Monday, February 16, 2015

President's Day! Look Out, 'cause Here Comes Garfield

President Garfield is putting your beard game on notice, hipsters

A while back I read the book Destiny of the Republic (I think at Picky Girl's recommendation), by the really terrific Candice Millard.  The book traces the destinies of three people - our 20th President. James A. Garfield, his assassin Charles Guiteau (spoiler), and Alexander Graham Bell - our representative of the wild innovation occurring during the industrial age.

James A. Garfield was a proud son of Ohio, serving as an officer in the Civil War, including early leadership at Shiloh and enough success across campaigns that he was promoted to Major General.   However, mid-war, Garfield was asked to run for congress.  He was already a staunch abolitionist, and while that horse was already out of the barn, what with the Civil War, he immediately became a popular and successful representative due to his ability to build bridges and mend fences during such a volatile period of reintegration of the Reconstruction-era Southern states.

Prior to the presidential election of 1880, Garfield was appointed to the Senate from Ohio (a pretty ringing endorsement), and had no real interest in the Presidency at the time.  National conventions for nominating the president used to be more than really terrible TV.  It was a legit nomination process, and there was no stumping in Iowa and New Hampshire prior to the convention.  You just showed up and ran ballots, horse-traded, smoked cigars and yelled at each other until a candidate was selected.  On the 30th of these ballots, the leading contenders had long since fallen by the wayside and the Republican party selected James A. Garfield as their candidate.

By the way, I fully endorse going back to this mode.  It'd allow us to skip the 2 years of campaigning for every election and condense it down to a window from about July to November and be a reasonable candidate selected not the person who managed not to make one televised "mistake".

Garfield was only President for 200 days.  He was taking on the spoils system by suggesting changes to civil service reform, looking at the post office and, most importantly, civil rights in a post-Reconstruction context.

During this period, the President of the United States did not travel or live entirely differently from any other well-to-do Americans.  There were no bodyguards or Secret Service as we understand them.  Anyone could walk in off the street to set an appointment with the President or the cabinet.  In July, 1881, Charles Guiteau, a - I'll cut to the chase - nut suffering from megalomania and delusions of grandeur (I highly recommend reading at least Guiteau's Wikipedia entry), who felt he had been slighted by Garfield because Garfield had not given him a post despite his utter lack of connection to the President - decided to lay in wait for Garfield at the train depot and then shoot the President of the United States.

The man with the world's worst luck, Robert Todd Lincoln, happened to be with Garfield at the time of the shooting.  He had been with his father when Abraham Lincoln died and would be in the vicinity when McKinley would be shot about 20 years later.

Garfield would not die immediately.  The story of his suffering is pretty terrible, and he would hang on until mid September of that year, suffering through horrendous medical care and all the side-effects you'd expect of such.

Again, I highly recommend Millard's book.  It's a tough read, but absolutely worth it.

So, on this President's day, let's raise a glass to James A. Garfield.  I welcome you guys to read up more on your own on our 20th President, a real mensch and a president who surely would have accomplished a great deal if he'd had a chance.


picky said...

Yea! You read it! I saw Millard speak about this book at Texas Book Fest a few years back, and she was so doggone enthusiastic, I knew I had to pick it up. I also read River of Doubt - equally fascinating.

But two stories got me with Garfield - his nomination despite his youth and the other nominees - and the men carrying his train car to the seashore one last time. Wow.

The League said...

Oh, yeah. I was sobbing like a baby during that part of the book. I read River of Doubt a few years back, and it's always on the top of my list of recommendations. I really haven't read anything else like that one. I'll likely be reading all of Millard's books as they hit.