeves, 245). Arthur saved 23 letters, all of which were discovered in 1958 after his grandson, Chester Alan Arthur III, sold his grandfather’s papers to the Library of Congress. The last surviving letter is dated September 15, 1883. It is not known whether Arthur ever wrote back as no letter from him has ever been found. Sand often referred to herself as the President’s “little dwarf”, an allusion to the idea that in a royal court, only the dwarf would have the courage to tell the truth (Reeves, 296)
Julia Sand was the 8th daughter of a German emigrant named Christian Henry Sand who became President of the Metropolitain Gas Light Company of New York. (Reeves, 83). She lived in Brooklyn until Mr. Sand died in 1867, at which point the family moved to New Jersey. By 1880, they had settled at 46 East 74th Street in New York City. One of her brothers died in the Civil War, which may have inspired her concern in politics. (Ibid).
She was educated, read French, enjoyed poetry and traveled to fashionable Saratoga Springs and Newport. At the time she began writing Arthur, she was bedridden due to spinal trouble, lameness and deafness (Reeves, 296)
Most of what is known about Sand comes from the surviving letters to President Arthur. “I am a poor little woman who has always been the youngest of her family, who, consequently, if she lives to be fifty, will always be treated like a child – who would have no comfort in life is she could not occasionally scold some very big man.” (Letter of 09/28/1881).
She may have also been an artist, as at one point she asked Arthur for permission to paint him in watercolors. (Sheely, 117).
The First Letter
Julia Sand wrote her first letter when she was thirty-one. Dated August 27, 1881, it reached Arthur when he was still vice-president. Arthur’s predecessor, President James A. Garfield, had been shot by the assassin Charles Guiteau; it took nearly two months for Garfield to die, during which time Vice-President Arthur was in seclusion. Upon being caught, Guiteau had announced his hope that Arthur would be president and there was a brief investigation into whether Guiteau had been hired by Garfield’s enemies. Though this was disproven, there were threats to Arthur’s life and he feared making public appearances. (Reeves, 74). Arthur’s past was tied to various scandals involving the New York Customhouse and it was feared by many that an Arthur presidency would be a disastrous thing. The Republican party was divided between “Stalwarts” (supporters of Ulysses Grant and party boss Roscoe Conkling) and “Half-Breeds” (supports of Garfield and secretary of state James Blaine).
Portions from Julia Sand’s first letter include:
“The house of Garfield’s 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. 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 then 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.”
“You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence,
school boys will recite you name in the list of Presidents & tell of your
administration. And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose….”
(Letter of 09/28/1881)
The letter added that for five years she had felt “dead and buried” but the attempt on Garfield’s life and America’s lack of faith in Arthur had inspired her to attempt to inspire him.
Sand’s letters generally contained political advice, although it was interspersed with personal details and concern regarding Arthur’s health and personal life. As she had no political ties, all of her information apparently came from newspapers. Historian Thomas Reeves suggested her letters revealed a sympathy for the reformist wing of the Republican party. (Reeves, 77) In a letter of January 7, 1882, she remarked that it was rumored his visits to New York were because he was engaged. “Do you remember any other President as restless as yourself, who was rushing home every few weeks? If, as Washington gossip hints, you are engaged and wish to see the lady without having her name dragged before the public – of course the end justifies the means.” (Quoted in Millard, 276). In the same letter, she remarked on an incident when Arthur had kissed a baby with such discomfort that she “had thought of Pickwick and almost died laughingly” (Dehler, 84).
In October, 1881, Sand wrote:
“I am not prompted by egotism. 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.”
(Letter of October 5, 1881)
James Garfield died in September, 1881 and Arthur was sworn in as President. After giving his inaugural address, he received another letter dated September 25, 1881. She counseled him to let country mourn and that he should show compassion to help the national heal. “You are a better & nobler man,” she wrote. “[Due to] the manner in which you have borne yourself through this long, hard ordeal.” (Letter of 09/25/1881).
On October 27, 1881, she wrote to him regarding the first month of his presidency:
“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….”
(Letter of 10/27/1881)
Sand began to urge Arthur to visit her in a letter dated November 8, 1881 and subsequent letters indicated annoyance that he had not acknowledged the invitation. (Reeves, 295).
Arthur came into conflict with Garfield’s cabinet, leading to widespread defection. Sand encouraged him to keep Secretary of State James Blaine (who she called “that old fox”) but was wary of him giving any position to former President Grant, saying: “Do not let people believe that he is to influence your administration. He will never give you an idea that is new, or deep, or even bright.” She also commented on the resignation of Attorney General Wayne MacVeagh: “If Mr. McV thinks he is doing a grand thing in resigning, he is mistaken – he is doing a small one….Just now it looks as if you were trying pretty hard to do your duty, & he was not trying at all.” (Letter of 10/27/1881)
Sand urged Arthur to stay out of the Congressional elections of 1882, advice he ignored (Reeves, 78). Following the Republican defeat, Sand wrote:
“How sad it must be for anyone to look back and feel that the
best strength of their manhood has all been wasted on unworthy
ends. For your own stake and for the sake of those who love you,
do not fill your life with actions which afterwards bring you only
regret. Go back to Washington – forget New York, political strife
and personal animosity. Remember that you are President of the
United States – work only for the good of the country. And bear in mind,
that, in a free country, the only bulwark of power worth trusting, is
the affection of the people.”
