A Great Presidency That Could Have Been? Book Review of James A. Garfield Biography

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2024/01/17/a-great-presidency-averted-book-review-of-james-a-garfield-biography/

President Garfield:  From Radical to Unifier
by C.W. Goodyear
Simon & Schuster
July 2023


Few people know much about President James Garfield. And this is understandable. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1881 and died less than 200 days later, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. But Garfield was a remarkable man, and his story should be better known. Thankfully, C.W. Goodyear has written an excellent biography to rectify this gap in public knowledge about the man.

Like Abraham Lincoln, Garfield succeeded in almost everything that he put his hand to. He was a devout Christian, a teacher, the youngest general in the Union Army during the Civil War, a U.S. Supreme Court attorney, a fiery abolitionist preacher, an Ohio Congressman for nine terms, and the only sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives ever to be elected President.

He was also the last American president to be born in a log cabin. His father died two years after his birth, and he was raised by his remarkable mother who miraculously found ways for the family consisting of James, and his three older siblings, to survive on their hardscrabble Ohio farm. Poor as a proverbial church mouse, Garfield chopped wood and split logs to help the family make ends meet. He also worked for a brief time as “tow-path,” pulling boats and barges along the Ohio Canal – the most menial of tasks.

At the age of 19, Garfield enrolled in Western Reserve Eclectic Institute a year after it opened. Garfield made an immediate impression as a six-foot, broad-chested young man “with warm blue eyes set in a very large head crowned by honey-colored hair,” according to the author. To pay the $22 yearly tuition, Garfield worked on the janitorial staff.  His courses included Latin, Greek, mathematics, and, of course, Shakespeare, which became his favorite subject. (Parenthetically, what has happened to education in America when a boy born in a log cabin in Ohio’s wilderness can achieve a classical education rarely found anywhere in U.S. public schools today?)  He was valedictorian of his class.

In 1854, Garfield wrote to three New England colleges seeking entrance as a junior – Yale, Brown, and Williams College. Williams was the only institution to encourage his attendance, and he headed for Williamstown in the fall of 1854. He arrived as a 23-year-old junior, and at first no one was quite sure what to make of this country boy from Ohio. But his native intelligence, strong Christian faith, and excellent writing and debating skills won over his classmates and the faculty.  He was elected president of the Philogian Society, the debating club, and chosen as editor of the college magazine, Quarterly. He also became a favorite of iconic Williams president Mark Hopkins. To help pay for his room and board, he was an itinerant preacher in the nearby hills and taught at various schools. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, was named salutatorian, and spoke at commencement.

Back in Ohio after graduating from Williams, Garfield was chosen Head of Eclectic School, and then, as the Republican candidate, was elected to the state Senate. Garfield had become a strong abolitionist at Williams, and he helped to lead the anti-slavery cause in Ohio. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Garfield continued as the Head of Eclectic School and as a member of the state legislature. But, as it became clear that the war was going to be long drawn-out affair and that the Union would need every able-bodied man to win it, Garfield raised a full regiment – the Forty-Second Ohio – from his home county and was appointed a full colonel.

How did he raise a regiment so quickly?” As one veteran of Garfield’s regiment recalled, “Because Christian fathers and mothers wanted their sons to enlist under the professor.”  (Meaning Garfield.)

Garfield was ordered to take his regiment to Kentucky and serve under General Don Carlos Buell in 1862. His regiment performed well, and Garfield was promoted to brigadier general – the youngest general in the Union Army. He later brought his regiment to the battle at Shiloh but arrived there too late to take part.  General Ulysses Grant later wrote:  “Up to the battle at Shiloh, I … believed that the rebellion would collapse suddenly and soon.”  But afterward:  “I gave up all hope of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

Garfield was then seconded to General William Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, and served as his chief of staff. In September 1863 at the Battle of Chickamauga, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, Garfield found himself in a deadly battle in which confusion reigned on all sides. At one point, Garfield and one of his orderlies escorting him rode their horses directly into the battle. Bullets whizzing past him, his orderly was killed, his horse was wounded, but he was untouched. Garfield would later write, “How I escaped death I do not know.”

