To the extent that President James A. Garfield is remembered at all today it’s because, as the history books summarize, he was shot and killed by a deranged office seeker.
But, as with most things, there is so much more to the story. Garfield, one of the “bearded presidents.” who somehow get lost to us between two other assassinated chief executives, Lincoln and McKinley, was, by all accounts, an exceptional person. Born in a log cabin – the last president to claim that distinction - Garfield sought a good education, loved to read and eventually became a college president. He amassed a distinguished military record during the Civil War, served with real skill and commitment in the Congress and, much to his surprise, became a dark horse, compromise Republican candidate for president in 1880.
Garfield won that very close election against another Civil War general Winfield Scott Hancock. Garfield’s popular vote margin was a mere 10,000 votes.
A reluctant candidate and, had he lived longer, very likely an effective president, Garfield immediately took on the task of reforming the “spoils system” of the federal government. He battled powerful interests in his own party on that issue and won. He also expressed a desire to work hard to bind up the wounds of the war that were still fresh in 1881.
Garfield’s rather remarkable life and his tragic death are stories well told in Candice Millard’s book Destiny of the Republic. Millard covers Garfield’s life in some detail, but her book is really about the awful suffering he endured after being shot in a Washington, D.C. train station and the fact that his doctor’s decisions – barbaric by 21st Century standards – really killed him.
Garfield likely would have recovered from his gunshot wound in the back – the bullet just missed his spine and hit no vital organ – if the doctors had employed even basic sanitary procedures and not probed the wound repeated with dirty fingers and instruments. When Garfield died 11 weeks after the shooting, his autopsy revealed that the slug wasn’t endangering his life, but that infection and blood poisoning had killed a good man who very well might have had a distinguished career in the White House.
As for the deranged office seeker, Charles Guiteau, he was eventually tried and hanged for the murder of the president, an act he carried out because he became convinced that God and the future of the Republic depended on him killing Garfield. Guiteau was a frustrated office seeker, too, who was reacting to what he saw as unfair treatment at the hands of Garfield and others in his administration. Clearly suffering from acute mental illness, Guiteau smiled and waved to the crowd as he was led to the gallows, happy until the last to be the center of attention.
Candice Millard’s fine book about a supremely interesting character, his politics, 19th century medicine and a fascinating period in American life, reminds us that the only thing new is the history we haven’t read.