Chester A. Arthur's "Little Dwarf": The Correspondence of Julia I. Sand
At a time when few women could vote or hold public office, a thirty-one-year-old New York woman took it upon herself to write at least twenty-three letters to President Chester A. Arthur, judging, advising, praising, and reprimanding the sitting president of the United States. This article introduces you to that woman and what she had to say.
"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." With this startlingly frank statement, Julia I. Sand of New York City began her August 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. This would be the first of twenty-three extraordinary letters Sand wrote to Arthur between 1881 and 1883, which now form part of the Chester Alan Arthur Papers at the Library of Congress.
On July 2, 1881, a mentally disturbed office seeker named Charles J. Guiteau shot President Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington, D.C. Guiteau's self-proclaimed motive for shooting Garfield was to remove the reformist president from office to make way for Arthur. Arthur represented the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party dedicated to the status quo. Arthur's reputation for political patronage and cronyism flourished during his 1871-1878 tenure as the collector of the New York Customs House, the most lucrative patronage position in the United States. A loyal lieutenant, Arthur toed the line for New York's Republican political boss, Senator Roscoe Conkling. Thus, many Americans feared that Garfield's death and Arthur's succession to the presidency would in essence lead to a corrupt Conkling administration. Guiteau's pronouncement, "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts," caused some to wonder if Conkling and Arthur might have had a hand in Garfield's assassination.
"What President ever entered office under circumstances so sad!" Sand continued. "The day he 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 than any bullet can pierce? Your best friends said: 'Arthur must resign—he cannot accept office, with such a suspicion resting upon him.' 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.'"
Unlike Arthur's doubters and detractors, the politically astute Julia Sand must have known something of Arthur's progressive past. "But making a man President can change him! 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." She urged him to cast aside his present associations, his pursuit of "worldly things," and follow his own moral compass. 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."
President Garfield died on September 19, 1881. After taking the oath of office at his home in New York City, Chester Alan Arthur became the 21st president of the United States. And Julia Sand continued to write with unsolicited advice and a welcome sense of humor, hoping to ensure that Arthur's record would be written in gold.
Who was the woman who penned such astonishing letters to Chester A. Arthur?
Born in New York in April 1848, Julia Isabella Sand was the youngest of nine children born to businessman Christian Heinrich (Henry) Sand (1804-1867) and his wife Isabella Julia Carter Sand (1808-1883). Her father immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1824, while her mother's family had Irish ancestry. Her brother Henry Augustus Sand (1836-1862) served in the 103rd Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry during Civil War, and died on October 30, 1862, after being wounded by sharpshooters at the battle of Antietam. Her brother Theodore V. Sand, a banker with Sand, Hamilton & Co. in New York City, may have crossed paths with Chester Arthur and other notables in Republican political or social circles in New York. By the time Julia began writing to Arthur in 1881, she lived at 46 East 74th Street in New York City, with her mother, her brother Theodore, at least two of her sisters, and three nephews. (The structure on this site as of 2020 post-dates Sand's residence there.)
Julia's letters reveal her to be educated, exceptionally literate, well-versed in political issues of the day with decided opinions on those issues, and knowledgeable about the reputations of the men with whom Arthur interacted. Her nephew, Paul B. Rossire, later confirmed that in his family, "every one, especially Aunt Julia, was interested in politics." "It was all civil service. The tariff—do you ever hear anything about that now? I was brought up on it." Julia's interests also included literature, and in 1885 she published under the pseudonym "A. P. C.," Wahrheit und Dichtung: A Psychological Study, Suggested by Certain Chapters in the Life of George Eliot External, a short book on the novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Julia wrote for magazines such as Century and Harper's, was a talented portraitist, and her brother Henry predicted in 1862 that "she will make her mark in the world one of these days as a poetess."
Whereas Julia's mind was expansive, her physical world was more confined. She described herself as an invalid, and made allusions in her letters to various physical "disadvantages," such as "deafness, lameness," back or spinal troubles, and headaches. A passing thought of attending a ball to see President Arthur in person promised "delight at catching such a concentrated glimpse of the world, after having lived in the moon so long." But her "five years of unbroken suffering, of the desparate [sic] efforts to build up the little health I have," put her off the idea. While able to travel for her health to resort areas such as Saratoga, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island, her life in New York City centered around her home and family.
It was this mostly house-bound woman with "an intense interest in politics," a keen wit, and the desire to see Chester Arthur succeed who put pen to paper in hopes of influencing the president. Unlike so many others who wrote to Arthur, she asked no favors of him, sought no position for herself, and felt free to speak to him with honesty. "I know that my opinion, as mine, can have no weight with you," she explained. "If it has any value, it is because we are strangers, because our paths have never crossed… I have no political ties. It is because it is impersonal." Perhaps her gender cloaked her with a certain amount of moral authority in that Victorian age, especially for a man who had suffered the loss of his own wife, Ellen, the year before. Regardless of the reasons, Julia became Arthur's "self-appointed conscience," according to Arthur's biographer Thomas C. Reeves.
