[Abridged] Presidential Histories

20.) James A. Garfield 1881-1881

September 01, 2021 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
20.) James A. Garfield 1881-1881
Show Notes Transcript

James Garfield didn't want to be president, but the 1880 Republican Convention nominated him against his will. And do you know what thanks he got for it? Assassinated within six months. But Garfield has a lot to teach us in his fascinating rags-to-riches life and the fierce political battles he waged during his short term in office for, in just a few months, he accomplished what his predecessor could not - the defeat of Lord Roscoe's corrupt New York political machine

Follow along as Garfield goes from school janitor to school president, civil war soldier to Congressman, and a guy in the crowd at the 1880 GOP convention to 20th president of the United States. And learn why his assassin's lone defense in court was, "The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him."

1. Destiny of the Republic – Candice Millard
2. Rutherford B. Hayes – Hans. L. Trefousse
3. The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur – Scott S. Greenberger

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20.) James Garfield 1881-1881

Welcome to the Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 20, James A. Garfield, the accidental president.


What would you do if I pointed a finger at you and said, “You are now the 1880 Republican nominee for President of the United States?”

How would you react?`

Keep in mind what this means. Half the newspapers in the country are going to be dragging your name through the mud. A veritable army of opposition researchers is going to turn over every stone you’ve ever stepped on to see what dirt lies beneath. Any privacy you’ve enjoyed to this point is gone.

And there’s no guarantee you win.

Do you really want all of that?

This is basically what happened to James Garfield at the 1880 Republican Presidential Convention. He’s not a candidate. He’s just there. And then they start voting for him! And when he yelled, holy smokes, I don’t want that! They basically said… you don’t really have a say in the matter. The Republicans had found their man, and Garfield was going to have to overcome the democrats, and then the corrupt and powerful boss of his own party, Lord Roscoe, if he was going to have any hope of saving the American dream from a long-rising tide of political corruption.


James Garfield was born November 19, 1831, in a one-room log cabin in rural Ohio, and from these humble beginnings, he will embark on one of the purest rags-to-riches stories you’ve ever heard. 

Garfield’s father died protecting their cabin from a wildfire when he was still an infant. As he grew into a young man, his mother dreamed that he’d get an education and realize a better life. So, when Garfield turned 16, he totally did the opposite and ran off to be a river boat sailor instead! I imagine his reasoning was something along the lines of “ugh, whatever, mom.”

Now, I don’t know what young Garfield thought he’d find on this lark, but whatever it was, he didn’t find it. First off, when I say he became a riverboat sailor, even that sounds way more cool that what Garfield actually got into. 

Back in the mid 19th century, goods were still often moved around the country by a system of canals that crisscrossed the Midwest and Northeast. These canals were man-made with steep sides with mule paths at the top that mules would walk along to pull the barges up and down the canals. The sailors’ jobs were basically to motivate the mule and make sure the barges didn’t hit anything. It was hot, sweaty, monotonous work, and there was nothing adventurous or fun about it. But Garfield gave it a try.

Garfield caught on with a boat was hauling iron and copper ore from western mines to eastern factories, so, just about the dirtiest cargo you could find. He quickly contracted malaria, because the canals were infested with Mosquitos. By Garfield’s own account, he fell into the canals 16 times, and he could not swim, so he nearly drowned numerous times. After the 16th tumble, he decided he’d had enough, went back home, and committed himself to getting a good education.

Moral of the story? Listen to your mother. 

But, getting an education when you’re a poor 19th century Ohioan was no easy feat. Garfield was so poor, he could barely afford school. So when he enrolled at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute – basically a college prep school – he had to work as a janitor to pay his tuition. But he worked hard, applied himself, and discovered he had a brilliant mind. By year two, the student janitor had been promoted to student professor – as in, he’s now teaching some classes while sitting as a student in others. From this prep school, Garfield went on to college in Massachusetts, and when he graduated? He returned to Western Eclectic, where the school that had once hired him as a janitor now hired him as its president. Garfield was 25 years old, but he was already becoming an inspirational figure in his community.

This is also around the time he married Lucretia Rudolph, a bright and talented young women who he had initially met as a fellow student at Western Eclectic. It’s said that of the two of them, Lucretia was the more talented public speaker, which is saying something. They would have seven children, five of whom would survive.

