This post is not directly related to the Church, but it concerns an inspiring event in U.S. History that I heard about for the first time recently on the Washington Post’s Presidential Podcast. I thought it was worth sharing on this blog because it is a story that powerfully illustrates many gospel principles. In particular, it truly affirms for me the powerful impact that one person who sees and encourages the potential in another can have. This is the story of one obscure woman, Julia Sands, who provided the moral conscience for a president.
Leading up to the election of 1880, the republican party was split into two diametrically opposed factions. The stalwarts were supporters of the political machine and particularly the system of patronage which allowed the winner of an election to give civic service positions to political supporters. This system created great government corruption and perpetuated the prestige and power of power brokers who headed the patronage machines in each town. The half-breeds on the other hand supported civil service reform which would apply merits tests for many government positions.
In this environment the party was divided and stalled on multiple ballots (Between Ulysses S. Grant who represented the Stalwarts and James G. Blaine representing the half-breeds. After thirty five ballots, dark horse candidate James Garfield — a Senator from Ohio and a decorated war hero was placed up for nomination and after a few more ballots he secured the nomination. Garfield was a Half-breed committed to civil service reform, and so to appease the Stalwarts Chester A. Arthur was chosen as Vice-President.
Arthur was widely seen as a poor choice for the position. The highest office he had ever held was Collector of Customs of the Port of New York, a position which was known to be one of them most corrupt ones in the whole country. He was a supporter of machine boss Roscoe Conkling and as vice president he undermined Garfield and strongly supported Conkling’s efforts to gain power.
Then, after only six months in office President Garfield was fatally shot. The country was in mourning over the loss of a president but also at the thought that Arthur would be President. His actions as vice-president up to the shooting confirmed the worst fears of many. There were suspicions of complicity in the assassination and calls for Arthur to resign.
In this period, Arthur received a letter from Julia Sands, an unknown woman who wrote to him a characteristically blunt letter. This letter minced no words as it told Arthur that many people were dreading his presidency and declaring that he could not possibly succeed. But Sands offered Arthur words of support and encouragement. She emphasized that “[g]reat emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life!” And that once in a while a crisis can “render miracles feasible.:” She urged Arthur to seek deep within himself and “[d]o what is more difficult & brave. Reform!.” And she offered this memorable challenge, “[i]f there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine.”
In another letter soon afterwards, Sands lay out her remarkable life philosophy which she hoped to share with the President. She noted that she did “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.” Instead, she “prefer[ed] to think of them as things with infinite power of growth.” In another letter she noted that while others were surprised when Arthur did the right hing, she was “never surprised because I expect it of you. If you had done otherwise, I should have been dismally disappointed.” She wrote letters throughout his presidency and never stopped encouraging him and also challenging him to rise above his limitations.
And rise above he did. Arthur confounded his critics and became a strong supporter of civil service reform. He fiercely combated government corruption and fought for the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. He lowered tariffs and vetoed pork-barrel laden bills. He also took strong but unpopular stances such as vetoing the first version of the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act (although a latter amended version was enacted). Arthur also became the “father” of the modern navy. All in all, Arthur is regarded as a highly competent president who truly lived up to the potential of the office.
Arthur never wrote back and never mentioned Sands’ letters to other. But there is reason to believe that her letters made an impact on him. Arthur payed Sands an unexpected visit on one occasion. And after his presidency her letters were among the few documents that were preserved rather than burned.
I love this story because I think it illustrates the impact that a single voice of encouragement and optimism can have. Arthur must have felt weighted down and discouraged with the calls for resignation after Garfield was shot. He must have felt great pressure to give in to his friends and do what was expedient rather than what was right. Sands’ letters provided hope at a moment of despair. And she summoned his better angels encouraging him to rise above his station. She is a relatively obscure and forgotten voice in history. But her impact can still be felt in our government today through the modern civil service system. And her faith in the potential of Arthur is truly inspiring to me.
Sands was obscure, physically disabled, unmarried, and powerless. And yet her willingness to speak out made a difference. We should never feel like our words or example are futile or meaningless.