Garfield, Guiteau & the Unrealized Presidency

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.

james garfield memorial
Garfield memorial in Cleveland, OH

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.

charles guiteau
Charles Guiteau

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.

Sources:

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

Donald Trump, Andrew Johnson, and Impeachment

By Kaleena Fraga

Talk of impeaching Andrew Johnson began even before his ill-fated presidency.

When Johnson was first sworn in as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president in 1865, he rewarded onlookers to a drunken tirade about his “Plebeian roots” and how he had triumphed over the ruling elite. Senators in attendance covered their faces with embarrassment–Lincoln’s former vice president, Hannibal Hamlin tugged at Johnson’s coattails in a vain attempt to get him to sit down, while the president looked on with an expression of “unutterable sorrow.” A group of Radical Republicans promptly drafted a resolution demanding that Johnson resign, or be impeached.

Johnson survived the demand. Lincoln came to his defense, saying, “It has been a severe lesson for Andy, but I do not think he will do it again.”

A little over a month later, Lincoln was dead–the first president to be assassinated–launching Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, into the presidency just as the Civil War drew to a close.

Although Republicans in Congress had had high hopes for Johnson–after all, he remained loyal to the Union, even though he hailed from Tennessee–they quickly found that he did not intend to reform the South, but rather sought to reinforce old power structures. Johnson got to work choosing conservatives as state governors and issuing pardons to white southerners. He was lenient toward the Southern ruling class, and dismissive and hateful toward newly freed black Americans. “This is a country for white men,” he once declared, “and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.” Before long, the relationship between the new president and Congress became contentious.

As racial violence flared in the South, the Republican Congress, increasingly distrustful of Johnson’s willingness to interfere, passed the Tenure of Office Act. The act was meant to protect members of Lincoln’s Cabinet, whom Johnson had retained when he took over the presidency. The law prohibited the president from removing any officials that had been confirmed by the Senate, without the Senate’s approval. It especially sought to protect the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who had close ties to Radical Republicans in Congress.

When Johnson tried to remove Stanton, Congress responded with articles of impeachment. Nine of the eleven articles related to the Tenure of Office Act–others related to Johnson’s “attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States…to impair and destroy the regard and respect of all the good people of the United States for the Congress…and to excite the odium and resentment of all good people of the United States against Congress.”

Ultimately the Tenure of Office Act was unclear enough-after all, Stanton had been appointed and confirmed under Lincoln-that Johnson escaped impeachment by one vote.

What does Andrew Johnson have to do with Donald Trump? Aside from sharing several characteristics, recent actions by Congress could put Trump in the same position as Johnson, when Johnson faced impeachment charges.

In the wake of Trump’s decision to revoke security credentials from the former CIA Director John Brennan, Senator Mark Warner has announced his intention of introducing a bill that would bar the president from “arbitrarily revoking security clearances.” The amendment is unlikely to pass–at least as long as Republicans control Congress. Yet, if midterms bring a political shift to Washington D.C. it’s not implausible that such legislation would be revisited.

If that were the case, and if Trump continued to use the revocation of security clearances as a way to punish his critics, he would find himself in the same position as Andrew Johnson–breaking a law set by Congress meant to control him (not to mention Trump has the whole insulting Congress thing in the bag).

For now, at least, it’s a lot of ifs. Still, if Trump finds himself facing a hostile Congress, as Johnson did, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he would face a similar outcome.

Julia Grant at the Corner of History

By Kaleena Fraga

Julia Grant is one of the many women largely forgotten by most Americans, yet one who bore witness to watershed moments and even likely altered the course of American history.

Part I: The End of the Civil War

Grant, née Dent, was married to the Civil War general and president Ulysses S. Grant. She was his steadfast companion during the war, despite her own Southern roots. She, like Mary Lincoln, endured questions about her loyalty to the Union cause–both were labeled secesh, or a supporter of secession because of their Southern roots and their families’ divided loyalties. But Julia Grant completely supported her husband and the Union. When approached in a grocery store by a woman who suggested that Julia Grant was “Southern in feeling and principle,” Grant responded, “No, indeed, I am the most loyal of the loyal.”