In 1859, Garfield’s growing popularity led to his first foray in politics when a local state senator unexpectedly died and the community pressed Garfield to run for the open seat, which he won by a large margin. And here Garfield’s life might have continued, a happy school president and state senator beloved by his small town, if not for the arrival of the Civil War in 1861.

When the Civil War broke out, Garfield was quick to join the union ranks, where he was made a colonel and told to recruit a regiment. His mission? Repel a confederate invasion of Eastern Kentucky and secure the state for the union. 

Garfield had spent the opening months of the war reading every strategy book he could get his hands on to prepare himself for this moment, and the challenge was a steep one. Garfield, who had 1,500 men and no artillery, had been ordered to drive off 2,000 confederates who had artillery and who were led by a west point graduate. So, he’s outnumbered, outgunned, and facing a guy who graduated from the nation’s military academy. Yikes! After reviewing maps of the area, Garfield decided boldness would carry the day. He did the thing that every general is taught never to do – he divided his smaller army into three parts so he could attack the confederate force on three different fronts. But in Garfield’s case, the boldness worked. Because the confederate general had been taught at West Point to never divide a smaller army, when he was hit on three sides by Garfield’s smaller force, he decided Garfield must actually be attacking with a larger force! For Garfield to attempt a three-pronged attack with a smaller army would be crazy, right? So the confederate general, who probably could have repulsed Garfield if he’d stayed put, panicked in the face of this bluff and ordered his army to flee. Kentucky had been won, and Garfield was made a minor celebrity. 

Garfield would see action in two other major battles of the Civil War. Remember the battle of Shiloh? We talked about it back in episode 18 on Ulysses S. Grant. This was the battle where Grant was nearly defeated on the first day of fighting, driven back against the river and saved only because the sun set before the rebels could finish him off. But then, under the cover of darkness, a huge number of reinforcements arrived overnight that allowed Grant to counter attack and drive off the Confederates the next morning. Garfield was among those life-saving reinforcements.

Then, 17 months later, Garfield was serving as another general’s chief of staff in the disastrous battle of Chickamauga – the war’s second deadliest battle behind Gettysberg. Remember in the Grant episode when Grant had to rescue a union army that was surrounded at Chattanooga? Chickamauga was the prelude to that battle. From what I can gather, Garfield helped prepare what was shaping up to be a winning plan at Chickamauga, but then the general in charge panicked, issued one bad order, the confederates exploited it, and the union army was routed, with many of its survivors ending up at Chattanooga and in need of rescue.

In 1862, while still in the field, Garfield got a political promotion of sorts. The community that had elected him to the state senate elected him to Congress in Washington D.C., despite Garfield never coming home to campaign. Even after winning this election, Garfield was loath to attend the next session of Congress, starting in late 1863, because he felt he was needed in the field. President Lincoln personally asked him to take his seat in the House of Representatives, where Lincoln knew every vote mattered and where men who knew the needs of the army were badly needed.

Garfield hung up his spurs and answered the call.

Garfield spent the next 17 years in Congress. He initially proved the valuable ally of the army that Lincoln needed, and then proved himself a radical progressive republican as well. Garfield had always considered the civil war a holy war against the evils of slavery. Now he had new weapons to fight injustice and inequality with. He introduced a resolution that allowed African Americans to walk around D.C. without carrying a pass, he advocated for black suffrage, and he brought an eloquence to the fight that helped gift weight to it, asking if Freedom was, quote, “the bare privilege of not being chained? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion, and it may well be questioned whether slavery were not better. let us not commit ourselves to the absurd and senseless dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage.”

In 1879, the people of Ohio rewarded his good work in Congress by electing him to the U.S. senate. Garfield won his seat with such popular appeal that his entire campaign’s expenses were less than $150 dollars.

And then, in 1880, Garfield was as shocked as anyone when the 1880 Republican National Convention nominated him for President of the United States, despite his loud protestations that he did not want the nomination.

Here’s how it happened. 

