James A. Garfield

The American Presidents Series: The 20th President, 1881

The American Presidents

Ira Rutkow; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor

Times Books

James A. Garfield
1
Early Years
Saturday, July 2, 1881, was as pleasant a day as can come with an American summer weekend. For James Abram Garfield, the twentieth president of the United States, the exquisite weather heightened his anticipation of an enjoyable train ride to Williamstown, Massachusetts. He planned to attend the commencement of his alma mater, Williams College, and then, with his wife, Lucretia, take an extended trip through New England. For the forty-nine-year-old Garfield, it had been a stressful four months since his inauguration; he was in the midst of a bitter fight between the warring Stalwart and Half-Breed factions of his Republican Party over political patronage. The new president looked forward to a relaxing getaway.
Garfield had been awake since early morning and, after some horseplay with his sons, awaited the arrival of James G. Blaine, his secretary of state. Eighteen years had passed since their simultaneous swearings in as United States congressmen, and, although their relationship had been stormy at times, they were now close friends. Garfield wanted one more opportunity to talk politics, especially about his growing disfavor for Vice President Chester A. Arthur, who had taken positions in opposition to him on some of the more contentious issues before Congress. Blaine accompanied Garfield on the five-minute carriage ride to the Baltimore and Potomac traindepot. Despite the assassination of Abraham Lincoln sixteen years earlier, the American president still had no personal bodyguards. Newspaper editors thought nothing of publicly posting his daily schedule, including details such as the location and time of departure for meetings and even vacations.
At 9:20 A.M., Garfield and Blaine, walking side by side, entered the station's ladies' waiting room--men were also allowed in the area. Several individuals milled about, including a slightly built, shabbily dressed man who paced up and down rather nervously. As the president and secretary of state passed through the room, the odd-looking stranger spotted them and suddenly whirled toward the two men. Positioning himself six feet behind and to the right of Garfield, the man drew an ivory-handled revolver from his pocket, leveled it at the president, and fired twice. The first shot caused a slight flesh wound of the right arm but the second entered the middle of the right side of Garfield's back, jolting him forward. The president's legs broke from under him as he slumped to the wooden floor. Blaine, with a terrified look, cried out, "My God, he has been murdered! What is the meaning of this?"1 Turning toward the shooter, he recognized him as Charles J. Guiteau, a persistent job seeker, who for months had pestered State Department and White House officials regarding patronage positions. Guiteau attempted to flee the scene but was apprehended by a policeman. As the assassin was dragged away, he told the officer, "I did it and will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be president."2
Onlookers gathered around the fallen president as messengers were dispatched to look for any available physician. Within five minutes, a health officer for the District of Columbia arrived. He found Garfield stuporous, with large beads of perspiration upon his brow. As a method of stimulation--and in keeping with contemporary medical practice--the doctor had Garfield swallow a mixture of brandy and aromatic ammonia spirit. With Garfield more alert, he was turned on his side and his coat lifted to reveal the wound with its slight hemorrhage. Garfield inquired about the injury and, when told it was not serious, shook his head and said, "Doctor, I ama dead man."3 He asked to be taken back to the White House. As the horse-drawn ambulance clattered over the rough cobblestones of Sixth Street, the injured Garfield was jostled to and fro. A surging crowd struggled to keep up with the fast-moving wagon. Brought to the family room at the White House, Garfield received round-the-clock medical care, but despite extraordinary efforts his end came in a tortuous and controversial death seventy-nine days later, on September 19.
James A. Garfield soon disappeared from the public's memory, and he remains one of America's least remembered chief executives. "For who was Garfield, martyred man, and who had seen him in the streets of life?" asked the novelist Thomas Wolfe. "Who could believe that his footfalls ever sounded on a lonely pavement?"4 But Garfield did exist--he was a son, a husband, and a father. He lived and breathed and laughed and cried and played a major role in American politics. He was the last of the nation's "born in a log cabin" presidents, a general during the Civil War, and the quintessential rags-to-riches, self-made American man. Even in death, Garfield came to embody the strive-and-succeed spirit that marked the country's socioeconomic climate as the nineteenth century came to a close. The clinical reasons for why he died--physician incompetence mixed with an all-consuming medical hubris--provided a momentum within the medical profession that helped change the course of American health care.