In the fall of 1862, Garfield’s name was put forward to be the Republican candidate for Congress from the Western Reserve, which is in northeastern Ohio. At the age of 31, he won easily, but he would not take office until December 1863, trading his military uniform for the clothes of the politician. During his nine terms as a congressman, he was known as an excellent orator, demonstrating a capacity for fierce rhetoric.  In his first terms in Congress, he initially agreed with Radical Republican views not only about the abolition of slavery but also for full racial equality in all things. Later he became more of a moderate but remained committed to civil rights enforcement for freedmen.

The biography deals at considerable length with the most contested presidential election in U.S. history – the Hayes-Tilden contest in 1876-1877. Dueling governments, Republican and Democrat, had installed themselves in several disputed Southern states and had certified competing slates of electors. The election was fraught with difficulty. A solution was crafted in which five congressmen, five senators, and five federal Supreme Court justices were appointed to a commission to sort out how to award each state’s electoral votes. Seven Democrats and seven Republicans made up the commission, as well as one supposedly neutral swing man, although his views tended toward Republicans. Garfield was appointed one of the commissioners.

The result was the Compromise of 1877, which had far-reaching consequences for the nation. On an 8-7 party-line vote, all of the contested electoral votes were awarded to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, and he became President. But shortly after his inauguration, all federal troops in the Southern states were withdrawn. During the previous 11 years, the U.S. military had been enforcing civil rights for the freed former slaves. Following their withdrawal, the system of Jim Crow (enforced by the infamous Ku Klux Klan) was swiftly implemented throughout many of the states that had seceded. The Reconstruction policies that President Abraham Lincoln had wanted to implement were doomed with the Compromise of 1877.

In June 1880, the Republican presidential convention took place in Chicago. Garfield had just recently been elected to the U.S. Senate by the Ohio legislature for the term beginning the following year and had not declared himself a candidate for president. The main players seeking the presidency were the Secretary of the Treasury, John Sherman; former President U.S. Grant; and Maine U.S. Senator James Blaine.

Garfield nominated Sherman in an eloquent speech. In the first ballot, Grant received 304 votes, but 379 votes were needed to win. After several days of balloting and more than 30 votes taken, it was clear that a compromise candidate was needed. But rather than choosing Sherman as the compromise, Blaine’s supporters chose a fellow Ohioan — Garfield. Garfield gave a speech from the floor which was considered by some as a “specimen of brilliant eloquence rarely surpassed.” By the 36th ballot, Garfield had secured more than the 379 votes needed to win the nomination. Grant’s supporters were placated by Garfield’s choice of his vice-presidential candidate, the machine politician Chester Arthur.

Garfield ran a good race for President against a fellow Union Army general, the Democratic candidate, Winfield Hancock, who was supported almost unanimously by the Southern states.  Nevertheless, Garfield narrowly won the popular vote with a margin of 2,000 votes but handily won the electoral vote, 214-155.

On July 2, 1881, in office for less than three months, President Garfield went to the railway station in Washington to travel to his Williams College reunion. In the station, as he was talking with Secretary of State Blaine, Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office seeker who had been seeking the consulship in Paris. His name was Charles Guiteau. Guiteau had given several speeches in support of Garfield’s candidacy and felt that he deserved the position in Paris. After Secretary of State Blaine turned him down, he bought a revolver, which he used to shoot Garfield.

Initially, Garfield’s wound was not mortal. The bullet had entered his back four inches to the right of his spine. But unfortunately, the bullet remained lodged in his back, together with part of his clothing. Medical knowledge being rudimentary at the time, and doctors probed with their dirty fingers repeatedly trying to remove the bullet without success. For weeks, bulletins from the White House called Garfield’s condition “favorable.”  Over the summer months, Garfield’s infection became worse. As the wound festered, his physicians thought that this was a good sign. But the infection grew worse, and on September 19, 1881, 79 days after the shooting, President Garfield died.

It was a tragedy and a great loss to the country. He was an exceptional man — a devout Christian, a man of great intellect and character, winsome with an ability to persuade those on the other side of an issue. Garfield’s administration might well have countered the local and state Jim Crow laws which disenfranchised former slaves in the South and fostered racial segregation.

The story of Garfield’s assassination has unfortunately been greatly overshadowed by that of President Lincoln’s. But C.W. Goodyear has written a fine history of a man who, had he lived longer, might have been one of the Republic’s finest presidents.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $6.7 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts.  Read other articles by him here.


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