Saturday, June 9, 2012

Garfield's Assassination

It was not intentional, but I ended up reading about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield in quick succession. I wonder if that puts me on some national security threat list?

Several years ago I decided that I wanted to read a good biography on each of the presidents. So far, however, my only progress has been compiling a book list. And in so doing, I realized how many unknown presidents there actually are.

One of those is James Garfield, whom I learned about through Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President 
(recommended by by former history professor, Dr. Snyder). A successful general in the Civil War, he ended up “running” for congress. (If running is the proper word, He pretty much just put his name on the ballot and returned to his farm.) One of his campaigns had a total expense of about $150. But that didn’t stop his political star from rising. So much so that the Republican party nominated him for President (over his strenuous objections, no less). True to form, he didn’t really campaign. But he won anyway.

And once taking office, he had the makings of an excellent president. He took on civil service corruption in his own party, and in the process made plenty of political enemies but held the respect of the population. And then, four months in, he was shot by Charles Guiteau, a lunatic who believed that he singlehandedly got Garfield elected and wanted appointment as ambassador to Paris in return.

But the shot wasn’t fatal. The subsequent infection, triggered by the incompetence of the doctors, is what ultimately killed Garfield two months later. Along the way an early form of air conditioning was invented to help keep him cool in the Washington DC summer heat, Alexander Graham Bell developed a crude metal detector to try to find the bullet, Chester Arthur began his transition from a political nobody to a decent president, and the nation (still politically divided between north and south) unified in mourning for a beloved president.

What struck me most about the story, however, was the character of Garfield himself. He was not self-serving in the least. Instead, he consistently sought the good of the country. Even after he was shot, while enduring excruciating pain as infection took over his body, he remained cheerful and mindful of those around him His spirit never broke, even as his body fell apart. And the result was incredible. Although elected at a highly partisan time in our history, and shortly after the nation was divided by the Civil War, Garfield’s presidency, and his death, united the nation. While President, he confronted political corruption regardless of party; while dying, the entire nation unified in an attempt to save him; and after his death, the nation mourned collectively. He wasn’t the northern President or the Republican President. He was simply the President.
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