Read an Excerpt
“Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.”
—Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, as quoted in Garfield diary entry for August 17, 1878
Rain drums Chicago’s gridded streets on the early morning of June 9, 1880. Decorations sag and calcium lights hiss; warm, glowing lobbies lure celebrants inside as the night air is washed of the tang of fireworks. Then peace rules the city, with only newfangled electric lampposts—exuding soft light and a soothingly industrial thrum—left holding out against the black and the quiet.1
This brief calm falters before dawn, when a murmuring crowd packs the entrance of the Grand Pacific Hotel on Jackson Street. A band soon arrives to beat out patriotic tunes—thereby spoiling an ambush: the weather is unseasonably dismal, the hour unreasonably early, but hundreds have defied both to escort the new Republican nominee for president on his journey home.2
His attempt at escape fails almost immediately. At eight-thirty, a distinctively large head (two feet in circumference) is seen bobbing under a side-exit, and the mob catches up to it within a half-block. Thus overtaken, James Garfield can only politely surrender to popular will. His hat lifts to reveal a kindly smile. Eyes like summer lightning invite the people to come along, if they’d like.3
They do, in a human tide—its noise, the pumping lyrics of “See, The Conquering Hero Comes” and less rhythmic swells of cheers. The candidate at its center has been buffeted by thousands of congratulations in the last eighteen hours.4
Upon finally reaching a train station, Garfield climbs onto a car festooned with flags. He shelters within until nine o’clock sharp—a time that is marked by engines firing, wheels chugging, and the car’s back door creaking open. Then, as a witness recorded:
Gen. Garfield yielded to popular demand and appeared on the rear platform, where he was greeted with a succession of cheers from a thousand pairs of patriotic lungs.
His outline recedes into the rain, leaving behind a depot of soggy supporters who are exultant despite the weather and their wetness. Their happiness had been well-stoked since yesterday, when Garfield yielded to a far more pressing demand from a larger audience. “I am not a candidate, and I cannot be,” he had repeatedly told a convention packed with senators and generals, governors and congressmen.5
Editors now opine the Republican Party (so dreadfully divided) had little choice but to force Garfield to accept the nomination for president anyway. “He was so aggressive, and yet so conciliatory.”6
Under bluer skies and across a nation now stretching unbroken from Atlantic to Pacific, millions of citizens learn the rough, remarkable outlines of a life driven by those traits. James Garfield’s story had begun in a setting so rudimentary as to be alien to most Americans in this mechanized age: a one-room log cabin on the Ohio frontier.
Erudite readers would describe his reported upbringing as almost Dickensian. Garfield’s father (indistinguishable “from the other plodding farmers” of early Ohio) had not survived their harsh surroundings for long—leaving his widow and four children to fend for themselves on a lonely homestead. “Mrs. Garfield... managed to support herself and the family on the little farm left by her husband, and James, from his earliest years, was obliged to aid... in the general work about his home,” describes one northeastern outlet. “James had a tough life of it as a boy,” another in Illinois summarizes.7
Other columnists take pains to specify the toils of the nominee’s childhood. Early years splitting firewood, plowing, and working a carpenter’s bench had ended when he ran away for the Twainish exploit of piloting a canal boat. But brawls and a bout of malaria evidently set the teenager straight: Garfield enrolled in nearby schools—paying for one by working as its janitor. Readers from Manhattan, New York, to Manhattan, Kansas, peek over their papers to tell their children to never complain again.8
Then, a climb that packs enough color to defy the black-and-white of print. The canal boy is baptized; he emerges as a tall, sandy-haired teacher, caning students in a firelit winter classroom; he roams summer roads as a lay preacher; an almond-eyed student passes by, catching his attention; he turns twenty-six and is a married college president—idolized by hundreds of farmers’ children flocking for instruction; he is a state senator, swapping peacetime political capital for a wartime army uniform; he is raring to fight as civil war engulfs America, telling voters a “government actually based on the monstrous injustice of human slavery” must not be allowed to exist; he leads congregants and students up frigid Kentucky slopes to hunt rebels; a general’s stars bloom on his shoulders—the youngest to bear them in the U.S. Army; he crusades into the Deep South, sheltering runaway slaves in camp against orders; he becomes the second-youngest congressman in America at thirty-one and one of its most progressive. Then seventeen years fly by in a paragraph, and he is minority leader of the House—an unassuming, unparalleled survivor of an age’s worth of legislative battles.9