There were three major candidates entering the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago: Maine Senator James G. Blaine, the so-called magnetic man who had nearly won the party’s nomination in 1876; treasury secretary John Sherman, brother of famed Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman; and former president Ulysses S. Grant, who was making history by becoming the first American to run for a third term in the presidency after spending the past four years out of office.

But remember, this is the 19th century, when candidates stayed home to appear above the fray. Instead of marshalling their supporters personally, they’d tap trusted lieutenants to be their eyes, ears, and lungs at the party conventions. In 1880, the two most important lieutenants were James Garfield, who was working for fellow Ohioan John Sherman; and delightfully corrupt New York Party boss Roscoe Conkling, who was leading the fight for Ulysses S. Grant.

We talked a lot about Conkling, or Lord Roscoe, as some called him, in episode 19 on Rutherford B. Hayes. I compared him to a lex Luthor of american politicians, a power-hungry man with a brilliant mind and zero scruples who is almost cartoonish in his over-the-top behavior.

Conkling was backing Grant for two reasons. First, Conkling HATED James G Blaine, who, remember, is one of the major candidates at this convention. Blaine and Conkling loathed each other with a passion that we haven’t seen since Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. In the case of Blaine and Conkling, the spat started when they were both freshmen congressmen and Blaine gave a speech mocking Conkling’s “turkey gobbler strut.” Conkling had never forgiven Blaine, and as they became leaders of two competing factions of republicans, the rivalry only became more bitter. Conkling led a faction called the Stalwarts – remember that name – who wanted to protect the system of political patronage that made Conkling strong. Blaine led a faction called the half-breeds who either wanted to end the spoils system and implement civil service reform, or just wanted to make Blaine president. I’ve seen it both ways. When this fight first started around 1870 it looked like the Stalwarts were winning out. 

Conkling’s big break, and the second reason he was backing Grant, came in the 1870’s when Grant let Conkling appoint Stalwarts to run the New York Customs house, which collected something like 70 to 90% of the nation’s customs revenue. These stooges skimmed a ton of money off the top, which Conkling used to elect allies who then owed him favors, which enhanced his power. President Hayes had weakened Conkling’s hold on this money-generating customs house by replacing his Stalwart appointees, so Conkling wanted Grant back in the white house so Grant count put Conkling’s men back in charge of the Customs House. And Conkling was willing to bend any rule to get his way.

Before balloting even began, Lord Roscoe and his top henchman, Chester Arthur, got to work literally bending the rules of the convention to their will. Roscoe knew that Grant was the top draw entering the convention, and that there were many states where a majority of those state’s delegates supported Grant, but a minority wanted to vote for Sherman or Blaine. What Conkling wanted was the adoption of something called the “unit rule,” which said if a majority of a state’s delegates voted for a candidate, then all that’s states delegates had to vote for that candidate. So, for example, if New York has 60 delegates, and 33 want to vote for Grant, and 27 want to vote for Blaine, this rule would force all 60 to vote for Grant, since he was the candidate most new York delegates supported.

Conkling had done the math, and he knew that if this rule passed, Grant would win on the first ballot.

But James Garfield had also done the math, and so he set about blocking Conkling’s rule.

While Lord Roscoe tried to browbeat the party into doing his will, Garfield tactfully worked the delegates behind the scenes, arguing to one journalist, “It is wholly un-Republican for one man to cast another man’s vote.” When the “unit rule” came up for a vote, it was narrowly defeated, but Conkling didn’t give up there. His next proposal drew Garfield more out into the open. This time Conkling put up a resolution that would require all delegates to support the eventual nominee. At first, they just called for yays and nays, and the yays overwhelmingly won, but the sound of a dozen or so nays angered, who assumed them to be anti-grant Delegates, so he called a roll call to identify the nays and then offered a new resolution to eject them from the convention! Conkling initially appeared to have the votes to win until Garfield rose to rally the delegates against him, declaring “I fear this convention is about to commit a grave error,” and asking “Is every delegate here to have his republicanism inquired into before this convention will allow him to vote?” This swung the crowd against Conkling and behind the Nay delegates, who were allowed to stay. As Garfield stepped away from the Lectern, an increasingly livid Conkling handed him a handwritten note that read “New York requests that Ohio’s real candidate and dark horse come forward.”