Still, Grant admitted to deep melancholy after touring the fallen city of Richmond, Virginia. She described abandoned streets littered with paper “like forest leaves after summer is gone.” In her memoirs, she wrote how she left the tour feeling distraught. “I fell to thinking of all the sad tragedies of the past four years. How many homes made desolate! How many hearts broken! How much youth sacrificed!…tears, great tears, fell from my eyes…could it be that my visit reminded me of my dear old home in Missouri?”

As the two armies faced off near Richmond, and as the war began to look hopeless for the South, Confederate general James Longstreet seethed that continuing to fight was “a great crime against the Southern people and Army….[a] hopeless and unnecessary butchery.” In discussions with a Union General, Edward Ord, Longstreet suggested that his own wife could pass through Union lines and meet with Julia Grant, whom she had known as a girl, and then Julia could visit the Confederate side.

Julia Grant, for her part, was enthusiastic to participate. “Oh how enchanting, how thrilling!” she exclaimed to her husband. But when she asked Ulysses S. Grant if she could go, he refused. “No, you must not,” he said. “The men have fought this war and the men will finish it.”

The war would continue for two more months, before Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

Part II: Julia Grant, Mary Lincoln, and a Fateful Decline

In the end, Julia Grant’s greatest influence on the Civil War itself may be her companionship to her husband–she traveled over 10,000 miles during the war in order to accompany him as often as possible–and the fact that Ulysses S. Grant, an alcoholic, never drank when his wife stayed with him.

Yet Julia Grant would command an oversized influence on the events directly after the war. Over the course of the conflict, her husband had developed a close working relationship with the president, Abraham Lincoln, who had struggled to find an effective leader for the Union Army. As the war wound down near Richmond, Julia Grant also spent time with Lincoln’s wife, Mary.

mary lincolnTheir first meeting was auspicious. In his biography of her husband, Ron Chernow writes that it became family lore among the Dents. In their telling, Julia Grant paid a courtesy call on Mary Lincoln, only to find that the First Lady “expected [Julia] to treat her like royalty.” Mary Lincoln is infamous for her wild rages, but she had special reasons to dislike the Grants–she suspected that Ulysses S. Grant wanted her husband’s job, and he had allowed her son Robert to join him as an aide-de-camp, against her wishes.

Their relationship never improved, and Julia Grant was horrified when Mary Lincoln accused General Ord’s wife of flirting with her husband in a blistering tirade. When Julia tried to intervene, Mary Lincoln snapped, “I suppose you think you’ll get to the White House yourself, don’t you?”

A few months later, when the Lincolns invited the Grants to a night at the theatre, Julia Grant “objected strenuously to accompanying Mrs. Lincoln.” When the president later encouraged her husband to accompany them, Ulysses S. Grant offered his regrets, joking that he “now had a command from Mrs. Grant.” Lincoln understood, saying, “Of course…Mrs. Grant’s instincts should be considered before my request.”

In the end, the Lincolns invited Clara Harris and Major Henry Rathbone. That night Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth–dramatically altering the lives of everyone else in his box. Word had already spread that Grant would be accompanying the Lincolns that night, and, indeed, Booth sought to assassinate both Lincoln and Grant. We’ll never know if Grant would have been killed alongside with Lincoln, or if his military instinct might have saved both their lives.

There’s no doubt that Julia Grant played an important role during the Civil War by supporting her husband and suppressing his inner demons. Her fateful decision after the war to refuse the Lincoln’s invitation likely altered the course of events for decades to come.

