Presidential Review: James Garfield

28 Sep

james garfield


Garfield is our second assassinated president, who died of gunshot wounds just 200 days after election.   There’s almost nothing to say about his accomplishments, because much of his presidency he was incapacitated.   Because of this, I’m not really going to look at his presidential legacy.  I do have an interesting question however–our country has had 4 assassinations in our history, two (Kennedy and Lincoln) have become huge American stories that nearly everyone knows and the other two (McKinley and Garfield) remaining obscure.   Why is that?   I’m going through the reasons why Garfield’s story has ended up in our history’s back pages.

1)   Garfield didn’t have time to endear himself to Americans.    Lincoln and Kennedy have very strong personalities that everybody knows.   Lincoln is noble and sad; Kennedy is young and glamorous.   While any president dying is a shame, Lincoln and Kennedy’s deaths have a ring of tragedy to them–both of these men were at the peak of their powers at the time of their deaths while Garfield hadn’t done anything but get himself elected.   Also, both Lincoln and Kennedy have big historic speeches and iconic imagery that precedes them, Garfield does not, in fact it’s very hard to find very many pictures of the man other than pretty simple portraits.

2)   Garfield doesn’t represent anything.   Lincoln and Kennedy both have a bunch of ideas that they represent.  Lincoln is connected to our ideas of freedom and equality, while Kennedy is of the innocence of a bygone age.   Also, people mark both deaths as the end of an era.   Garfield, however, doesn’t connect so well with any particular issue or feeling.  His campaign focused on the gold standard (hardly an emotional subject) and civil service reform.   He believed in racial equality, but considering the track record of other politicians of his era, you can’t really say he would have done anything on that topic at all.   He did have a long political record before his presidency which reveals him to be an average politician of his times–a bit more honest than most perhaps, but not strikingly so.

3)  Garfield’s Assassination was less dramatic.   Lincoln and Kennedy were both killed in public.  The first in a theatre, the second on a filmed motorcade.   Garfield was shot in the back at close range in a train station waiting room.   In fact, Guiteau–the assassin almost got away before the crowd knew what was going on.  Also while Lincoln and Kennedy died instantly, Garfield held on for months.    Guiteau peacefully went to jail, the court case being held until Garfield either recovered or died.   

4)  Garfield’s Assassination was not politically motivated.   Well, not in the sense of being connected to any social issue.   Guiteau was insane and thought he had earned a place in Garfield’s cabinet.    (He literally thought he had gotten Garfield elected even all he did was print out a speech in Garfield’s favor and handed them around, roughly equivalent to an ordinary person writing in favor of a nominee on their blog.)   After being refused, he killed the president.   He also said that God told him to kill the president.    

5) Garfield’s assassination has no mystery.  Lincoln and Kennedy’s assassins both died before coming to trial.   Guiteau not only lived but had a well publicized trial which showed him to be quite clearly insane, and also seeking notoriety.  Guiteau made little secret of his intentions before the assassination, sending letters to the white house, renting a cab to take him to jail afterwards, and taking a tour of the jailhouse to see where he would be staying days before the assassination.  He even chose to buy a pistol with ivory handles because they “would look better” in a museum.   There didn’t need to be any investigation to figure out who did it.    It says a lot that conspiracy theorists will look at Zackary Taylor’s death of illness before going to Garfield.

6)  Garfield’s assassination is marked by bumbling on almost all levels.   Garfield was shot just 14 years after Lincoln, so the idea of an assassination happening wasn’t unthinkable.     Guiteau had made multiple threats to many political figures.  His family was actively trying to get him locked up for insanity.   He let everybody around him know of his intentions, wrote letters ahead of time particularly one to General Sherman asking for protection from the mobs after the assassination.   He even stalked Garfield on at least one other occasion, but chose not to kill him because his wife was upset.   After Guiteau shot Garfield, he was apprehended by police who forgot to take away the gun away from him.   Beyond that, many historians think that Garfield could have survived the shooting if it hadn’t been for the doctors treating him.   They used no sterilization techniques in inspecting the wound, and went searching for the bullet where it wasn’t opening a second wound.   Alexander Graham Bell came in with a metal detector, however it didn’t work because it detected the metal springs in the bed.   In fact, Garfield was recovering up until the doctors started caring for him, and died of infection months later.     Such incompetence does not make for an inspiring story.

7)  Guiteau’s Trial was a circus.   If you think media firestorms over some trial is a new thing, Guiteau’s trial was all that and more.   Charles Guiteau got plenty of time to say his side of the story, and made it as attention seeking as possible, reciting poetry from the stand, sending out advertisements for a wife, fighting with his own lawyers, and generally ranting and raving.   Even at his execution Guiteau read a poem “Going to the Lordy” and performed a cakewalk.    The mood surrounding this was less of grief and more of hatred and morbid fascination.   Guiteau even published a book.    Guiteau seemed to get off on all this attention, and as the trial drew out his actions became bigger and more theatrical.   He wrote a play that had prominent members of politics and members of the trial and jury get sent to hell by God.    Because Guiteau was looking for fame, the tale tellers and movie makers are a bit hesitant to use this material, because it seems to be doing what he wanted (he had things saved for posterity for later, to be shown in museums and such.)  At the end, you get the impression reading all the documentation that Guiteau would have shot somebody, and this somebody just happened to be the president.

So there’s Garfield.  Of all our presidents, I can say he had the most painful death, slow with fevers, unable to take food, covered with abscesses.   The whole thing is just a touch too morbid and disturbing.    Next up:  Chester Arthur–the milquetoast president.

One Response to “Presidential Review: James Garfield”

  1. andrewcordisco October 3, 2013 at 7:20 am #

    Reblogged this on The Presidents Project.

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