Garfield was not a candidate, yet Conkling clearly considered him a dark horse threat.

After the rules were decided, the main show could begin as each candidate was nominated by an ally on the convention floor. 

Lord Roscoe kicked things off when he leapt onto the press table and roared to the crowd, “When asked what state our nominee hails from, our sole reply shall be, ‘He hails from Appomattox!’” 

And the crowd lost their freakin’ minds. They knew who Conkling was referring to. He was talking about Grant! Calling Grant a man who had been, quote, “never defeated in war or in peace,” Conkling gave a ripping speech that attendees said would have won Grant the nomination on the spot if the first ballot had been held the moment Roscoe sat down.

But it wasn’t held when Roscoe sat down. Instead, another delegate stood up.

James Garfield.

And Garfield basically said, slow your roll. In a brilliant off the cuff speech, Garfield argued that the convention should not let the passions of the moment cloud their minds. Garfield so elegantly and persuasively argued for the party to not get swept up by Conkling’s rhetoric, that, midway through the speech, when he rhetorically asked, “What do we want?” meaning to insinuate John Sherman, one voice in the crowd yelled back “We want Garfield.” Instead.

And everyone cheered! And I can only imagine quite a few of them also went, “hmmmm.”

And then the balloting began.

379 votes were needed to win the nomination. On the first ballot, Grant led the field with 304, followed by 284 for Blaine, and 93 for Sherman. And then a second ballot was taken, and then a third and a fourth, and the results were basically the same every time. Grant in the lead, followed closely by Blaine, with Sherman a distant third. After 34 straight ballots of this over two days, the delegates were starting to get antsy, looking for any way to break the logjam…

And that’s when they started looking at Garfield.

Garfield had actually been drawing votes since the second ballot. And when I say votes, I mean one vote. From ballots 2 through 33, a single Pennsylvania delegate kept voting for Garfield. And then, on the 34th ballot, 16 Wisconsin delegates inexplicably swung their votes his way, which kind of freaked him out.

Garfield did not want the nomination. He was concerned that it would anger party leaders like Blaine, Sherman and Conkling if he leap-frogged them to the top job and that he’d find governing impossible without their support. So he leapt to his feet to say, no, I don’t want it, you can’t nominate a candidate without their consent, but Garfield’s protests were dismissed by the convention chair who said, ‘you’re speaking out of order, sit down and shut up.’ Then, on the 35th ballot, a total of 50 delegates voted for Garfield. After 34 ballots of deadlock, momentum was finally moving, and it was moving Garfield’s way!

As Blaine saw the nomination start to slip away from him, he was savvy enough to also see an opportunity. Garfield was a good friend, if he threw his support to Garfield, he might get a position in the cabinet, which is a damn sight better than getting nothing at all. There was also an element of revenge to be won by backing Garfield. Blaine had been the leading candidate at the 1876 convention until Lord Roscoe threw his support behind Rutherford B Hayes to spite Blaine and spark the upset. 
 Now, in 1880, Blaine could spite Roscoe and sink Grant’s candidacy by throwing his support behind Garfield in a reflection of what had happened four years earlier.
 Which is exactly what he did

On the 36th ballot, Blaine and Sherman’s followers united behind Garfield, and propelled him over the top with 399 delegates, beating the required number by 20. Garfield was shocked. As he sat there, surrounded by jubilantly celebrating delegates, he buried his face in his hands, barely able to say a word as the weight of what was ahead of him sank in.

Conkling begrudgingly voiced his support for Garfield to make the decision unanimous, but he wasn’t fooling anyone. The 306 delegates who had supported Grant to the end represented nearly half of the party that would never accept Garfield’s leadership. And there was a major question as to whether these republicans would support Garfield for president in the general election at all. Party leaders immediately saw what a threat this was, so they tried to mend fences with Conkling to win back his support in the general election … by offering the vice presidency to Conkling’s top lieutenant, Chester Arthur, who had been there helping Conkling keep delegates in line. 

Arthur said yes and, well, that’s going to get interesting real quick once Senator Garfield becomes President-elect Garfield

But first Garfield has to win the presidency!