Many of Garfield’s political triumphs are lost to readers in that acceleration. He had been the youngest participant in America’s radical revolution and remains perhaps the last still politically alive; he had chaired committees governing the country’s military, budget, census, and currency; he had trimmed many millions in federal spending; he had single-handedly investigated a president, swindled an Indian tribe out of its ancestral lands, and even established a new wing of government: the first Department of Education. (“Shall we enlarge the boundaries of citizenship, and make no provision to increase the intelligence of the citizen?” he’d dared Congress during that particular fight.)10
His speeches on these topics and more, as later compiled by a colleague, would be found to “present an invaluable compendium of the political history of the most important era through which the National Government has ever passed.”11
Garfield has also seemingly found time for impressive activities outside the Capitol. Republicans as varied as William McKinley, James Blaine, and Benjamin Harrison court his stump services. Statesmen jaded by a lifetime of sappy speeches have reported their cynicism cured by a single Garfield performance. “It was eloquent, but it was far more than that;” one would write with wonder:
It was honestly argumentative; there was no sophistry of any sort; every subject was taken up fairly... indeed, every person present, even if greenbacker or demagogue, must have said within himself, “This man is a friend arguing with friends; he makes me his friend, and now speaks to me as such.”12
Reports of the new nominee’s other extracurriculars dazzle other observers. Garfield is multilingual—and ashamed to have let his German, in particular, get rusty recently. He has built a legal career in parallel with his political one, only to see it also reach incredible heights: attorney Garfield has won cases before the Supreme Court. Whenever time allows, he also writes articles for The Atlantic and The North American Review. His most recent editorial in the latter had run the year before—insisting, against rebuttal, that it had not been a mistake to grant Black Americans the vote, and that ongoing attempts to suppress that right only amounted to national self-sabotage:
Such a conflict will not only retard the advancement of the negro and delay the restoration of national harmony, but it will inflict immeasurable injury upon the social and business prosperity of the South... Reviewing the elements of the larger problem, I do not doubt that [Black] enfranchisement will, in the long run, greatly promote the intellectual, moral, and industrial welfare of the negro race in America; and, instead of imperiling the safety of our institutions, will remove from them the greatest danger which has ever threatened them.13
An even more exceptional piece from Garfield’s pen ran in the New England Journal of Education a few years earlier; an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem. The editors had attached a note verifying Garfield’s work, calling it “something on which the members of both houses can unite without distinction of Party.”14
As Garfield’s train clips out of Illinois, Democrat reporters use less flattering episodes of his long career to paint him as the epitome of a Washingtonian swamp creature. (“He is the most corrupt man in America!” an ex-cabinet secretary thunders.) Reprinted in graver tones is the allegation that Garfield helped rig the previous presidential election, before brokering an era-ending compromise to paper the crime over:
Hayes could plead that he did not steal the Presidency. He was the fence... Garfield was one of the principal robbers.15
Yet other Democrats cannot help but add to their opponent’s resume. “I look upon him as the ablest Republican on the legislative floors of Washington,” one confesses to a reporter. Others compliment Garfield’s possession of that rarest of political qualities—genuine friendliness to everyone, no matter their party or the issue at hand: “He was so generous an opponent, so warm and free and liberal in his relations to his political foes.”16
It was, all told, an impossible record to succinctly review. “Such an accumulation of honors had never before fallen upon an American citizen,” a senator would later say of Garfield’s resume.17
The sitting president agrees—even ranking Garfield’s name highest in the national pantheon. “The truth is no man ever started so low who accomplished so much in all our history,” Rutherford B. Hayes scribbles in the White House. “Not [Benjamin] Franklin or [Abraham] Lincoln even.”18
Garfield’s engine is a dark line splitting Indiana’s verdure from the clouds that ceiling them. Whenever it stops, voters peer through rain to see lingering evidence of Garfield’s strenuous upbringing for themselves. Taller than everyone in sight, the candidate is also built like a “country Samson.” A friend says Garfield cannot even pick up a book without revealing a bull-like strength. Another thinks the same about his gait, inadvertently “redolent of woods and fields rather than of drawing-rooms.”19
Citizens at South Bend see the Samson analogy, sadly, only holds from the neck down; Garfield’s “massive forehead” has little hair left above it. This baldness is balanced somewhat by a lush, earthy beard, but this cannot offset the large cranium. Whenever Garfield covers it up, the impression to amused spectators is that of “a hat walking away with a man,” rather than vice versa.20
At Ligonier, Garfield greets girls bedecked in red, white, and blue. At Butler, he beams through the “first ordeal in baby-kissing.” The celebrations grow discordant as his train nears the hallowed land of Ohio. A band blarps “not very sweet music” at Elkhart. A cannon at Goshen blasts off in more tuneless salute.21
