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Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield

4.6 5
by Kenneth D. Ackerman

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Capitol Hill veteran Kenneth D. Ackerman recreates an American political landscape where fierce battles for power unfolded against a chivalrous code of honor in a country struggling to emerge from the long shadow of the Civil War. James Garfield's 1880 dark horse campaign after the longest-ever Republican nominating convention, his victory in the closest-ever popular


Capitol Hill veteran Kenneth D. Ackerman recreates an American political landscape where fierce battles for power unfolded against a chivalrous code of honor in a country struggling to emerge from the long shadow of the Civil War. James Garfield's 1880 dark horse campaign after the longest-ever Republican nominating convention, his victory in the closest-ever popular vote for president, his struggle against bitterly feuding factions once elected, and the public's response to its violent climax is the most dramatic presidential odyssey of the Gilded Age -- and among the most momentous in our nation's history. This journey through political backrooms and intrigue-filled congressional and White House chambers reveals the era's decency and humanity as well as the sharp partisanship that exploded in the pistol shots of assassin Charles Guiteau, the weak-minded patronage seeker eager to replace the elected Commander-in-Chief with one of his own choosing.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Several hundred pages of text on Garfield and the politics of his day may seem a stretch, given the gray, hyper-partisan, issueless politics of the Gilded Age. But in Ackerman's hands, the story of Garfield's presidency and murder comes brilliantly alive. Ackerman (an attorney who has worked on Capitol Hill and in the White House and written about Gilded Age scandals) relates with gusto and fizz the story of Garfield's unanticipated nomination as Republican presidential candidate in 1880, his election by a whisker, the travails of his few months in office, and his assassination. It's a story mostly of the struggle for spoils and patronage between two wings of the post-Civil War party of Lincoln. In fact, the lonely, unstable assassin, Charles Guiteau, was a resentful partisan of the wing that Garfield didn't fully reward. Soon after the president's death, and largely as a result, Congress enacted civil service reform. Ackerman brings to life all this and the colorful political figures, mostly senators, who strode the nation's public stage. The trouble is that, like so many works of history these days, it's long on narrative and short, very short, on analysis. You wouldn't know that the political deadlocks of the 1880s deeply, and disastrously, affected the lives of freed slaves, nor do readers learn of agricultural and labor crises, industrial growth or financial shenanigans-the very matters that factional fighting and political murder kept under the rug. It's a pity that Ackerman doesn't apply his skills to such central matters of context and significance. Agent, Jeff Gerekle, JCA Literary Agency. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Gilded Age political culture is associated with corruption and gaudiness behind a veneer of Victorian repression. Washington lawyer Ackerman (The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday 1869) builds on this foundation with his extensive knowledge of the period and his longtime personal experience with politics inside the Beltway. What the period lacked in character it made up for in high political drama. Indeed, the narrative effectively captures the drama and could easily become the source for a political opera culminating in the longest presidential death scene in history. The death of the "Dark Horse" candidate from the 1880 Republican convention, James A. Garfield, was preceded by the longest ever Republican nominating convention, which took 36 ballots before selecting him, followed by the closest popular vote up to that time. With great narrative skill, Ackerman tackles the fascinating cast of characters, including a former president (Ulysses S. Grant), future presidents (Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison), vice presidents, powerful senators (especially Roscoe Conkling, James G. Blaine, and Thomas Platt), interwoven with scene stealer and assassin Charles Guiteau, whose delusions match those of the era's politicians. Highly recommended for libraries with patrons who enjoy good political history.-William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A behind-the-curtains glimpse at an often overlooked presidency, and at the cabals and conspiracies that brought it to an end. John Garfield was something of an accidental president, a dark horse brought onto the national scene in the wake of the many scandals that rocked the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. Washington insider Ackerman, who has held various civil-service posts over the last three decades, has an evident appreciation for the Ohio Republican, who wasn't exactly unwilling to see his hat tossed into the ring but hadn't exactly gone out of his way to court high office, either. Garfield would have done better to stay on the farm, to judge by Ackerman's engaging account of events, for Garfield found himself caught in the middle of a longtime feud between party bosses Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine, who hated each other with a fine passion and had been fighting for control of the Capitol for years. Garfield developed a platform of compromise that might surprise a few GOP loyalists today-including a staunch repudiation of "the pernicious doctrine of State supremacy"; support for federal funding for universal, secular education; and opposition to free trade and "doubtful financial experiments" such as federal intervention in the market. Still, for all his efforts at reconciliation, when Garfield was finally elected-and much of Ackerman's account deals with his tortuous path to the White House-he had to maneuver his way between Conkling and Blaine, pleasing neither with his choice of lieutenants and initiatives. Enter Charles Guiteau, the assassin who gunned Garfield down in 1881; though often described as a disappointed office-seeker and lunatic, he pulled the trigger as acommitted "stalwart" who wanted to see Garfield out of office and Garfield's vice president Chester Arthur in-as did Conkling, who allegedly endorsed the murder. Did Guiteau act alone? Ackerman has some ideas about that, and about the condition of national politics 12 decades ago. A welcome glimpse into the little-known time between the Civil War and the Gilded Age. Agent: Jeff Gerecke/JCA Literary Agency