Garfield was president during the Gilded Age, so named by Mark Twain in an 1873 utopian satire. Twain's title was not a laudatory label but a triple play on words. There was the gilt of the upper class's overindulgences, the guilt brought on by the financial shenanigans of Wall Street tycoons and robber barons, and the guilds that represented special interest groups, labor unions, political bosses, and even the manufacturing monopolies. The country paid more attention to the outsize personalities of industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Jay Gould, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller than to the activities of career politicians who could not be differentiated by actions or appearances. Indeed, thefederal government had moved away from the extensive national attention that it had received through the Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction.
Although the so-called lost presidents of the Gilded Age (Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison) are embedded only in our historical unconscious, they were an essential element in the tapestry of American life. These men might not have had starring roles in the eyes of the public, but their actions had consequences that affected the lives of millions of Americans. For this reason alone, a recounting of the career of James A. Garfield, the "young-man-in-a-hurry," the "political animal," the short-lived president of the United States, is fitting.
 
The Western Reserve was a poorly populated, fertile wilderness of old-growth forests when James Abram Garfield was born in the little frontier village of Orange, a few miles south of Cleveland, on November 19, 1831. Recalling his birth, his mother said, "James A. was the largest Babe I ever had, he looked like a red Irishman."5 Like many of the area's settlers, successive generations of Garfield's ancestors had wended their way from New England, through the valleys of upstate New York and Pennsylvania, to end up west of the Alleghenies in northern Ohio. The Garfield family had never flourished in a financial sense, and life on their twenty-acre farm with its tiny log cabin became even more difficult when Abram Garfield, the father of James and his three older siblings, died from a pneumonia-like illness in 1833. Eliza Garfield, the mother, was a woman of considerable pluck and religiosity who managed to maintain the farm's viability while raising her children by herself. "Anything that approached impurity of life and speech, in any degree, was hateful to her beyond expression," remarked an early Garfield biographer. "In that household there was a sort of flaming sword swinging constantly against all forms of indecency and immorality."6 James was clearly her favorite and he maintained a close relationship with his mother throughout his life.
Of the many stories (and legends) that surround Garfield's early years, the one constant is that of a kindhearted youngster who was a quick learner, but restless and inclined to approach few activities with a serious manner. Although physically strapping, Garfield was awkward and lacked all manner of manual dexterity. "To learn the use of an ax," wrote his wife years later, "he was obliged almost a score of times to be shut up in the house or hobble on crutches, disabled by fearful gashes made through his carelessness."7 Garfield family lore long told of how young James nearly killed his cousin, Silas Boynton, by a misplaced ax blow. As he matured, there was a likable frontier independence to Garfield's personality that manifested itself in two telling and overarching character traits: a determination that each chapter of his life's work would positively and unfailingly lead to a next phase (i.e., he was ambitious and disciplined); and a need to show no fear toward any mental or physical challenge (i.e., he was intelligent and manly).
These qualities were already evident when, at sixteen, Garfield left home to build a life different from that of a simple backwoods farmer. Despite his minimal formal education he had become a voracious reader, and a series of nautical novels had filled him with a teenage fantasy of becoming a sailor. His mother was aghast and bitterly opposed to her son's leaving. But the determined Garfield was not to be dissuaded and he proceeded to tramp through the Reserve to Cleveland's Lake Erie waterfront.
This was the era of the American canal; waterways crisscrossed the countryside, connecting the Great Lakes with the growing industrial towns in the Northeast. Iron and copper ore arrived from the west by schooner and were loaded on canal barges where the raw stone was moved to the manufacturing centers. The canals themselves were primitive earthen fabrications, filled with mud, teeming with mosquitoes, and requiring rigged teams of horses or mules on a bordering towpath to move the barge along. It was a laborious affair and provided little in the way of the "seamanship" that Garfield hoped to acquire. For several months, he served alternately as a bowsman, deckhand, and steerman, but his prowess inhandling the haul was not matched by an ability to swim. By Garfield's own account, he fell into the water fourteen times and often came close to drowning. Garfield's canal experiment came to an end in early October 1848. Between the ever-present canal ruffians, the near drownings, the physical toll of hard labor, and the sudden onset of a high fever--one of the symptoms of malaria--the young man called it quits and headed home.