Elsewhere, though, Republican leaders hear unfamiliar notes of harmony sounding in the ranks. “You see,” one explains to a reporter, “we had either to take the Devil or the deep sea. We happily went between, and took up a compromise man.” “It seems to me that Garfield was the only way out of a dilemma,” another agrees cheerily. “It is another evidence that Providence governs in the affairs of this nation, and comes to its relief in its darkest hours as frequently before.”22
At first glance, America does not look to be in a dark spot at all. Many of its luminaries say things are demonstrably as bright as ever—the path ahead, glinting with yet more promise. James Blaine calls this but a continuation of the progress that has defined the country’s last decade and a half, progress that has been “not only unprecedented but phenomenal”: a once-enslaved race now enjoys citizenship; immigration is pumping the republic’s population up by a million souls annually; a hundred thousand miles of railway bind its thirty-eight states and ten territories together, helping products both grown and manufactured reach port in record volume; companies have bemoaned “painfully large” profits; telegraph lines click loudly in every place of business, while men like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell work in near-solitude on technologies designed, in theory, to draw Americans even closer to one another.23
But on nearer inspection, the sheen rubs off to reveal a foundation of disparity beneath. While Black Americans theoretically enjoy equality, many (especially in the South) know exercising such rights is practically an impossible—if not fatal—endeavor. “The old master class is today triumphant, and the newly-enfranchised... little above that [state] in which they were found before the rebellion,” Frederick Douglass laments. In defiant evidence of this, many who once fought to destroy the Union on behalf of slavery now sit as its legislators.24
And yes, national wealth is stacking high—but overwhelmingly in the accounts of a few. This has produced a new, terrifyingly powerful class of citizen, the so-called “robber barons.” Andrew Carnegie and Jay Gould have already joined it; the empires of Morgan and Rockefeller (run on the more liquid stuff of capital and oil, respectively) are just beginning to grow. Such men are also stamping out dissent among menials. The first-ever nationwide strike occurred three years ago.25
But perhaps the period’s strife is most prevalent in America’s politics. Division abounds: the sitting president is widely considered illegitimate—not only by Democrats relitigating his election but also by fellow Republicans. The (professedly) wittiest ones call him “Rutherfraud.” Others boast of boycotting the White House during his regime. Yet the disdain Republican senators hold for President Hayes dims in the glare of their hatred for one another. Fifteen years of peace and political dominance have done to the party what war and generations of Democrats never could. Vividly named blocs (“Stalwarts” and “Half-Breeds”) spent the last administration clashing with the same spirit of the Montagues and Capulets.26
Little of substance divides them. Each Republican faction is defined more by a pugilistic, bird-of-paradise of a leader than policy; each run machines that trade places on the public payroll as rewards to cronies; each wallows in corruption (“like a rhinocerous in an African pool”) while politely feigning interest in cleaning up government. “As for politics, we seem to be in a backwater period,” Henry Adams sighs.27
Such disparities have, at least, been good fodder for humorists. One has used them to lend the era a name. Mark Twain calls this the “Gilded Age”—wherein, more than ever, not all that glitters in America is gold.28
Only Garfield seems to have navigated all the strife without much issue; he has certainly witnessed more of it than almost anyone. His House tenure measures as almost a record-breaker, and from an increasingly powerful perch in that body he had participated in almost every major American political event since the Civil War: presidential administrations, constitutional amendments, economic catastrophes, an impeachment, election crises, Klan violence, and more had come and gone. Garfield served as one of the Republic’s few constants throughout it all.29
The secret to his success was no secret at all. In a profession with the lamentable tendency to attract show ponies instead of workhorses, and a period favorable to partisan grandstanding, Garfield had embraced undramatic efficiency in the driest fields of lawmaking imaginable, obsessively tending to the vital, oft-neglected inner clockwork of American government. “Gentlemen... I believe in work,” he explained to one audience. It was an advantageous belief: in Garfield’s experience, congressmen who prioritized political theater over creating sound policy rarely accomplished much in the end—for themselves or the country. This was especially true of those angling for the White House; Garfield has lost good friends to what he dubs the “Presidential fever... [which] impairs if it does not destroy the usefulness of its victim.” It struck him as an awful disease—capable of reducing a valuable statesman into just another ineffective politician, with the mere thought they could be president one day.30
