Although his presidency was very short, James Garfield is an interesting man. He was born into poverty (in a log cabin in fact), lost his father at an early age, and initially disliked school although in early adulthood he acquired a passion for learning and a remarkable ability to push himself towards self-betterment which lasted the rest of his life. He firmly believed in racial equality and was committed to this: his inaugural address mentions his intention to work towards a more equal society. He is the third civil war general to have been elected president but unlike Grant and Hayes had no appetite for war and was quickly turned off from death by his first major conflict.
Garfield’s political career was almost entirely accomplished without his input and he expressed little desire to be elected to any of his positions, including the Republican nomination where he made a nomination speech for John Sherman (both men were from Ohio) and protested that he had no desire to be nominated himself. His popularity and the esteem in which he was held, as well as the fact that he had made relatively few political enemies, led to his election as a good compromise candidate, although he has since faded into relative obscurity despite this popularity. However, his name lives on in the comic strip (Garfield is named after Jim Davis’ grandfather, James A. Garfield Davis, who himself is named after the president).
Millard’s biography does an excellent job of summing up the strong personality of the man, but Garfield and his life are not really the main focus of her book. What really interests her is why he died, and she captures this in vivid and fascinating detail. The book explores not only Garfield at the time, but also Charles Guiteau, his assassin, and Alexander Graham Bell, whose work on a metal detector was intended to find the bullet in Garfield’s body.
It’s strange and somewhat saddening to think how easily Garfield might not have died, and Millard’s style of writing brings this sense to the fore. She talks in detail of Lister’s advances in antisepsis, widely adopted in Europe but facing huge resistance in the US, and of the stubbornness of his primary physician, Dr Willard Bliss. It’s shocking to hear her account of multiple doctors’ dirty fingers and dirty tools being stuffed into Garfield’s open wound, of his being operated on needlessly with unsterilised instruments, and of his being dehydrated by being given less than half the amount of fluid he would have needed. Most striking to me was when Millard observes that many civil war veterans had suffered wounds similar to Garfield’s and survived into old age: they had the benefit of not being treated by doctors.
Guiteau’s end feels both deserved and sad. He wrote a speech promoting Grant for the presidency over Hancock (when Garfield received the nomination, Guiteau changed Grant’s name to Garfield and little else). Having made the speech a couple of times (he was a poor public speaker and had no real involvement with the Republicans) and distributed it a little, Guiteau went to Washington in order to accept his post as ambassador to the court in Vienna, which he felt he deserved for his contributions to Garfield’s victory. Although he soon decided he preferred Paris. He spoke no German or French. When Blaine, Garfield’s Secretary of State blew him off in no uncertain terms, Guiteau recommended Blaine’s removal to Garfield but later decided Garfield was dividing the party and needed to be removed himself. None of this reflects a normal view of things. Moreover, after killing the president, Guiteau was convinced that William T. Sherman would come to break him out of prison and that Chester A. Arthur would pardon him out of gratitude. By rights, Guiteau should have been institutionalised. But he was never going to receive a fair trial: the courts had to go through 175 men before finding 12 who could serve on the jury without automatically convicting him. On 30th June 1882, Charles Guiteau was hanged, having pleaded insanity and claimed in court that it was not he, but Garfield’s doctors who caused the president’s death. He had a point on both counts.
Garfield is an admirable figure and his death a significant tragedy. But the person I came away with the most respect for was Chester Arthur. He was very obviously picked for the vice presidency to appease certain factions within the party who favoured the spoils system of awarding civil service positions and nobody expected him to do a good job as president: in fact, most people dreaded the idea. And for good reason: Arthur had had one political post before then which he gained through nepotism and was fired from (by the Hayes administration) for corruption. But in the two months it took for Garfield to die Arthur had a sustained period of soul-searching and Roscoe Conkling, New York senator and the primary influence over Arthur, lost most if not all his political clout. Thus Arthur began his presidency determined to see through the one thing Garfield had really got going in his few months as president: reform of the civil service. It’s not glamorous, and Arthur is barely remembered now, but it needed doing and Arthur was one of the least likely people to do it. I’m looking forward to reading more about the man.