Just after Garfield's death, Julia complimented Arthur on the dignified "manner in which you have borne yourself through this long, hard ordeal" of Garfield's incapacity. But she could not resist adding a postscript advising him to let the nation heal before making any nominations. More than once she urged him to think carefully about with whom he associated in New York, especially with regard to machine politics and politicians. (See October 5, 1881; November 18, 1881; August 15, 1882; September 13, 1882; November 8, 1882) "The Mr Arthur in Washington is another person—& the sooner he makes the country understand it, the happier it will be for all parties." She also thought he should steer clear of former President Ulysses S. Grant, whom she considered "unintellectual" and lacking in statesmanship. "If you are really fond of him . . . keep him as a friend to smoke segars with, when you have nothing else to do, but dont consult him on national affairs." She extolled the value of exercise when he worked too hard, and frequently encouraged him to take care of himself. She praised him when he met her expectations, and criticized him when he felt short. 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, even when she assured him that it pained her more to write them, than for Arthur to read them.
In the realm of politics, she commented on Arthur's cabinet and other political appointments. (See November 18, 1881; January 7, 1882; March 1882; August 28, 1882) She suggested retaining James G. Blaine as secretary of state. "In the Cabinet, he is out of mischief. Out of the Cabinet, there is no knowing what he would be in. … if you keep him in the [position] that Garfield gave him, you have a hold on all that is best in his nature." But she humorously admitted that he was "wrighter. (That is the aesthetic way of spelling it.)" to appoint Frederick T. Frelinghuysen rather than retaining Blaine. His veto of the 1882 Rivers and Harbors Act nearly moved her to tears of joy, but she lectured him on the use of his pardon power. She did not sugar-coat his detrimental role in the Republican Party's election defeat in November 1882, but reminded him that "it remains for you to decide what you will make of this defeat."
Julia expressed especially strong opinions on Chinese exclusion legislation, and appealed to Arthur to veto the bills passed by Congress. (See March 1882; April 1882; May 1882) "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." "At all events do not let your Administration be marked by any such disgraceful retrograde movements." Arthur's initial veto of the Chinese Exclusion Bill "delighted" Julia, but his signature on a revised bill brought her wrath down upon him. "Are you going to let your administration be a failure?" she asked. "Cannot you rouse yourself to a higher code of action?" 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."
Julia apparently kept her letters to President Arthur a secret from her friends and family, a silence made easier to maintain in the absence of written responses from Arthur. Occasionally she urged him to reply, but no evidence exists to suggest he ever wrote to her. She also dropped hints as to when Arthur would find her at home alone, should he ever decide to visit her while in New York. This he did do, much to her surprise and that of her family. On August 20, 1882, the day after she wrote him a plaintive letter inquiring about his feelings towards her advice and admonitions, Arthur arrived at the Sand home on 74th Street for a surprise visit. The press seemed to have taken no notice of it, but in subsequent letters (see August 24, August 28, and October 9, 1882) Julia recorded some details of their interview, which did not go quite as she had so often imagined the scene would play out. Instead of her meeting with him alone for a private chat, most of her family was at home and she felt too flustered to have the type of substantive 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. She never did. Julia continued to write to Arthur, appealing to him to visit again. But his visit of August 20 appears to have been their only meeting, and her letters continued to go unanswered.
Many of her subsequent missives betrayed a note of sadness or disappointment in Arthur's conduct. She insisted that her friendship towards him remained steadfast, but she pleaded to "not let the good I have believed of you be all a mistake." Julia certainly must have cheered Arthur's January 16, 1883, signature that transformed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act into law, but if she wrote to praise Arthur, the letter may no longer exist. Julia wrote her last known letter to her "very bad Friend" Chester Arthur from Newport, Rhode Island, on September 15, 1883. For once she said nothing about politics or policies. She just wanted him to visit her. Months of "care & sorrow" and illness made her feel a decade older than at their last meeting, and she had an "idea [that] I would like you to come & talk to me." She liked the sound of his voice, and wanted to hear about his western trip with General Philip H. Sheridan in July. "It is very hard for me to take hold of life again," she confessed, "& I am very grateful to those who help me at all to be cheerful."
Chester A. Arthur served out the remaining days of his presidency. While the Republican Party chose James G. Blaine over Arthur as its ultimately unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1884, Arthur left office having served far more independently and competently than most Americans expected he would in September 1881. Arthur returned to his home and law firm in New York City in 1885, but on November 18, 1886, he died of a kidney ailment then known as Bright's disease.