Having thus tacked away from the prevailing political style, Garfield can now laugh in Capitol coatrooms at the president’s expense while remaining the administration’s most trusted legislative ally. He considers himself a civil service reformer, but also doles out patronage to allies and chides clean-government activists for using “too much proclamation” in criticizing machines. He is just as Janus-like about the South’s never-ending mess. “Outrages” against Black Americans could not be tolerated; then again, neither could the federal government break constitutional limits to try to stop them.31
Most jarringly, though, Garfield has stayed on good terms with everyone in Washington. Stalwart bosses think him a “most attractive man to meet,” as do reformers. The Half-Breed chief is an especially dear friend. Lower-ranking Democrats even treat him—the leader of their opposition—as a confidante. As one would admit:
It happened once that I—a young member—was called upon to close on the Democratic side a debate, which Mr. Garfield was to close the next morning on behalf of the Republicans... I was extremely anxious to make a reply which would do credit to myself and not disgrace my party; and I went to Garfield that night and pointed out my dilemma... Like the man that he is—like a brother, I might say—he told me what he was going to say, the whole time of his argument, and thus gave me the benefit of twenty-four hours’ study in which to reply to him. You can understand my admiration, my love, my anxiety for that man.32
Cynical colleagues have taken all this as proof of something wrong with Garfield. Frederick Douglass has diagnosed him with a missing backbone. Ulysses Grant and Stalwart senators second the opinion. “Disquieting tendencies in respect both to persons and principles,” a reformist legislator would agree. Even sympathizers of Garfield call him a political weather vane, sure to spin unpredictably in foul weather.33
Garfield would turn these complaints back on their issuers. It is holding blindly to fixed opinions, and reflexively attacking those with different ones, which is the refuge of the weak and naive. “To be an extreme man is doubtless comfortable,” he has written. “It is painful to see so many sides to a subject.” His agony would only intensify whenever fellow Republicans again wasted time persecuting one another over trifling bits of partisan dogma. “It is the business of statesmanship to wield the political forces so as not to destroy the end to be gained,” Garfield once lectured a reformer.34
As for the charge of being too nice, Garfield could only confess to a fault in personality. “I am a poor hater,” he admitted on one occasion. A New York academic recalls getting this impression from a crackling hearthside conversation with the minority leader:
Having settled down in front of the fire... we began to discuss the political situation, and his talk remains to me one of the most interesting things of my life... One thing which struck me was his judicially fair and even kindly estimates of men who differed from him. Very rarely did he speak harshly or sharply of anyone, differing in this greatly from Mr. Conkling, who... seemed to consider men who differed from him as enemies of the human race.35
This trait, of all things, is what won Garfield the presidential nomination he claims to have not even wanted. Deadlocked between declared candidates, the Convention had rallied to him as a figurehead who might rescue Republicans from their own divisions. Initial reactions indicate it had done so. “His nomination will produce perfect unison,” a Supreme Court justice predicts to a journalist, “because he has helped everybody when asked, and antagonized none.”36
Garfield’s train continues bearing him east, eventually reaching his homeland. “The course of the train after striking Ohio soil has been through a series of ovations difficult to describe,” writes one passenger. Well-wishers at Toledo seem as if they would physically carry Garfield to the White House “if he had only said a word.”37
The next day Garfield is strolling sun-dappled Cleveland. Around him, again and everywhere, is proof of the history he has witnessed: almost all the buildings in eyesight are older than him. After arriving in town, Garfield had been reminded of a particularly rustic episode from his youth by a passing banner. It read: “He who at the age of 16 steered a canal boat will steer the Ship of State at 50.”38
But when a friend predicts just such a victory ahead, Garfield is back to business. “Say, rather, the work has just begun.”39
At two o’clock he is in a coach trundling down a hot dirt road through a bower of blossoming trees. This is Ohio’s Western Reserve—a bucolic corner of America that, like its political idol, seems to embody “in thought, as in action... the median line between the overflowing East and ever-welcoming West.”40
Brick farm homes dot its rippling land, and in their doorways hang Garfield’s portrait. Their owners had been his flock in worship, his students in antebellum, his soldiers in war, his voters in peacetime. One would, in old age, remember Garfield as “my ideal... of all that is manly, brilliant, and good—a Sir Galahad, our knight.”41
The carriage soon rolls into his first seat of power: Hiram College. Here Garfield’s climb to influence over the Reserve began. Its commencement ceremonies are scheduled for this afternoon; its former administrator is still planning to attend.
