Overlooked No More: Julia Sand, Whose Letters Inspired a President

A portrait of Julia Sand from the book “The Unexpected President.” In nearly two dozen letters she advised, cajoled and scolded Chester A. Arthur on policy matters large and small.

Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.

Julia Sand was 31, unmarried and homebound from an illness when she wrote the first of a remarkable series of letters to Chester A. Arthur.

It was the summer of 1881, and President James A. Garfield was dying a slow death after being shot. Arthur, his vice president, was a notorious member of the Republican political machine who was hiding from the public eye when he read Sand’s first letter.

The nation had been dreading the prospect of an Arthur presidency. A Chicago Tribune editorial described it as “a pending calamity of the utmost magnitude.” The New York Times wrote that Arthur was “about the last man who would be considered eligible” for the job. The historian Andrew Dickson White noted that even Arthur’s closest friends were reported to have said, “Chet Arthur President of the United States! Good God!”

But Sand believed in Arthur, who became president later that year. He had started his career as an idealistic lawyer, arguing and winning Jennings v. Third Ave. Railroad, a federal case decided in a Brooklyn circuit court that led to the desegregation of New York City streetcars. Sand wrote that the attempt on Garfield’s life and the lack of faith the country seemed to have in Arthur had moved her to try to inspire him.

“Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life,” Sand wrote. “If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine.” Her letter urged him, “Reform!” And reform he did.

Arthur shocked the nation, his party and his closest friends by calling on Congress to pass the Pendleton act, the nation’s first Civil Service reform. The act required that government employees pass a competitive examination to win their jobs, meaning merit — not party affiliation — determined who would work for the federal government.

Sand continued to write to Arthur throughout his presidency. In nearly two dozen letters she advised, cajoled and scolded him on policy matters large and small, from whom to keep in his cabinet to major pieces of legislation, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, which halted immigration from China and prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming American citizens.

After Arthur signed the act, despite initially vetoing a version, Sand chastised him: “Why do you not do what you do with your whole soul? — or have you only half of one? When you vetoed the Chinese Bill, the better class of people throughout the country were delighted. Now you sign it. And what is the difference, as it now stands?”

In her letters Sand would call herself Arthur’s “little dwarf,” a reference to the only member of the king’s court who would dare to tell him the truth. There is no evidence Arthur ever responded, but some historians are convinced that she was heard.

“We’ll never know for sure, but there’s good reason to believe that this anonymous young woman helped to change the course of the presidency,” Scott S. Greenberger, author of “The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur” (2017), said in an interview. “At a time when women didn’t have the ability to be involved in politics, she used these letters to influence a president and change the course of history.”

Arthur’s wife, Ellen, died of pneumonia just before he was elected vice president, and heserved as president only for the rest of what would have been Garfield’s term. While in office Arthur was given a diagnosis of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment, which, combined with grief and the strains of the presidency, left him depressed, exhausted and nauseated. He made a halfhearted bid for re-election in 1884 but lost the nomination to James G. Blaine and died of the disease two years later, on Nov. 18, 1886. He was 57.

Whatever Sand’s impact was on Arthur’s actions, it seemed he valued the relationship. Shortly before he died, Arthur ordered that all his papers be burned except for Sand’s letters. He also visited her once, at her brother’s home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on Aug. 20, 1882.

Julia Isabella Sand was born in Brooklyn in 1850 to Christian Henry and Isabella Sand. Her father was a German immigrant who worked his way up to become the president of the Metropolitan Gas-Light Company of New York. Julia Sand never married.

She enjoyed the privileges of wealth: She spoke French, read poetry and vacationed in Newport, R.I., and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She spent her days reading newspapers and discussing politics.

One of her nephews, Paul B. Rossire, described Sand as “a talented woman, something of a bluestocking,” or intellectual. By the age of 31 she had become plagued by an illness whose conditions included spinal trouble and deafness, leaving her mostly confined to her home.

She died in May 1933 in a home for the mentally ill on Long Island and is buried with her family in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. She was 83. The exact cause of her death was unknown.

According to Michelle Krowl, a specialist at the Library of Congress, Sand had published articles in The Century, Harper’s and other magazines.

The words she will be remembered for, however, were addressed to an audience of one. “It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or gold,” Sand wrote Arthur in that first letter. “For the sake of your country, for your own sake, and for the sakes of all who have ever loved you, let it be pure and bright.”

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