In the general election, Garfield faced Democratic nominee Winfield Scott Hancock – who was named after General Winfield Scott  - Ol Fuss n Feathers – but who is on no way related to him. Winfield Scott Hancock was a bit of an odd duck. On one hand, he was a union general who had served heroicly at Gettysberg and was staunchly anti-secessionist, but on the other hand, he was a state’s rights advocate who had supported Andrew Johnson’s lenient reconstruction policy and who had never held political office. To drive that point home, the GOP printed pamphlets of “Hancock’s political achievements” that were full of blank pages.

But the Democrats had attacks ready to aim at Garfield, too. For one, he’d cheated on his wife during his first years in congress, which is never a good look, but that wasn’t the main attack. More notably, Garfield was accused of having taken bribes from Credit Mobilier, a failed railroad company that seems to have bribed everyone in Congress before its collapse. Dozens of politicians would later be caught up in this. In Garfield’s case, he was accused of having taken a bribe of $329 dollars from Credit Mobilier, so Democrats started painting the number 329 on sidewalks, streets, doors, fences, hats, napkins – all over the place. They even sewed it into underwear and painted it onto the steps to Garfield’s home.

Coming in the aftermath of the highly contested Rutherford B Hayes win of 1876, the 1880 contest saw near-record Turnout. 78% of Americans cast a ballot, good for fourth best turnout ever, and that’s despite heavy suppression of republican African American voters in the south. Despite that suppression, Garfield managed to squeak out the closest popular vote win in American history – 10,000 votes out of more than 9 million cast. The final tally was 4.55 million for Garfield and 4.54 million for Winfield Scott Hancock. 

In the electoral college, the results were more decisive –214 to 155, advantage James Garfield. 

Despite the close margin of the popular vote, there would be no contested election this time. James A. Garfield had just been elected the 20th president of the United States.



AND SO! on March 4, 1881, James Garfield, the one-time janitor who had been born in a log cabin, helped lead the union to victory, become a radical republican congressman and senator, and who had been nominated against his will, was sworn in as the 20th president of the United States of America. But what did the world, and the country, look like when Garfield became president? Let’s look around.

Internationally, the recently-created German Empire signed a defensive alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1879. Which will be important when we get to World War I in 35 years.

And down in South America, Chile went to war with Peru and Bolivia over some resource-rich coastal regions and seized them, as well as Bolivia’s only port, in the War of the Pacific. My Bolivian coworker was still talking smack about this war the other day, so it left quite a mark.

Domestically, the biggest book of the day was Ben-Hur, which had been published in 1880 and was written by a former Union General who Garfield soon appointed ambassador to Constantinople in the hope that it would inspire the guy to write another biblical epic.

1880 was also the year Thomas Edison patented and revealed the first practical incandescent lightbulb. So yay! We now all have light to read Ben Hur with.

So, cool things afoot, but overall not a bad hand to be dealt as president. Garfield had a window to launch an ambitious agenda, and he didn’t waste it, signaling in his inaugural address his duel goals of ending the spoils system in American politics and extending full rights to African Americans, quote, “So far as my authority can lawfully extend, they shall enjoy the full and equal protection of the constitution and the laws.”

The fight against the spoils system began immediately.

As far as Roscoe Conkling was concerned, Garfield owed him big time

No, Conkling hadn’t really done anything to help Garfield win the white house, but he hadn’t actively opposed him in the general election, either, when he might have turned New York to the democrats out of spite and changed the outcome of the race. And, as Conkling saw it, there was a cost to be paid for him not shivving his party’s nominee in the back. 

The price? He wanted to name a Stalwart as treasury secretary.

Can you imagine how much corruption you could get away with with the treasury department in your pocket?

Garfield, of course, said no. He didn’t owe Conkling anything. And he was not going to do it. So Conkling wrote him a note, quote, “I need hardly add that your administration cannot be more successful than I wish it to be.”

Which is a friggin bold letter. And might have been the tipping point that made Garfield realize the best way to deal with Conkling was to deal with Conkling.

But politics is a delicate game. And vanquishing a fellow republican without alienating half the party is no easy fete. So Garfield turned to his Secretary of State, Conkling nemesis James G Blaine, to come up with a strategy on what to do.

Blaine wrote that the Stalwarts, quote, “Must not be knocked down with bludgeons: They must have their throats cut with a feather.”

