Ask anyone to name their list of the top five presidents, and most people will go for the big ones: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, one – or both – of the Roosevelts, possibly Kennedy, and maybe a modern president or two (Reagan, Clinton, or Obama, depending upon their political beliefs). You may run across someone who will argue passionately for Eisenhower (the interstate system, anyone?) or for Andrew Jackson (most likely because he almost beat an attempted assassin to death, rather than for the Trail of Tears). In any case, whomever you ask to compile that “top five” list, I can almost guarantee you that James Garfield will not be among them.
There are a couple of reasons for this omission, the first being that Garfield simply wasn’t president for very long. He was inaugurated in March 1881, was shot in June, and died in August. He didn’t have time to do very much in office. The second reason is that Garfield is part of a procession of presidents between Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, most of whom we didn’t learn much about in school. To those with a passing familiarity with high school history classes, the late 1800s were the age of the Old West, or the period (and subsequent breakdown) of Reconstruction, or the Gilded Age… But most people haven’t a clue as to who the presidents were during this time or whether they actually did anything while in office. Can you name them? (In case you’re too lazy to go to Wikipedia, it’s: Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland again, McKinley. Now you finally understand why Grandpa Simpson saying, “I was spanked by Grover Cleveland on two non-consecutive occasions” is funny.) Long story short, there are many, many people in this country who, upon hearing the name “Garfield,” will immediately picture only a fat cat who likes lasagna and hates Mondays.
However, if you look at things from an historical perspective (which is kind of the point around here), Garfield was, in fact, an important president, mainly because of the larger repercussions of his death so early in his term of office. To understand why, you first need to understand something about America in the 1870s and 1880s: contrary to what many of us were taught in school, Reconstruction was not a doomed experiment from the start. In some ways, it worked (at least temporarily). In the 1870s, for example, African-Americans were elected to various local, state, and (few) national offices, at one point holding around 15 percent of offices in the South (which, it has been noted, was a higher proportion than was held by African-Americans in 1990). Segregation, while not entirely unusual, was not the law of the land the way it would be later on, and so while we laud Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier in baseball, baseball teams were, in fact, not segregated until 1900. Baseball is not the only sport that was integrated for a decent chunk of time; African-American athletes, for example comprised 15 of the first 28 winning riders of the Kentucky Derby. The armed forces and federal government offices were not segregated until Woodrow Wilson’s 1912-1920 terms in office (but we would expect no less from the man who screened The Birth of a Nation in the White House in 1915 and raved about how “terribly true” it was).
While Reconstruction was by no means a time of peaches and puppies, and was, of course, far more complex than I have the ability to relate to you here, you can see that definite progress in some arenas was made… and then was completely revoked during what is called the Nadir (pronounced like Ralph Nader) of Race Relations in this country, usually defined as taking place from 1890 – 1940. Jim Crow Laws, for example, were a byproduct of the Nadir. I believe that, had Garfield not died, or at least, not died when he did, the Nadir would not have happened as it did, and may not have happened at all. Garfield was the first president since before the Civil War to be respected by both sides of the political aisle (the then-conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans), and the last president until Eisenhower in 1952 to mention racial equality in his inaugural address (or really to even bother about it in general). He occupied a unique moment, a moment when, had he been given the chance to inspire others to follow in his footsteps and serve as strong leaders in the service of equality, matters may have improved. I believe that it is no accident that race relations took a strong downturn in the years following Garfield’s death, as he, the best man for that moment, was killed by a madman who thought that the Vice President would offer him a job as thanks for removing the president, and followed by a cavalcade of weaker men who turned a blind eye to the truly dire situation developing under their noses. With the benefit of historical hindsight, Garfield is an important president because he was the last, best hope for equality in his era, and his premature death stopped any momentum pro-equality politicians had in its tracks.
He was also a genuinely interesting man, as you will see if you read the brilliantly written Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. In it, you’ll learn not only about the life of Garfield – one of our very few presidents to be born into true poverty and the last one to be born in an honest-to-god log cabin – you’ll also learn about the life of his assassin, Charles Guiteau – a man so bizarre and off-putting that he could find no lovers even in a free-love commune where he earned the nickname “Charles Git-out” – and Alexander Graham Bell, the famed inventor of the telephone, but also the creator of a rudimentary x-ray machine which he fashioned in a desperate attempt to save Garfield’s life (and it might have worked if not for the stupidity and exceedingly dirty fingers of the President’s doctors). Millard takes biographical material, which can very so easily become dry and dull, and uses it to breathe new life into men dead for over a century. If you have any interest in American history and a dislike for how so many of our public figures are flattened into two very uninteresting dimensions by public perception as viewed through a historical lens, read this book. If you don’t much care for American history, well, read this book anyway. The sequence at the Republican National Convention alone is worth the price of admission.
Also highly recommended: Millard’s other book, The River of Doubt, about Teddy Roosevelt’s 1913-1914 expedition along an uncharted tributary of the Amazon River that nearly killed him. Besides convincing me to swear a solemn vow to myself that I will never, never spend any time in the wilderness of the Amazon, this book gives a fascinating insight into the mind of one of our most “larger than life” presidents. More on him later. It’s inevitable if you study American history; eventually all roads will lead to Teddy.