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July 2012 - Volume 18, Number 3


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Garfield — The President Who Didn’t Want the Honor

by Deborah D. Thornton


James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, served only 200 days (March - September 1881) before dying of infection from a gunshot wound. He didn’t want the honor, didn’t campaign for election, and would rather have been home with his children.


Yet, as a new book on Garfield, Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard, makes clear, his Presidency had significant impact. His reasoned approach offers good advice for political activists today.


I have so long and so often seen the evil effects of the presidential fever upon my associates and friends that I am determined it shall not seize me. In almost every case it impairs if it does not destroy the usefulness of its victim.
— James A. Garfield, U.S. President, 1881


Garfield kept a daily diary and wrote frequent letters. As a result, Millard provides us with many interesting quotations and facts about Garfield’s life and times.


When running for Congress he said,


I so much despise a man who blows his own horn that I go to the other extreme.


He did not make a pledge to “any man or measures,” and did not campaign for his own nomination – either to Congress or the Presidency. Contrast that to today’s 24/7/365 political campaigns.


Garfield was nominated to represent the Republican Party on the 36th vote of the 1880 convention, held in Chicago. He was not even a candidate at the beginning, and originally gave the nomination speech for John Sherman, also of Ohio – who many expected to win. The other contenders were Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine. One wonders what the impact of such an outcome would be on the 2012 campaign?


Because of the short and traumatic nature of Garfield’s presidency, he is often overlooked. However, the lessons for us today are important.


Born in Ohio in 1831, Garfield’s family was dirt poor. His father died when he was a toddler and his older brother and mother supported the family. They were determined that he not go immediately to work, but stay in school and receive an education. Their instincts were right, as Garfield was very bright. For example, while a Congressman he wrote an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem. He was also fluent in both Greek and Latin.


For those long out of Algebra class, the Pythagorean theorem says that in a right angled triangle: the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.[1] Or a2 + b2 = c2. Remember now?


Today’s students whine, protest, and “Occupy Wall Street” — complaining about fairness, student loans, their debt, and a lack of jobs. Garfield didn’t have shoes until he was four. The family was proud that they did not receive any “aid,” that they were able to “look any man in the face.”[2] At 16 Garfield worked as a canal boatman, then returned to college after a bout with malaria.


Not only was he bright, but he was a hard worker. While in college he got up at 5 a.m. and worked as a school janitor, bellringer, and carpenter in addition to studying. As janitor he was responsible for getting and keeping the fires in the classrooms going, shoveling snow, and other maintenance tasks. These were not easy chores, as in northeastern Ohio — then as today — the winters were long and difficult.


On the issue of education, poverty, and working, Garfield said,


If I ever get through a course of study I don’t expect any one will ask me what kind of a coat I wore when studying, and if they do I shall not be ashamed to tell them it was a ragged one.[3]


He followed that up with:


I never meet a ragged boy in the street without feeling that I may owe him a salute, for I know not what possibilities may be buttoned up under this coat.[4]


Students at Hiram College (Western Reserve Electric Institute when Garfield attended)[5] and other schools might adopt his approach to studying, with good results,


If at any time I began to flag in my effort to master a subject, I was stimulated to further effort by the thought, ‘Some other fellow in the class will probably master it.’[6]


Garfield finished his college degree at Williams College in Massachusetts. The competition was tougher there, eliciting the following comment,


I have been endeavoring to calculate their dimensions and power and, between you and me, I have determined that out of the forty-two members of my class thirty-seven shall stand behind me within two months.[7]


Garfield succeeded, and after earning his degree returned to Western Reserve to teach, becoming college president at only 26. He made additional money as a circuit preacher and was known as a good debater — an important skill during the time. One debate, on the issue of evolution, lasted a full week. Garfield won.

As an officer in the Union army during the Civil War, Garfield won fame at the Battle of Middle Creek (Kentucky), where his out-numbered and out-gunned force defeated the Confederates. After viewing the dead and dying soldiers on the battlefield he noted the carnage of war, lamenting on “the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it.”[8] Nevertheless, he was an aggressive officer and instrumental in several Civil War battles.