Which is extra delightful when you remember one of Blaine’s nicknames is the plumed knight.

The plan Blaine and Garfield came up with was a simple one. Remember how Conkling had built his power by controlling the wildly lucrative New York Customs House? Well, a few weeks into Garfield’s administration, Garfield nominated five Conkling allies to positions of middling or minor influence, to look like he was being friendly, and then he nominated one of Conkling’s New York rivals to be collector of the Customs House.

Conkling was livid! If he didn’t control the customs house, his money and influence machine would run dry. He immediately ordered Vice President Chester Arthur, who, remember, was a long-time toadie of his, to go to the press. Arthur told a journalist, quote, “Garfield has not been square, nor honorable, nor truthful with Conkling.”

And then Conkling tried to deploy other tricks to muck up his rival’s nomination to the customs house job.

But none of it was working. Garfield wasn’t budging. Why wasn’t Garfield taking him seriously? What would it take to show Garfield that Conkling was not a man to be trifled with?

That’s when Conkling got a crazy idea into his head.

He’d resign.

Ok. I know. What kind of a plan is that? Let me explain. Conkling thought that if he resigned, the New York State senate would overwhelmingly re-elect him and send him back to New York more powerful than before because it would prove the state was behind him. That would show Garfield.

Unfortunately for Conkling, it was a crap plan.

The U.S. senate and the nation may have been shocked when Conkling announced his abrupt resignation out of the blue one day, but that could have been nothing compared to the shock Conkling experience with the New York state senate declined to reelect him. It turns out, they were all sick of him too. He was a prick! Just like that, Roscoe Conkling’s once promising political career was OVER and his Stalwart faction. And I find it deliciously ironic that it was his hubris that did him in.

Meanwhile, in the white house, James Garfield and James Blaine probably looked at each other and were like, wow, that was easy. With Conkling out of the picture, Garfield would have a much easier time ending the spoils system and passing laws protecting the Civil Rights of the freedmen, just like he’d promised in his inaugural address! This was fantastic.

But, you know, the first few months of Garfield’s presidency had been stressful, and his wife Lucretia was actually in New Jersey just then recovering from a very serious illness. It might be wise to take a break, visit the wife, enjoy a vacation together, and then come back recharged to tackle Civil Rights and Civil Service reform. When it came time for Garfield to catch his train out of town, he invited Blaine with him. As they made their way to the station and then out to the train platform, they became lost in their excited conversation about what they could achieve together now that the future appeared so bright.

So consumed were they by this discussion, that neither noticed when a man emerged from the restrooms behind them, drew a gun from his pocket, and aimed it at Garfield’s back.

*pop pop sound effect*

“My God, what is this!?” Garfield exclaimed as he fell to the floor. Blood was pouring from a pair of bullet wounds in his back and arm and rapidly spreading across the floor.

As witnesses screamed, the assassin fled, and a policeman grabbed him. As he was taken away, the assassin proclaimed, “I did it. I will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be president.”

Ok. What the hell just happened. 

First off. Garfield’s not dead. But it doesn’t look good. We will come back to him in a moment.

But before I do, let’s quickly talk about the man who shot him. Because, as it turns out, the two men had met before.

The assassin was a man named Charles Guiteau (gEE-TOE). And, in short, Guiteau was a con-man who had been run out of every town he’d ever lived in after his ingratiating act wore off. He was also almost certainly insane. During the election, he had showed up at the GOP headquarters in New York where he met Chester Arthur and asked to give a speech on Garfield’s behalf. Arthur said sure and sent him to an address, where Guiteau delivered one entirely unremarkable speech, and that was his entire contribution to the campaign.

Yet, entirely because of that one little speech, Guiteau felt Garfield could not have won the general election without him and Garfield now owed him the consulship to Vienna or Paris now that he was in office

I know, we thought Conkling’s asks were crazy.

Guiteau repeatedly showed up at the white house and state department asking for his consulship and he actually got to meet with Blaine and Garfield because, back then, the president and department heads spent a crazy amount of their time just meeting with office seekers and decided whether or not to give them jobs. In Guiteau’s case, Blaine and Garfield each tried to politely turn him away every time he came calling. As Guiteau began to realize that maybe the consulship wasn’t in the cards, he was struck by a thought he later swore had been put there by God, “If the president was out of the way, everything would be better.”

