James Garfield was President of the USA for less than seven months, but may have done more to unite the nation than any other president before or since.
He was born in 1831 on a hardscrabble Ohio farm, the frontier of the westward-expanding United States. His father died at age 32, when James was two, leaving James’s mother in poverty to raise four children. She had to sell part of the farmland to pay off debts, but she and her oldest son, Thomas age 11, kept the family together. Her main goal for James was that he get an education, and he proved to be an excellent student. At age 20 he was accepted at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute; had no money but worked as janitor to pay for his tuition. His grades were so outstanding that the following year he was promoted to “assistant professor”, teaching classes in literature, mathematics and ancient languages, along with classes he was taking as a student. He went on to Williams College in Massachusetts, graduating in two years with honors. Returning to Eclectic to teach, he was the school’s president by age twenty-six.
When an Ohio state senator died unexpectedly in 1859, Garfield was asked to take his place for the upcoming election, and won by a large majority. Then came the civil war, when Confederate soldiers fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Four months later. Garfield was made a lieutenant colonel in Ohio’s 42nd Regiment, to which many of his former students belonged. A Confederate force of 2,000 men plus cannons, invaded eastern Kentucky. Against all odds, the 42nd defeated them at the Battle of Middle Creek by attacking from three sides, saving the state of Kentucky for the North.
Ten months after the battle, he was elected to U. S. Congress, though he had not campaigned for it. His popularity in Ohio seemed take on a life of its own. He stayed in the army for a year longer until President Lincoln persuaded him to take his seat in Congress, saying he [Lincoln] needed every vote there he could get.
The Republican Party in the late 1870s was divided into the “Stalwarts” and the “Half-Breeds. The Stalwarts favored the personal rewards of the corrupt ‘spoils system’ and opposed reconciliation with the southern states. The “Half-Breeds”, reformers like Garfield, favored appointment of officials on the basis of merit, and encouraged the southern states to rejoin the nation without arbitrary severe penalties. Both sides had talented public speakers. Delegates to the 1880 National Republican convention in Chicago were angry and tense.
No presidential candidate – Grant, Blaine, nor Sherman – could gain the 379 votes to win nomination for president. After 12 hours of balloting, with no progress, they adjourned at 10 pm.
Next day, the 34th balloting showed a change. Wisconsin cast 16 votes for Garfield, 2 for Grant. Garfield rose to protest that he had not given anyone his consent to be a candidate. The weary chairman ruled him out of order. Soon Garfield had 399 votes, more than enough to win. The chairman asked if the convention wished to make the vote unanimous, and the leader of the opposing Stalwart group so moved. The delegates, and the crowd outside erupted in enthusiasm.
The book has also been tracing the careers of two other men in occasional chapters. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell, had a chance encounter with Garfield at Philadelphia’s Centennial Celebration in 1876 which drew attention to his exhibition of the telephone.
Three days after Garfield’s nomination in Chicago, the Boston to New York ferry Stonington collided in the night with the steamer Narragansett, causing the latter to burn and sink with great loss of life. One of the survivors, Charles Guiteau, a monomaniac who had decided to be a part of Garfield’s victory, interpreted his survival as an act of God impelling his own change of fortune. Debarking in New York, Guiteau headed for Republican headquarters.
His rambling proposals were repeatedly rejected at every political office that he visited over the next two months, he reasoned it must be President Garfield blocking God’s will, and therefore it was Guiteau’s mission to get rid of Garfield. Accordingly, he borrowed fifteen dollars and bought a .44 revolver. On July 2, as the President was about to board a train, Guiteau approached (there were no presidential bodyguards in that era), and shot him in the back, and immediately gave himself up for arrest, to be safe from lynch mobs, “until the nation would realize his great service.”
It’s hard to say who was most responsible for the president’s death 79 days later – his assassin, or the doctors who mismanaged his care. The President was in excellent health up until his wound. By 1881 most European doctors had accepted Lister’s proof that bacteria were the common cause of death after surgery or childbirth, but the debate among American doctors still continued. Dr. Bliss, who announced that he was in charge of the President’s care, didn’t believe invisible bacteria existed, and claimed that removal of the bullet was the necessary goal. He repeatedly inserted unclean probes and his own unwashed fingers into the wound, resulting in massive infection.
Most people in those days feared and distrusted hospitals – the place where poor people go and die. The well-to-do were treated at home. The White House needed repairs, but it had staff and space; the doctors transferred Garfield back there after he had lain for several hours on the unclean floor of the RR station.
X-rays had not yet been discovered, but Bell was now working on a new electric device that could locate metal. Dr. Bliss would only allow its application to Garfield’s right side “where the bullet track was.” Actually, the bullet had ricocheted off the spine leftward, to lodge behind the pancreas. Garfield calmly endured months-long severe pain, vomiting, abscesses, and dehydration. Bell’s device could have found the bullet, had not Dr. Bliss interfered.
Author Millard’s book brings out several ways that Garfield brought unity to Americans in those post Civil War times. The impoverished, the educated, those of all political stripes could identify with his life story, his honesty, his military career, his support of all ex-slave’s new rights. He seldom sought power, but accepted it when called upon. He had the presence of his family, friends, and staff, and his own calm attitude. All these, plus his assassination and lingering death, brought the country together.