By Molly Bloom
“This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the presidential fever; not even for a day.” James A. Garfield reportedly spoke these words on the night before his inauguration as President of the United States in 1881. In a field of ambitious career politicians and war heroes, including former president Ulysses S. Grant, Garfield inexplicably received the Republican nomination without participating in a campaign or even desiring to run in the first place.
Garfield’s upbringing was practically the inspiration for a Horatio Alger novel. (In fact, Alger wrote a “biography” of Garfield, From Canal Boy to President, which was more similar to Alger’s fictionalized narratives than factual). Garfield was born in a log cabin and grew up on a small farm in Ohio. His father had died before Garfield turned two; as a result, his family was so impoverished that he did not own a pair of shoes until he was four years old. Garfield was raised by his widowed mother and older siblings before leaving to work on the Erie Canal when he was 16, but he always sought to better himself through education. He worked as a teacher before and after attending Williams College and graduated salutatorian. He went on to pass the bar in Ohio, became a colonel in the Union Army, and served in Congress as a Republican at the urging of President Abraham Lincoln.
After seventeen years as a congressman, Garfield was seen as a political leader in the Republican Party, and yet he continually turned down requests to run for a higher office. During the Republican nomination of 1880, Garfield was in attendance to deliver the speech announcing the nomination of fellow Ohioan John Sherman. After 35 ballots in which no candidate reached the necessary 379 votes for the nomination, the 36th vote led to Garfield’s surprise nomination as the Republican candidate, eventually leading to his election as president.
It is generally believed that Garfield would have been an excellent and progressive president, had he been given the chance. As a supporter of civil rights, he was endorsed by Frederick Douglass and secured votes from many freed slaves. Education, free trade, and civil liberties were all causes that Garfield believed were important for the progress of the nation following the Civil War. Yet, his presidency was cut short by an assassination attempt by Charles Guiteau and the poor medical treatment that he received in the aftermath. No one can say for sure if Garfield would have secured his place as one of the most effective US presidents- he was shot approximately four months into his term.
Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau may have seen much of himself in the presient. Both born into poverty in the Midwest, the two men were drawn to Christianity and education as a means to learn more about the world around them and advance their lives. While Garfield’s education drove him to serve in the Union Army and enter the House of Representatives, Guiteau joined a cult. He moved to the Oneida Community in upstate New York to follow the religious tenets of the community’s leader, John Humphrey Noyes.
The Oneida Community was a utopian commune founded, as most cults are, by an egotistical and religiously fanatic leader. Noyes believed that he was a flawless human who was granted by God the mission of helping others reach similar perfection. One concern in the commune was humans’ tendency toward monogamy; therefore, cult members practiced free love and sex to ensure that they stay away from monogamous relationships and avoid connecting too strongly to one person.
Despite Guiteau’s initial interest in the cult, he never quite fit into the community. Other members saw him as strange and egotistical. Guiteau felt that he, not Noyes, was the person to whom God spoke and believed that the commune members should be indebted to him and his power. Guiteau eventually left the cult, as he felt that he was unable to carry out the mission that God had set forth for him.
After leaving the Oneida Community, Guiteau continued from one profession to another, attempting to feed his delusions of grandeur and receive recognition. Even his family believed that he was mentally ill and tried to have him committed to an asylum; however, Guiteau eventually turned his interest to politics. He wrote a speech “Grant vs. Hancock” for the anticipated campaign in 1880, but once Garfield emerged as the Republican nominee, Guiteau made a few small adjustments so that the speech would fit Garfield, instead. Guiteau was given the chance to deliver the speech to an audience in New York, but he was only able to speak for a few minutes before getting overwhelmed and leaving the scene. Continuing his pattern of misplaced self-importance, he felt that his speech was a major factor in Garfield’s election and that there should be a proportionate reward. After being rejected by various government staff, he decided to shoot Garfield in a manic state where he believed God willed the outcome and that a fellow member of the Stalwart faction of Republicans, Vice President Chester Arthur, ought to become president.
On July 2, 1881, Guiteau shot Garfield twice, once grazing his arm and once in his back, at the Baltimore and Potomac railway station in Washington D.C. The New York Times reported that Guiteau stated, “I did it and will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President.”
After carrying Garfield on a mattress into a private room, doctors began to search for the bullet, which was the standard medical practice at the time. Many doctors used unhygienic tools and fingers to reach into the gunshot wound and attempted to locate and remove the bullet. Furthermore, when the president was bandaged, the dressings were not sterile. This lack of care was fatal to Garfield.
The most tragic part of the story is that Garfield could have recovered from his injuries had doctors been more careful and thoughtful in the aftermath of the gunshot wound. As Candice Millard writes in Destiny of the Republic, “Had he been able to receive modern medical care, he likely would have spent no more than a few nights in the hospital. Even had Garfield been simply left alone, he almost certainly would have survived” (178). The poor medical care and resulting infections led to his death, and Guiteau even claimed in his trial that medical malpractice, not the gunshots, killed the president. Despite this defense, Guiteau was found guilty and hanged in 1882.
Garfield died 137 years ago on September 19th, 1881. The presidency of a man who never had ambitions to hold the office was cut short and left his term in relative obscurity. Garfield is often remembered for his assassination (the second in sixteen years), but his humble background and the unlikely Republican nomination are extraordinary details that would have certainly been remembered had his presidency lasted longer. What he would have done as president is hard to say, but Garfield was living proof that a president can be for the people and by the people without the egotism and ambition that plague many politicians.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
James A. Garfield by Ira Rutkow
Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield by Kenneth D. Ackerman