In other words, God wanted Guiteau to assassinate James Garfield.

After that, Guiteau conned $10 from an acquaintance, bought a gun with it, stalked Garfield’s movements, and shot the president in the train station on July 2, 1881.

As he was whisked to jail, he was confident he’d soon be recognized and celebrated as a national hero for saving the country from that horrible Garfield. Guiteau had done God’s will. Garfield would die. Arthur would be sworn in. And then Arthur would free him and make him consul to Paris.

True, he’d never talked to Arthur or anybody else about this plan. But it was divine providence. Guiteau was certain it would be so.

As the assassin, Guiteau, was whisked to jail, Garfield was carried to a private side room at the train station where  a dozen different doctors descended to tend to his wounds.

The shot to his arm, they quickly determined, wasn’t fatal. But the shot to his back might be. They took turns probing the bullet hole with fingers and tools to try to find where the bullet had gone.

And here, right off the bat, is where Garfield’s medical treatment began to go horribly horribly wrong.

You know how I like to tell you about major developments around the world? Well, roughly a decade earlier, a British surgeon named Joseph Lister had come up with the idea of sterilizing surgical instruments to clean them of bacteria before using them in surgery. Because, that’s right, up until now, you were lucky if your doctor washed their hands before going to work on you. Many doctors took pride in their blood and pus-stained aprons, viewing them as bloody testimony to their years of experience. Needless to say, unsterilized hands and tools introduced a lot of infection during surgery, and many patients died.

Until Lister introduced his antiseptic sterilization methods.

By the time Garfield was shot, antisepsis had caught on around much of Europe, but it hadn’t in the United States. American doctors considered it an unproven waste of time. So, as all these doctors probed Garfield’s bullet wound, they did so with unsterilized tools and digits, likely introducing bacteria, which would take root and spread.

After a while, the doctors concluded they couldn’t find the bullet in his back, but they also concluded Garfield wasn’t in immanent threat of death. So, at Garfield’s request, they moved him back to the white house.

Once there, the doctors conferred, what should they do next? With a dozen doctors in the room I can only imagine you had a dozen opinions, but one doctor emerged above the rest, shooed them away, and took total control of the president’s medical care – Doctor Bliss.

Which, quick aside, this is an even more amazing name than you realize. Because, when I say his name was Doctor Bliss, I mean his first name was doctor, and his last name was Bliss.

And because Doctor Bliss was, in fact, a doctor, you could introduce him as Doctor Doctor Bliss.

Anyway. It’s not really clear how doctor doctor bliss came to be in charge of Garfield’s medical care. Garfield never put him in charge. His Wife Lucretia never put him in charge. Nobody in the cabinet put him in charge. He just asserted himself most forcefully and, next thing you know, the other doctors, including Garfield’s actual personal physician, were banished and doctor doctor bliss was calling the shots.

Which was unfortunate. Because Doctor Doctor Bliss was not a very good doctor.

Bliss became obsessed with finding the bullet that had lodged somewhere inside Garfield’s body. He kept probing inside Garfield, introducing more and more unclean instruments and bacteria into the president’s body, without ever actually finding the bullet. At one point, he let Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, use an experimental metal detector to scan half of Garfield’s body in search of the bullet. And this contraption actually sounds really cool. It was basically two rods each wrapped in wires with a current running through them to create a magnetic field. You’d hold one on each side of Garfield’s body and, if while moving them a piece of metal came between them – like, say, a bullet – they would create a buzz on one of Bell’s telephones that an assistant was listening to nearby.

But even this novel invention failed to find the bullet, because Bliss ordered Bell to search the wrong side of Garfield’s body and forbade him from exploring any further .

Despite all this probing, and bleeding, and too much alcohol, and not enough hydration, and frankly other horrifying treatments, Garfield initially appeared to be getting better. But then, three weeks after being shot, infection set in.