Product Details

Da Capo Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
7.01(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.70(d)

Meet the Author

Kenneth D. Ackerman has served for more than twenty-five years in senior posts on Capitol Hill and in the Executive Branch, including as counsel to two U.S. Senate committees and as administrator of the Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency during the Clinton-Gore administration. He is the author of The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday 1869 and currently practices law in Washington, D.C. A chronicler of the Gilded Age, his forthcoming book for Carroll & Graf will be a new biography of Boss Tweed.

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Dark Horse 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was browsing at Barnes and Nobles and picked this up. It was so good I bought it for my Nook and thoroughly enjoyed it. Good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you enjoy clean, clear, concise history, this book is for you. Check out the sample, and you will buy the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Fascinating, well written and researched. Brilliant study of the messiest election of the gilded age and of the conceited power of major political bosses including Roscoe Conkling. Garfield emerges as a tragic hero, a good man who might have been one of our better presidents.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm glad to see at least one other person singing the high praises of this terrific book. And I agree with the other reviewer, that this should have won a major prize of some kind, if not the Pulitzer. As a Canadian I knew next to nothing about American politics during this particular period. Not only was I educated, but highly entertained and also deeply saddened by Garfield's final tragic days. If only all non-fiction authors could write this well....
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book so much, I sent this letter to the author. Dear Mr. Ackerman, I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed your fantastic book, Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. I feel it is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize for History. I found your writing style to be engrossing as, even though I knew much of the history you recounted, I read each page of the book most eagerly. I had just finished Roy Morris' Fraud of the Century and, as much as I enjoyed it, I found your book to be a more compelling tale. Your character development is superb and I love how you tied the thread of the Conkling/Blaine feud of 1866 to events throughout the book. The final weaving together of the tale in Chapter 15 is a beautiful closure to a moving story that, as you accurately captured, impacted and captivated large numbers of Americans. Your research and documentation were extremely thorough and quite logically incorporated into the chronological flow of events. Your footnotes are pure joy for a politics and history buff (like me). I didn't really feel I had finished the book until I read the endnotes, as they added to my deeper understanding and appreciation of the events. Having lived through the Kennedy assassination, the comparisons with Garfield's demise are most intriguing and the distinctions also profound. Both were younger presidents who had won narrow victories to gain the White House. Both were succeeded by vice presidents who were clearly 'ticket balancers.' But Kennedy's assassination has forever been plagued with conspiracy theories, while Garfield's had no doubt as to the assassin. Alas, to pursue this line of thought would invite rambling on my part, but these ideas do cross my mind. I think your book would make a great movie, except for the sad reality that Hollywood would inevitably destroy a great story. Also, most likely, it isn't the kind of story that would capture much interest among our populace, at least in my judgment (keeping in mind the kinds of movies that seem to proliferate theater complexes these days). If only I were wrong about this! Your recapitulations of future developments of each of the prime players in the book (Chapter 15) are tailor made for the closing of a great film. I found particularly touching the telling of Mollie Garfield having married Joe Stanley Brown. Some minor observations, suggestions, and thoughts I have are as follows: - A table of the results of the 1880 Presidential Election and a national map of the results (as I have attached) might have been a good addition to the book. I did thoroughly enjoy your tables of the key convention ballots. (Obviously, my bias as a mathematician and cartographer is showing.) - I am working on a book (well, it is really more of a tutorial) of the History of Partisan Representation in the United States Congress. As you are well aware, the story of the evenly divided 47th Senate, in and of itself, is a fascinating one and your accounting of the battle for control of the Senate is most illuminating. Your description of the tie-breaking (precedent setting) votes of Chester Arthur is great drama. -- In this vein, while you point out that one of Arthur's first actions as President was to call the Senate into special session to choose a President Pro Tempore, you never related who they selected for this position. My research indicates that Thomas F. Bayard (D-DE) served from October 10 to 13, 1881, David Davis (Independent-IL) from October 13, 1881 to March 3, 1883, and George F. Edmunds (R-VT) from March 3 to December 2, 1883. Perhaps with the Senate evenly split, this particular tale was too complex and off the focus of your storyline to include. - Not to nit-pick, but in case your book is ever reprinted, some minor points: -- on page 205, last line of paragraph two, the spelling of 'ungentlemanly' missed the editors gaze, -- on page 234, end of line 15 should probably read '