Before they start, Garfield visits the home of his father-in-law. Therein he reunites with Lucretia—his wife, and (to borrow his expression) the “earthly source of all my joys.” Their love is true but had not always been so. “Crete,” ever-serene, had quietly endured a great deal during their early years together: her husband’s months away from home, his emotional neglect, the death of their firstborn—and even, secretly, an affair. But she had held on, and Garfield had atoned, and neither can now imagine life without the other. Picturing her face is what allowed Garfield to withstand the ambush of his nomination. “She is unstampedable,” he likes saying.42
The commencement speaker tells the packed auditorium at Hiram of a man “who was at one time a fellow-student with a number of persons present... With respect to the future we cherish the larger hope. I introduce to you Gen. Garfield.”
Garfield can offer only a few words to the graduates walking in his footsteps:
While I have been sitting here this afternoon... it occurred to me that the best thing you have... is perhaps the thing you care for least, and that is your leisure—the leisure you have to think in, and to be let alone; the leisure you have to throw the plummet with your hands... the leisure you have to walk about the towers of yourselves, and find how strong or how weak they are, and determine which need building up, and how to shape them, that you may be made the final being that you are to be.43
Thus, in trying to speak on leisure, the next president of the United States betrays that he does not really know what it is.
He never would. The hardest work of Garfield’s life remains ahead—not only winning the presidency but using it to try cobbling his party and country back together. By doing so, Garfield earns another arduous distinction: he becomes the second president to be assassinated.
Its spectacle grips the nation. Wounded by gunshot, Garfield takes eighty agonizing days to die. His condition keeps his countrymen united in anxious vigil. Perhaps more remarkably, the partisan faction perceived as being responsible for his shooting (by perpetuating the period’s toxic, rancorous politics) is ostracized; American voters use Garfield’s death to chart a course to calmer public discourse and cleaner government.
The arc of a remarkable life is thereby eclipsed by how it ends. Future historians would be drawn to studying Garfield’s murder, its impact on the nation, and the lingering question of what the man could have achieved, instead of what he already had.
In his final hours, Garfield seemed to worry this would be the case. He looked up from his deathbed to ask a friend:
Do you think my name will have a place in human history?
An affirmative answer then appeared to relax him. “My work is done,” Garfield said aloud before passing on.44
Little could he have imagined the places his name would hold for centuries to come—not just in history, but the ongoing lives of his compatriots and the land itself. Americans would name their children in honor of the martyred president; an Apache chief would even change his own to do so. Thousands of Garfield streets, avenues, and boulevards would be built, as would hospitals, schools, towns, and entire counties also bearing his name. Mount Garfield would be scaled by climbers in both the Rockies and the Appalachian Trail. A sculpture of him would stand guard in Congress’s Statuary Hall, while yet another was to occupy a roundabout on the Capitol’s southwest corner.45
Other pieces of his legacy found purchase in obscurer parts of America: Lupinus garfieldensis still grows wild and snow-white on northwestern peaks; Johnny Cash recorded a single about the slain president; a more indirect (and incongruous) tribute to Garfield has come in the serialized form of a lazy, orange cartoon cat.46
A theme of reconciliation threads his life together. Garfield spent his early years as a bright country boy endeavoring to make sense of the country he had been born to; his middle ones, as a progressive soldier-statesman trying to build a more righteous, peaceful America out of the ashes of civil war; his very last months, succeeding in doing so—in great part, ironically, by being killed.
That he reached the presidency at all is miraculous, considering where he started. Garfield was born in a log hut in a primeval forest, on the fringes of an adolescent republic that was starting to stretch apart at the seams.