And this is going to get gross. Nodules of pus began forming all over the president’s body. And not just tiny ones. One was 3 by 4 inches big. Another grew so large on his face that it swelled his eye shut and nearly drowned him when it burst. And yet… even as this infection set in and spread … Doctor Bliss was reporting to the press that the president was recovering well and had no sign of blood poisoning. An outright lie.

Garfield’s health rapidly declined as the infection set in. His weight dropped from 210 to 130. Everything he ate came up as vomit. Bliss, in a desperate attempt to get him some nutrition, proscribed enemata – aka, rectal feeding. He’d literally mix together a kind of predigested soup and inject it rectally every four hours.

By early September, two months after being shot, Garfield insisted he be moved from the White House to a place by the sea. I think he knew he was dying and wanted to die somewhere more beautiful than the humid and decaying White House.

A special train was procured to take him to a house on the New Jersey Coast. The track was laid down the night before his arrival to carry him practically to the very front door, and when the train engine wasn’t strong enough to climb the hill, 200 men helped push the train up to the doorway. Garfield spent his final days laying in this house and looking out the window with his wife and close friends by his bed. As he died, he asked a friend if, given his short presidency, he’d leave any legacy at all. His friend said, of course, you still have so much work to do. To which Garfield replied, “no. No my work is done.”

Garfield died the following day, September 19, 1881, at 10:30 pm. He was 49 years old.

And 30 miles away, in New York City, Vice President Chester A Arthur, the Conkling stooge who had proven so disloyal to Garfield that he had been banned from the white house, was sworn in as president.

And his benefactor, former senator Roscoe Conkling, realized he might be out-of-office, but with his man in the presidency, he didn’t have to remain out of power for long.

We will get all into that in our future episode on the life and presidency of Chester A Arthur.

So, how had the nation, and the world changed during Garfield’s presidency?

Well… Garfield had only been in office six and a half months, and he spent more than a third of that time dying from a gunshot wound, so, there hasn’t been much time for things to change. But there is at least one notable event to report.

Out west, on July 19, 1881, the Lakota warrior Sitting Bull, who had annihilated George Custer’s battalion in the battle of Little Big Horn back in 1876, surrendered to American authorities after spending the previous four years living in exile in Canada. Sitting Bull would go on to perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in the 1880’s, and then be shot dead by an Indian Agent in 1890.

That’s about all I have to report.

After Garfield’s death, his assassin, Charles Guiteau, was put on trial and found guilty of murder. The closest he came to mounting a defense was to say, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.” He was hung two days shy of the one year anniversary of his shooting of James Garfield.

As for Doctor Doctor Bliss… when the rest of the medical community saw his treatment of Garfield, and what he’d done, they were kind of horrified. This was a wound Garfield did not have to die from, but Bliss’s obsession with finding the bullet, and his ignorance of european anti-septic methods, had led to a treatment plan that did more harm than good. As the popular quip went at the time, “Ignorance is Bliss.”

Now, if you’re looking for a few things to remember Garfield for, I think I’d recommend these three:

1.     He was nominated against his wishes at the 1880 republican convention

2.     He outplayed Lord Roscoe once in office

3.     He was shot by a deranged office seeker, and killed by medical malpractice.

So, what can we learn from the life and administration of James Garfield? 

I think the first lesson is, when your mom tells you to study hard and not run off to become a river barge sailor, maybe give her a listen.

The second lesson is… Cool heads often prevail. Look at Garfield’s fight with Roscoe Conkling. Conkling was arrogant, angry, and taking wild swings, like trying to scare away Garfield’s cabinet nominees, and have Arthur dump on the president in the press. But Garfield didn’t respond in kind. Instead, he kept his cool, thought carefully, and identified a move he knew he could make, one that would was well within his power, and one that was guaranteed to get to Conkling. This prompted Conkling to resign his seat in a hasty and ill-thought gambit that ended his senatorial career. So, when the pressure’s on, stay calm, don’t act rashly, and let your opponent make the mistakes.


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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.

The primary biography for today’s episode was Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard

In our next episode, I’ll talk to Todd Arrington, a historian and site manager for the Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, and author of The Last Lincoln Republican: The Presidential Election of 1880, about why Arrington considers Garfield the last Lincoln republican, what we lost when he was assassinated, and how the Republican party and the country were changing in the closing decades of the 19th century.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.