Thoughts of a seafaring life were put aside as a more introspective son returned to his mother's nursing and urgings. She considered education a priority and importuned him to resume his schooling. With seventeen of his mother's dollars in his pocket, the teenager set off for Geauga Academy in nearby Chester. In Garfield's words, "No greener boy ever started out to school."8 Humility aside, a ready capacity to adjust to new circumstances always marked Garfield's life. In a year and a half at Geauga, he picked up the rudiments of grammar, mathematics, and philosophy. He enjoyed writing and started a diary (his daily musings would continue for the next three decades), but it was the study of elocution and ancient and modern languages that held his greatest interest. Garfield joined the debate society, where he began to understand the power of the speaker's platform. "It creates some excitement," he wrote. "I love agitation and investigation and glory in defending unpopular truth against popular error."9
In the autumn of 1851, Garfield matriculated at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute at Hiram. It was typical of the region's "colleges." Poorly staffed, without a dollar of endowment, and with only one redbrick scholastic building, its main merit was that it allowed ambitious students to study at their own accelerated pace. Garfield attacked the rigidly classical curriculum with a profound zest for learning and Hiram became his second home. Indeed, the school would long claim Garfield's loyalty and he would return to its campus, as a steadfast alumnus, throughout his adulthood.
Garfield rose at four or five in the morning, attended classes for ten hours a day, read Demosthenes, Herodotus, Homer, Livy, andTacitus, mastered Greek and Latin, managed to learn geometry on his own, and often stayed up until midnight, ensuring that his carrel's candle was the last to be extinguished. "He had a wide-awake curiosity which seemed never to be satiated," wrote a fellow student. "A new thing, however unimportant, always attracted his attention."10 His diary jottings became more literate and, as at Geauga, Garfield's most enjoyable intellectual outlet was debating. He became known as a formidable public speaker and participated in lyceums--as such debates were called--not only at Hiram but throughout the Reserve. So exceptional were his oratorical and scholarly skills that Garfield was asked to deliver the valedictory address at the conclusion of his first term. During his second and third years at Hiram, he was recruited to teach a variety of lower-level courses to the younger students.
Despite his flair for the spoken word and his ability to stir an audience, Garfield's years at Hiram brought no evident interest in politics. "Politics are now raging with great violence," he wrote in the midst of the 1852 presidential campaign. "I am profoundly ignorant of its multifarious phases, and am not inclined to study it. I am exceedingly disgusted with the wire pulling of politicians and the total disregard for truth in all their operations."11 Such disinterest was about to change as Garfield sought to broaden his cultural and educational background. The Eclectic Institute did not have state authority to confer a college degree--it would not become Hiram College until 1867--and Garfield looked eastward for a baccalaureate.
Williams College, in the extreme northwest corner of Massachusetts, was administered by Mark Hopkins, a compelling and energetic educator. One of the most able and successful of nineteenth-century American college presidents, Hopkins was an ordained Congregational minister who would have a profound influence on Garfield's life. At Williams, under Hopkins's guidance, a distinguished faculty had been hired, libraries containing 25,000 books were built, and a reputation for thorough and demandingscholarship was earned. In September 1854, Garfield was admitted to the school's junior class, having received credit for two years of college-level studies at Hiram.
Williams's third-year academic program included astronomy, chemistry, German, Greek, Latin, mechanics, and political economy, and the depth of its extracurricular offerings was exceptional. As at Geauga and Hiram, Garfield's spoken eloquence and remarkable academic prowess soon set him apart from other students. Standing out with his large physique, luxuriant chestnut whiskers, and self-confident manner, Garfield's quick repartee prompted a classmate to label him "undoubtedly one of the greatest natural debaters ever seen at Williams."12 Even Hopkins was said to convulse with laughter, his legs described as twisted into a knot, as he listened to Garfield's ingratiating humor and biting sarcasm. At the end of his first fall term, the well-liked Garfield, who was always in need of extra income, was invited to spend several weeks teaching penmanship to the schoolchildren in the nearby town of Pownal, Vermont. In a curious coincidence of history, Garfield occupied a position that had been filled the previous year by Chester A. Arthur, his future vice presidential running mate.