Garfield was a leader in race relations and civil rights of the time, appointing several African Americans to leadership positions when President. One of his major acts while a Congressman was to introduce legislation allowing “blacks to walk freely through the streets of Washington, DC.”[9] He was a supporter of the “Radical Republicans,” those who fought for the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, providing full civil rights to the former slaves.


On civil rights Garfield said,


Is freedom the bare privilege of not being chained? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion, and it may well be questioned whether slavery were not better. Let us not commit ourselves to the absurd and senseless dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage, the talisman of liberty.[10]


He advocated for full voting rights for the freed slaves, arguing that by denying them the right to vote, the country was basically returning the slave owners to power.


Garfield was also instrumental in investigating the “rifle clubs” of the south – Democrats who intimidated black voters – and overturning corrupt election results in Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, and Oregon.[11] This led to the establishment of the electoral commission to assure fair and honest elections. These organizations later morphed into the activities of the KKK.


In his inaugural address, Garfield advocated strongly for civil rights for African Americans, saying,


Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessing so long as the law or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous citizen.[12]


He was concerned about the potential for a permanent underclass of black citizens, not wanting a “peasantry.” He strongly supported literacy, and the idea that voters must be able to read, so as to understand what and whom they were voting for.


Garfield appointed Frederick Douglas as Recorder of Deeds, and several other African Americans to leading positions. Those who continue to denigrate the role of the Republican Party in working for equal opportunity for all citizens would do well to more fully study the history of Republican leaders such as Garfield.


In response to the corruption of the presidential appointment system of the time, Garfield supported civil service reform, which was eventually passed during the Arthur administration. In sad irony, it was a deranged appointment seeker, Charles Giteau, who shot Garfield. Mr. Giteau believed he should be appointed ambassador.


In even sadder irony, because of his support for education and the latest modern inventions, it was the medical practices of the time that killed him. American doctors had not yet adopted the procedures of Charles Lister. As a result they put their dirty fingers and various implements into the gunshot wounds, causing a severe infection.


Today the issue of free-market capitalism and economic growth is much in the news. Here, Garfield also had strong opinions, saying, “the chief duty of the government is to keep the peace and stand out of the way of the people.”[13] He was opposed to railroad land grants, monopolies, and labor unions, and was instrumental in several corruption investigations.[14]


He would probably have been comfortable in the company of Governor Scott Walker and the effort to stop mandatory union membership. Garfield was an internationalist, supporting closer relations and trade with the nations of the Southern Hemisphere and the building of the Panama Canal, as well as the modernization of the U.S. Navy.


Garfield voted against increasing congressional salaries (the Salary Grab issue) and refused his increase.[15] Because of his efforts to establish a credible civil-service appointment process, the establishment of executive branch “czars” today and their effect of allowing presidential appointments to avoid Senate oversight would probably not be an action he would support.


Garfield was only able to actively govern for about four months, until the day of his shooting on July 2, 1881 — just over 131 years ago. Garfield didn’t want to be President, yet was well prepared by both temperment and experience for the position. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t have the chance. Nevertheless, many of the issues of his time are still relevant today. And, as with other tragedies and actions of our past, who can say how the outcome would differ? What decisions would have been made?


Candice Millard’s book is well worth reading and considering as we move into the 2012 Presidential election season.


[1] “Pythagora’s Theorem,” Math is Fun, <> accessed on June 13, 2012.
[2] Candice Millard, “Destiny of the Republic,” Doubleday, 2011, p. 10.
[3] Ibid., p. 10.
[4] Ibid., p. 18.
[5] “History of the College,” Hiram College, <> accessed on June 14, 2012.
[6] Millard, p. 23.
[7] Ibid., p. 23.
[8] Ibid., p. 26.
[9] Ibid., p. 17.
[10] Ibid., p. 10
[11] Allan Peskin, “Garfield: A Biography,” Kent State University Press, 1978, p. 408.
[12] James A. Garfield, Inaugural Address, Friday, March 4, 1881, <> accessed on June 15, 2012.
[13] Peskin, p. 263.
[14] Ibid., p. 331.
[15] Ibid., pp. 365-66.


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