Sunday, February 26, 2012

James A. Garfield

It seems that James A. Garfield, our 20th president, who served only 7 months in 1881 is undergoing something of a revival lately. I recently read two highly laudatory books on Garfield. I already posted on Adam Goodrich's 1861: The Civil War Awakening. The other is Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic. Both works portray Garfield as a learned man and lover of the humanities, who was true to family and friends (despite one marital infidelity) and an excellent father, despite being a hard working, patriotic, driven man. One gets
the sense that he was out of place in the political profession during he Gilded Age. Born into impoverished circumstances, compounded by his father's early death, Garfield rose through education and hard work to hold the highest office in the land. His rise was downright Lincolnesque. The tow-path canal boy ranking right there with the rail splitter in the pantheon of heroes to the American Dream. I have always had sympathy for Garfield. Although shot in early July, he did not die until the end of September. He was only 49 years old and left behind a devastated and young family. The Garfields were the only White House occupants between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to have small children. Even more tragic is that he would have survived the incident had not his criminally negligent doctors ignored emerging medical science and subjected their patient to painful and harmful treatments. They probed and starved him. The idiots did not even know where the bullet was! Alexander Graham Bell tried to help locate the bullet with a gizmo that was sort of a metal detector, but it never seemed to work. I found the intersection between Bell and Garfield one of the more interesting parts of Millard's book. One could also tie into this the fact that experimental air conditioners were installed to comfort the stricken president in the hot Washington summer. That contraction also failed to work as intended, but I find it interesting that the spirt of inventiveness that was a hallmark of the Gilded Age rallied to the dying president. What is even more striking is that this spirit failed in the most important way when the doctors ignored recent discoveries and maintained the ancient methods of the past. Garfield had a short term, serving only 7 months as a president (during his 3 months on sickbed he signed only one state document). Most of the time was spent fighting Senator Roscoe Conkling and Vice President Chester Arthur over the New York spoils. Garfield was winning that battle, but it is hard to predict if he would have sought a more comprehensive Civil Service reform, or if his battle with Conkling would have been more inline with his predecessor Rutherford B. Hayes's policy of self-serving, selective, and executive driven reform. It was Garfield's assassination by "disappointed office seeker" that led to the Pendleton Civil Service Act.

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