Millard Fillmore, Zachary Taylor, and American Conspiracies

By Kaleena Fraga

Thanks to Twitter and the Internet, conspiracy theories abound in today’s politics. But conspiracy theories have always had a place in American political history. On this day in 1850 Millard Fillmore was inaugurated as president, stepping into the role from the vice presidency after Zachary Taylor died in office. Taylor’s death was seen as suspicious by some, to the point that his body was exhumed 141 years after his death.

milly fillmore
Millard Fillmore (and Alec Baldwin doppelgänger)

Taylor, after partaking in 4th of July activities on a hot summer day in Washington D.C. is reported to have downed large quantities of iced milk and cherries, which gave him a terrible stomach ache. The doctors who tried to cure him made things worse, and Taylor, a Whig, died a few days later. His vice president Fillmore was also a Whig, but had dabbled in perhaps the first (but not the last) political party born of a conspiracy theory, the Anti-Masons, who believed that Freemasons were murdering whistleblowers. They counted John Quincy Adams as one of their members. Fillmore would also later join the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party.

Taylor’s illness at the time was attributed to “cholera morbus” caused by what he ate, but suspicions abounded. Although Taylor had no known enemies–Professor Elbert B. Smith, of the University of Maryland called him the “Eisenhower of his time”–he did live in an era ripe with political tension. In the build-up to the Civil War, which would start ten years later, states continued to argue about rules pertaining to slavery, leading one Senator to draw a pistol on another on the Senate floor in the months before Taylor’s death.

Taylor was from the South and had even owned slaves, but his actions as president made many Southerners nervous. He had climbed the political rungs through his career as a soldier, and sought to damper any talks of secession among the states. Fillmore was from the North, but sympathetic to Southern interests. Once president, he helped to arrange the Compromise of 1850 which Taylor had opposed. Although the Compromise allowed California into the Union as a free state, it also hardened the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring citizens to help recover slaves who had fled their owners, and denying slaves who fled their right to a trial by jury.

Taylor’s body was exhumed in 1991, after lobbying by author Clara Rising, who claimed that Taylor, not Lincoln, could be the first American president to be assassinated. She theorized that Taylor’s death could have come from arsenic poisoning, and that he had died suddenly and strangely for someone so healthy. “Right after his death, everything [Taylor] had worked against came forward and was passed by both houses of Congress,” said Rising.

The results of the tests done on Taylor’s exhumed body put the conspiracy theory to rest: although his corpse contained trace amounts of arsenic, it would not have been enough to kill him. It’s likely that the milk and cherries that Taylor ate did not kill the president, but perhaps exacerbated another condition–and the doctors’ attempts to save him likely made things worse.

Although Taylor didn’t live long enough to leave much of a mark on the presidency or the nation, his untimely death easily leads to speculation of what could have happened if he lived. If Taylor had served out his full term, instead of Fillmore, would it have been possible to avoid the Civil War? We’ll never know.

The Ambassador Hotel: June 5th, 1968

By Kaleena Fraga

“What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis and that what has been going on in the United States over the last three years, the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam, that we can start to work together.

“We are a great country, an unselfish country, a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running. So, my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”

These were the last words Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of jubilant supporters after he won the California primary during his run for president in 1968. He and his team disappeared into the kitchens of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles–minutes later, Kennedy was shot.

President Johnson, no fan of Bobby Kennedy, spoke to the nation following Kennedy’s death. Johnson said that Kennedy, “affirmed this country–affirmed the essential decency of its people, their longing for peace, their desire to improve conditions of life for all…Our public life is diminished by his loss.”

Today history is rife with what-if questions surrounding Bobby Kennedy. What if he had lived, and became president instead of Richard Nixon in 1968? Friends and family of Kennedy have recently thrown the resolution of his assassination into doubt. Although perhaps not as widely disputed as his brother Jack’s death, Bobby Kennedy’s son and his close friend and campaign aide, Paul Schrade, have both pointed to flaws in the case.

Kennedy’s assassination marked another bloody event in a year that had already seen student protests, climbing casualties in Vietnam, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking to the American people, Johnson noted: “in a climate of extremism, of disrespect for law, of contempt for the lives of others, violence may bring down the very best among us. A nation that tolerates violence in any form cannot expect to contain it to minor outbursts.”

A Momentous Day, a Crowded Stage: The Dedication of the Lincoln Memorial

By Kaleena Fraga

Ninety-six years ago today a crowd gathered in Washington D.C. to witness the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. Present were former president William Howard Taft, presiding as Chief Justice, current president Warren G. Harding, and Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. And, of course, Abraham Lincoln himself, immortalized in stone and looming almost 100 feet over the three men.

