Last December, we attended a wedding in Mentor, Ohio, twenty or so miles east of Cleveland. We learned that Mentor had been the home of James Garfield and that his house was there, operated by the National Park Service. Last summer, we visited the home of Martin Van Buren in Kinderhook NY and were surprised at how much we learned that we did not know about Van Buren. We knew how little we knew about Garfield, and thought there was a chance we might learn something interesting about him.
It turned out that the Garfield house is fascinating both architecturally and historically, and that the Park Service has produced a film of Garfield’s life, which shows the story of a remarkably talented and intelligent man for whom so much had gone right u till the day he was shot in 1881, just about four months after his presidential inauguration.
We then learned that a biography of Garfield had just been published – “Destiny of the Republic” by Candace Millard, which had been very well received. I finished the book last night.
Being inaugurated in March and shot in July, Garfield hardly had time to be president, and I biography of Garfield would be hard pressed to emphasize the accomplishments of his administration. But there is much to write about pre-President Garfield. His birth in Ohio in a log cabin under conditions of extreme poverty. His father’s death when James was still young, and his mother’s fortitude in holding on to their farm and raising her family. His intellect. His matriculation at the institute that became Hiram College, his promotion to professor within a year, and his becoming president at age 26. His time at Williams College. His ability to master a number of fields. His anti-slavery position. His Civil War heroism, when he served as a Major General in the Union army. His election to Congress. His standing as a first class orator.
Throughout the story of Garfield’s life, in addition to his accomplishments, he comes across as an extraordinarily nice, generous, positive fellow. And, in spite of his accomplishments, modest. He certainly did not want the presidential nomination in 1880. He went to the convention set to give the nominating speech for John Sherman. Only when the convention became hopelessly deadlocked was he drafted, and drafted very reluctantly. Sherman had faded as a candidate, Grant could not get the votes for a third term, and Roscoe Conklin of New York, the champion of the spoils system, had a lot of support, but bowed out on condition that his minion, Chester Arthur, be nominated as vice president.
The first months of his presidency made Garfield an enemy of the spoils system, as so much of his time was spent meeting with those who wanted appointments to offices (presidents were then expected to hold regular open office hours); one of these was a bizarre individual named Charles Guiteau, whose story Millard tells with as much detail as she uses to describe Garfield. Clearly delusional, a failure at everything he had tried to do, a former member of the Oneida Colony, a man without a penny to his name (but with a lot of debts, and a lot of cheated landlords behind him), Guiteau believed he should be named ambassador to Paris. When it was clear that this was unlikely to happen, Guiteau received a message from God telling him to kill the president (and that, once he did this, the entire country would rejoice and his future would be rosy). He purchased a pistol, knew when Garfield was do to board a train, went to the station, and shot him.
Perhaps the saddest part of the story is that he did not kill him, but only injured him, and Garfield under normal circumstances, even at the time, would have survived, but for the abysma medical care he received from a group of physicians under the tyrannical control of one D.W. Bliss, a physician with a checkered background himself. Ignoring Joseph Lister’s findings about the need to avoid infections through sterilization, ignoring assistance offered by Alexander Graham Bell to help locate where the bullet had lodged without invasive techniques, Garfield was subject to hand probes to locate the bullet (which Bliss thought was in a place totally different from where the autopsy showed it to be). Hand probes which did nothing but spread infections where there would have most likely been none, carve out internal cavities where the infections were able to lodge, leading to unstoppable sepsis. In addition, Garfield was fed improperly and too much, leading to serious episodes of vomiting. His weight decreased by over a third. He suffered for over two months (all this time Bliss issuing positive medical reports) and died. Totally unnecessarily.
Guiteau was tried, found guilty by a jury and executed (part of his defense, in addition to temporary insanity, was that he admitted that he shot the President, but he didn’t admit that he murdered him, that the murder was committed by the doctors who were the ones who should have been hanged). He wrote from prison General Wm. Tecumseh Sherman, telling him to bring troops to the jail in DC to free him. He wrote to the new president Chester Arthur, still looking for an appointment, reminding him that, were it not for him, Arthur would never be president.
The story of Garfield and his family members, of Guiteau and his, of Alexander Graham Bell, and Roscoe Conkling and Chester A. Arthur (who turned against his mentor, Conklin, and became the president who created civil service and ended the spoils system), and the story of the citizens of the United States who, fifteen years after the end of the civil war, found, with the shooting of Garfield and the arrest of Guiteau, something that all could agree on, and express their patriotism about, make for fascinating reading. The easy style of Millard’s book adds to the pleasure.