(Letter of 10/09/1882)
Visit with Arthur
As early as November, 1881, Sand had begun intimating that she wished for the President to visit her. (Reeves, 80).
On August 20, 1882, President Arthur paid a visit to Julia Sand at her home. He arrived “in a wonderful short rig…with two men on the box in claret livery” (Reeves, 83). It was after dinner, at a point when Sand was prostrate on a sofa having “disdained roast beef and scorned peach pie”. She heard Arthur’s voice, which she mistook for that of “gentle-voiced Episcopalian minister” (Letter of 09/24/1882).
Sand described the visit in a long letter dated August 24, 1882. Arthur stayed for an hour, but Sand was flustered by his arrival and hid behind a curtain throughout the visit (Dehler, 81). Then she asked him if he was fond of music.
“You said: ‘Reasonably,’ – and what an unreasonable answer!
If you had said: “irrationally”, I would have made my sister
and my brothers sing a long trio from German or Italian opera.
And when they were embarked on the high C’s, you might have argued,
scolded, in fact, picked up the chairs and thrown them at me and no
one would have noticed it, provided you calmed down in time to say:
‘Oh, how beautiful!’ at the end, with a clear idea whether it was
Mozart or Meyerbeer that you were applauding.”
(Letter of 09/24/1882)
This and other letters indicate that they discussed politics and that Sand was generally disappointment with her behavoir during the visit. She also reported that, on leaving, she had asked the President if he had “forgiven some of the harsh things” she had said to him. He had said “No,”, leaving her uncertain as to whether Arthur was being ironic. She apparently decided Arthur looked ill as she also remarked “You ought not to keep your malaria a secret and endure it so patiently.”
Sand clearly hoped Arthur would return. Following a Presidential visit to Newport, she wrote:
“If only you had been visiting me, I would gladly have killed
the fatted cat (the only animal we at present possess!) and cooked
it myself, if necessary, but as to inviting the neighbors to dine
with you – or take you away from me – I would do nothing of the kind.”
(Letter of 09/26/1882)
Sand remained an ardent supported of Arthur throughout his presidency and once remarked “As yet I have not met anybody who believes in you, as I do.” (Quoted in Millard, 276).
On August 1, 1882, Arthur vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Act over concerns that it had been filled with projects designed to raid the treasury and curry favor with various special interest groups. Sand wrote that the veto had “sent a thrill of enthusiasm” through her, echoing the general feeling of the American people (Dehler, 128). Sand also encouraged Arthur to veto the Chinese Exclusion Act, which he did in April, 1882.
“Do you feel flattered how awfully surprised [people] are,
whenever you do anything good. Well, go on surprising them.
But I am never surprised because I expect it of you. If you
had done otherwise, I should have been dismally disappointed.”
(Letter of 04/1882)
However, Arthur passed a compromise measure in May, prompting Sand to ask why he “took comfort in half measures”? (Quoted in Dehler, 137). She went on to remark:
“It requires about three times as much vitality to run the brain
properly as to run all the rest of the body….if a matter is to
be dealt with conscientiously, it means that you must read & write,
talk & listen, weigh the evidence on this side & on that. Yes, it is
very troublesome – but then, some things are worth the trouble.“
(Letter of 09/29/1882)
During the trials regarding the Star Route scandal – in which postal officials were receiving bribes in exchange for prime postal delivery routes – Sand advised not to “do anything weak in the Star Route cases…. If you must suffer, by all means suffer for the sake of truth & justice. What we suffer for wrong, degrades us – what we suffer for right, gives us strength.” (Letter of 09/15/1882)
Sand’s mother died in 1884 and Julia went to live with her sisters in Brooklyn. She apparently wrote for several magazines but remained a recluse. She never married and died in 1933. (Reeves, 83).
Following his death, Chester Arthur ordered most of his personal papers destroyed yet saved Sand’s letters; this, along with the fact that he visited Sand, has led some to suggest that she may have had significant impact on his presidency. The theory was first suggested by Ari Hoogenboom, who remarked on Sand’s political insights and discussed a correlation between her suggestions and Arthur’s subsequent behavoir. It is possible to view the letters as an important window into the evolution of Arthur’s character. A disciple of party boss Roscoe Conkling, Arthur ended his loyalty to Conkling and worked to reunite the divisions within the Republican party. It may be mere coincidence that Arthur’s transformation coincides with Sand’s recommendations; but there remains the two unassailable facts that Arthur kept the letters and that he visited Sand while he was President. These two facts would seem to suggest that he may have indeed taken into consideration the advice of his “little dwarf.”
Dehler, Gregory J. Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age Politician and President. Nova Science Publishers, New York: 2007.
Hoogenboom, Ari. Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement 1865 – 1883. Urbana, 1961.
Millard, Candice. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. Doubleday, New York. 2011.
Reeves, Thomas C. Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester A. Arthur . Knopf, New York. 1975
Reeves, Thomas C. “The President’s Dwarf: The Letters of Julia Sand to Chester A. Arthur” in New York History. New York State Historical Association. New York. Vol LII. January 1971.
Shelley, Fred. “The Chester A. Arthur Papers” in Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions. Vol 16. No 3 (May 1959).