By January 1855, Garfield had clearly become one of Hopkins's favorites. "There was a large general capacity applicable to any subject," reminisced Hopkins about Garfield's student days. "There was no pretence of genius, or alternation of spasmodic effort, but a satisfactory accomplishment in all directions."13 Garfield, in turn, was impressed by Hopkins's intellectual abilities. "There is a symmetry about his mind that is admirable," he wrote in his diary. "I think he is a great man."14 Garfield took Hopkins's courses on religious and philosophical matters and, despite being unaccustomed to the educator's critical style of thinking, began to utilize this manner of reasoning and apply it to a wide range of scholarly activities. From literature to metaphysics, Garfield became a respected campus scholar.
Equally as important as this newfound intellect, Hopkins andthe Williams experience began to turn Garfield's interests toward politics. "I have been instructed tonight on the political condition of our country," Garfield wrote in his diary, "and from this time forward I shall hope to know more about its movements and interests."15 He embraced the abolitionist movement, attended the antislavery lectures of Henry Ward Beecher, and satirized the Know-Nothing Party in a political poem. Discussions about the great political events of the era--the status of Kansas, the dangers of foreign immigrants, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, the justice of the Crimean War, the desirability of an elected judiciary branch of government, and the constitutionality of several personal liberty laws--found their way into Garfield's daily ruminations. In the spring of his senior year, he attended a political meeting in support of the new Republican Party and its presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, at which he gave his first political stump speech. Garfield even mentioned that he considered "women wronged socially and intellectually by the usages of society."16
On commencement day in August 1856, twenty-four-year-old James Garfield, chief editor of the Williams Quarterly (the literary magazine), president of the Philologian Society (the literary club), member of the Theological Society, leader of the campus anti-secret society, spokesperson for the school's anti-fraternity faction, and class salutatorian, gave the day's "Metaphysical Oration." It was among the top academic honors a Williams graduate could receive. Hopkins, sitting in a high pulpit, leaned forward and listened as Garfield took command of the audience. According to one eyewitness, "pride and affection he might have felt for a son" filled Hopkins's eyes.17 At the conclusion, applause rocked the church and thrown bouquets littered the floor as a confident Garfield ended his college career.
For the budding politician, the Williams College experience was the most important of all his formal educational endeavors. In Williamstown, Garfield learned the art of getting along with all personality types. He grew to respect individuals of different socialbackgrounds and political persuasions. Williams "broke down the sectarian narrowness which had come to threaten his future development," wrote one Garfield biographer.18 Equally important, the backwoods Garfield was accepted and respected by Williams's more closed-minded, socially conscious East Coast students. In short, Garfield had an extensive and positive first experience with the world outside the Western Reserve of Ohio. And, as would be true in every stage of his life--parlaying one chapter into the next--Garfield's Williams days established an important foundation for his next undertaking.
Indeed, in later years, Garfield's early life would be considered among his chief political strengths. The tale of the poor farmboy who rose out of the wilds of northern Ohio to the White House would come to personify the American dream of the self-made man--especially so when Horatio Alger, Jr., the writer of boys' stories, extolled Garfield's rise in an 1881 biography, aptly titled From Canal Boy to President. Preachers and politicians would exhort the nation's youth to follow Garfield's examples of diligent study and hard work to overcome all forms of adversity. Even Garfield himself would not be above exploiting his childhood privations for political profit. But as he returned to Ohio in 1856, there truly seemed no limit to what Garfield could accomplish. One of his uncles was already telling family members that James would be president one day.