Between the three of them, the men comprised over fifty years of presidential history, and a resume nearly as tall as the memorial itself. Robert Lincoln had been twenty-two when his father was assassinated. Although he didn’t follow in his footsteps to the presidency, Robert Lincoln had served as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, as the Secretary of War under two presidents, and as the chairman and president of the Pullman Railroad Company. He held the dubious honor of being present for two other presidential assassinations–those of Presidents Garfield and McKinley–which made him acknowledge “a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present.” Still, no one at the dedication that day seemed nervous about his presence.

moton at memorialDr. Robert Moton, a civil rights activist, gave the keynote address. Although he spoke to a largely segregated audience, Moton pushed for equality for all races. The previous year, Moton had written President Harding a letter with suggestions on how to improve race-relations. His crusade to hire an all-black staff at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Hospital for African-American WWI veterans had provoked death threats from white supremacists, although Harding endorsed the idea. Moton’s presence on stage, then, seemed to be both an explicit realization of Lincoln’s promise, and an implicit nod of support from the current administration. Yet he also represented the work to be done–despite giving the keynote, Moton was not allowed to sit on the speaker’s platform.

(As for Taft and Harding, curious readers can learn more about them here and here).

The architect Henry Bacon designed the memorial, which he modeled after the Pantheon. Bacon felt that the man who had saved democracy deserved a memorial reminiscent of the birthplace of democracy. It featured 36 pillars to represent the 36 states that Lincoln had reunited; texts of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address; and, of course, the looming figure of Lincoln, designed by David Chester French.

Harding, the child of abolitionists, accepted the dedication from Taft. He closed the ceremony by saying:

“This Memorial is less for Abraham Lincoln than those of us today, and for those who follow after.”

They were prescient words–the Lincoln Memorial would go on to be a gathering place for people seeking equality and justice.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The John F. Kennedy Edition

By Kaleena Fraga

Today would have been John F. Kennedy’s 101st birthday. There’s plenty to remember about JFK–his primary battles during the election of 1960, which changed how Americans judge presidential candidates, his inaugural address, in which he encouraged Americans to ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, his work on civil rights, and, of course, his tragic assassination in Dallas in 1963.

JFK continues to permeate American political life. It’s second-nature to most Americans to refer to a young, charismatic candidate as “JFK-like” and JFK has even become a political football in the #MeToo era, as his legacy as a womanizer is reexamined by some and defended by others.

But JFK’s influence was felt far beyond the borders of the United States. Today, the breadth of his legacy can be found on a quiet street in the city of Berlin, in a museum that takes up a single floor of an unobtrusive building.

“The Museum THE KENNEDYS offers intimate insights into the story of the Kennedy family, which, as Irish-Catholic immigrants with high aspirations, epitomized and exemplified the »American Dream.« The museum also focuses on John F. Kennedy’s campaign and President Kennedy’s visit to Germany at the height of the Cold War, as well as the myth surrounding John F. Kennedy.”

The museum plays JFK’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech on loop–a speech given two years after the construction of the wall between East and West Berlin–, and features artifacts and anecdotes from JFK’s Berlin visit.

After the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, THE KENNEDYs is the largest JFK museum in the world. It contains more than 1,000 documents, 2,000 photographs, and several hundred assorted artifacts. The museum’s focus is on JFK’s visit to Berlin, but it also devotes space to JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, to the entire Kennedy family, and to a rotating special exhibition space which has featured works on American civil rights, and Obama photographer Pete Souza.

The museum purposely avoids the subject of JFK’s death. “We do not want to put his death into focus, but his life,” said Alexander Golya, a spokesman for the museum.

THE KENNEDYS certainly accomplishes this goal. And it accomplishes the depth of influence that an American president can have, even in cities thousands of miles away. In a nod to this the museum quotes Jackie Kennedy, who wrote in a letter:

“How strange it is. Sometimes I think that the words of my husband that will be remembered most were words he did not even say in his own language.”