Julia Sand's life did not have a happy ending. On July 3, 1886, the Watertown (N.Y.) Herald newspaper reported that "Miss Julia I. Sand, of Brooklyn, a beautiful and brilliant young lady of rare literary accomplishments" had been committed to a "lunatic asylum" in Middletown, N.Y., her "unsettled" mind ascribed to the trauma of witnessing a paramour's drowning three years before. While the exact cause of her commitment is not clear, Julia appears to have remained institutionalized until her death in May 1933, residing mainly at the Long Island Home sanitarium in Amityville, New York. She was interred with other family members at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1937, Chester A. Arthur's grandson, Chester A. "Gavin" Arthur III, inherited from his late father, Chester A. Arthur II, approximately 1,800 documents relating to President Arthur. Included in this archive were the twenty-three letters written by Julia I. Sand, which apparently had been stored in a bank vault with other Arthur papers and had gone unread for decades. Intrigued by the letters and their author, Gavin Arthur placed a notice in the New York Herald Tribune in February 1938, requesting assistance from anyone with information about Julia Sand. The notice inspired a newspaper article about Gavin's quest, which led him to Julia's nephew, Paul B. Rossire. Rossire characterized his aunt as "a talented woman, something of a blue-stocking with an extraordinary interest in politics and a zeal for civil service reform." "It was a talented family," he recalled, and "at their home could always be found the most interesting people." Rossire had been present when President Arthur paid his August 20, 1882, visit to the Sand home, and was most impressed with the impeccable attire for which Arthur was known. Rossire told Gavin Arthur that President Arthur had arrived at the Sand house at 8:00 p.m., "the correct time for calls in the '80s," and "arrived in a very smart brougham with two horses and two men on the box dressed in claret colored livery." According to newspaper reports, "After [Julia's] death Mr. Rossire and a cousin unthinkingly destroyed her papers, which might have contained some of the rare Arthur epistolary material." Would that Julia's letters had come to Gavin Arthur's attention just a few years earlier!
The destruction of Julia's papers does not represent the only archival loss in documenting Chester A. Arthur's life and presidency. Witness testimony suggests that not long before his death, President Arthur ordered the destruction of most of his personal papers. While his reasons for doing so can only be guessed at, the loss to posterity is incalculable. Historians and biographers of Arthur find it that much harder to document his inner life, motivations, and actions. But significantly, saved from the fire was an envelope containing the twenty-three letters from his "little dwarf," Julia I. Sand. The Library of Congress later acquired this correspondence as part of a purchase of Chester Alan Arthur papers from his grandson, Gavin Arthur. Were Julia's letters just overlooked while the fire raged? Or did President Arthur want them to survive for later historians to know of her influence on him and his administration?
In the absence of a definitive explanation for their survival, for Julia'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," Julia wrote Arthur in May 1882, "I should feel that I had not lived in vain."
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- Arthur Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. LC catalog record.
- Chester Alan Arthur Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. LC catalog record.
- "Crazed by a Tragedy." Detroit Free Press, June 26, 1886.
- Findagrave.com. See entries for Julia Isabella Sand,
- Fitzgerald, Toni. "The Pen Pal Who Changed a President." Published online External at Narratively.com. October 10, 2019.
- Green-Wood Cemetery burial index, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, N.Y. Available online External.
- Greenberger, Scott S. The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur. New York, N.Y.: Da Capo, 2017. LC catalog record .
- "Julia Sand." Wikipedia entry External.
- New York Herald Tribune, New York, N.Y. See issues of February 10 and June 19, 1938 for articles on Chester A. "Gavin" Arthur's search for information on Julia Sand.
- New York Times, New York, N.Y. See May 19, 1933 for death notice of Julia I. Sand.
- Pothen, James. "Overlooked No More: Julia Sand, Whose Letters Inspired a President," New York Times Overlooked series, published August 8, 2018. Available online External.
- Reeves, Thomas C. Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur. New York: Knopf, 1975. LC catalog record. Reprint, Newtown, Conn.: American Political Biography Press, 1991. LC catalog record.
- Reeves, Thomas C. "The President's Dwarf: The Letters of Julia Sand to Chester A. Arthur." New York History 52, no. 1 (January 1971): 72-83. LC catalog record.
- Sand, Henry Augustus. Crossing Antietam: The Civil War Letters of Captain Henry Augustus Sand, Company A, 103rd New York Volunteers. Edited by Peter H. Sand and John F. McLaughlin. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016. LC catalog record.
- Shelley, Fred. "The Chester A. Arthur Papers." Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions 16, no. 3 (May 1959): 115-122. LC catalog record. Available online through HathiTrust External.
- United States Census Schedules for 1860-1930, held by the National Archives and Records Administration.
- Watertown Herald, Watertown, N.Y. See July 3, 1886 issue on Julia Sand.
Created April 2020