In Ohio's interior in the 1850s, it was considered a great personal achievement to have graduated from a sophisticated eastern college. As a result, Garfield, who came back to teach ancient languages and literature at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, was received as a man of distinction and substance. However, as much as Garfield was a changed person, the Eclectic, with its single, ugly, redbrick building, remained academically and administratively backward. It is a credit to Garfield's ambition and determination that, in spite of his disappointment with the Eclectic's unchanged ways, he demonstrated his usual zeal in his roles as a respected teacher and sought-after public speaker. Successes followed oneanother and, within a year of his return, Garfield was asked to assume the presidency of the institution. He gladly accepted but grew increasingly uncertain about his future plans. "You and I know that teaching is not the work in which a man can live and grow," he complained to a boyhood friend. "I am succeeding in the school here better than I had any reason to hope, but yet my heart will never be satisfied to spend my life in teaching."19
Soon afterward, Garfield decided to draw on his growing prominence as a stepping-stone to a new life--in politics. These were the early days of the Republican Party, when bloody battles between pro- and antislavery forces in Kansas dominated the nation's political headlines. Garfield, an ardent antislavery man, became known as an effective Republican Party spokesperson, and his reward for his service was election, in 1859, as the youngest member of the Ohio senate. Garfield had proved an enthusiastic campaigner and delivered over thirty speeches at a time in American politics when such talks were verbal marathons, averaging two hours apiece. "The young Senator--for he is not yet thirty--stepped at once from comparative obscurity into genuine popularity as a political speaker," wrote a reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial. "From this time ... his party will demand his services on the stump."20
Three qualities immediately set Garfield apart from other senators: a prodigious capacity to grasp the minutiae of legislation, extraordinary speechmaking abilities, and a genuineness in forming friendships. He drafted a statistics-filled committee report concerning a geological survey to determine the natural resources of Ohio, another on the education of abandoned and pauper children, and a third detailing the regulation of weights and measures through a comparison of the English and American systems. As the keynote speaker at a lavish banquet in Louisville in honor of the Kentucky and Tennessee legislatures, Garfield's oratorical skills were used to persuade members of the two governing bodies to accept an invitation to visit Ohio. The idea, backed by Ohio's governor, was an attempt to lessen sectional differences and squelch the clamor concerning secession. Garfield made an impassioned pleafor maintenance of the Union. "No note of disunion shall be heard," he proclaimed, while asking that the West (today's Midwest) remain a symbol of the indivisible unity of the country.21 The legislators accepted the invitation and their trip through Ohio became a celebration of goodwill.
The success of Garfield's mission to Louisville attracted attention from Ohio's newspapers and senior Republican Party leaders. "He had that simple, affectionate way, which charms people," noted William Dean Howells, a young newspaper correspondent for the Ohio State Journal.22 Salmon P. Chase, a former Ohio governor and U.S. senator, and a leading national figure within the party, took an instant liking to Garfield. With Chase's backing, Garfield was recruited to canvass the state giving speeches for the 1860 Republican national ticket. "Voted for Lincoln and Hamlin," Garfield wrote in his diary on election night. "God be praised!!"23
In the short span of two years, Garfield had become one of Ohio's more prominent politicians. In addition, his life was changing in other ways. In November 1858, he married his childhood sweetheart, Lucretia "Crete" Rudolph, a shy, dark-eyed brunette. They had known each other since sharing classrooms at Geauga Academy and the Eclectic. The Garfields rented a little cottage in Hiram fronting their old college campus, where he continued his duties as president of the institute. Under his leadership, the institute prospered. The number of students rose to new levels and the school managed to remain financially solvent. A year and a half later, Garfield became a father. Looking to further his political career, he was admitted to the Ohio bar, under the contemporary practice of independently reading a number of respected law books and then presenting himself for examination. Despite his familial commitments and the commencement of a legal practice, Garfield remained characteristically restless. "When I am sitting," he grumbled to Crete, "I long to be walking and when I am walking I long to be sitting."24
By the time of Garfield's second Ohio senate session in January 1861, the secession of South Carolina had brought disunion closerto reality. The previously conciliatory Garfield, who had traveled to Louisville only a few months before to woo his neighboring states' legislators, returned to Columbus a full-blown hawk. Sectional compromise was no longer possible in his mind. What caused this shift in his attitude remains historical conjecture. "I do not see any way, outside a miracle of God, which can avoid civil war, with all its attendant horrors," Garfield wrote to a friend. "Peaceable dissolution is utterly impossible ... . All that is left us is to arm and prepare to defend ourselves and the Federal Government."25 An internecine struggle was about to engulf the nation, and Garfield, in a characteristic manner, would make certain that he had a leadership role in the conflict.
Copyright © 2006 by Ira Rutkow