Saturday, June 28, 2014

Killing Garfield

Borrowing a page from that indefatigable historical serial killer, Bill O'Reilly, the death of Garfield has a much greater air of mystery and intrigue than any of the deaths "Papa Bear" has chosen to explore, especially since most Americans would probably first think of a grumpy cat.

As some persons might know, James Garfield was the 20th President of the United States.  His election in 1880 was met with a great deal of expectation, as he had been a Radical Republican and strongly supported Reconstruction, which had ground to a halt in 1876 thanks to the "Compromise" in Congress that led to Rutherford B. Hayes' electoral victory.  Garfield had been great friends with Salmon B. Chase, who served in Lincoln's administration.  He had been one of the administration's point men in the House in 1863, to which he was elected after serving in the Civil War.  He represented Ohio for 9 successive terms.  He was a major advocate of the Freedmen's Bureau, and tried in vain to get Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor, to see the light in terms of civil rights.  When that failed he sided with those Republicans who wanted the un-elected President impeached.

Garfield was a dark horse at the 1880 Republican convention, which saw the vote split between former President Grant, James G. Blaine and John Sherman.  Rutherford B. Hayes had chosen not to seek re-nomination.  Garfield won the nomination on the 36th ballot at the deeply divided convention.  It was no easier in the general election, where he virtually split the popular vote with Democrat Winfred S. Hancock, winning by less than 2000 votes.  However, thanks to the larger electoral blocks in the North, Garfield had a clear victory in the electoral college.

There was a great deal of anxiety that Garfield would revisit Reconstruction as President.  He sought reconciliation in the Republican ranks by putting together a "team of rivals" much like Lincoln had done in his first administration.  However, it was clear in Garfield's inaugural address that he believed in full rights for African-Americans, which would have put him deeply at odds with Democrats and even some Republicans who considered the issue dead and buried after the 1877 Compromise.


He was only six months into his term of office, when he was shot by a political office seeker, Charles J. Guiteau, who had been stalking Garfield for months.  Guiteau shouted that he was a "Stalwart" and that Chester Arthur was now president.  This would seem to point to the split within the Republican party, as the Stalwarts identified themselves with the more conservative elements in the GOP, with "Lord" Roscoe Conkling the titular head of the faction.  They had supported Grant at the convention.  The selection of Chester Arthur as Vice-President was seen as a concession to the group, but Conkling was apparently very upset with the way the Cabinet was shaping up, which resulted in further acrimony.  Whether Guiteau was a tool or acted on his own volition is anyone's guess, but Garfield had two bullets that needed to be extracted.

The first was relatively easy to dislodge, but doctors had a hard time finding the second bullet, which apparently had deflected inside his body and couldn't be directly traced from the entry wound.  Newspapers were rife with speculation and eventually Alexander Graham Bell teamed up with Simon Newcombe to invent what could best be called a "metal detector" to locate the second bullet.  The two had tested the new device, which combined Newcombe's detection system with Bell's amplifying system, on war veterans who still had bullets lodged inside their bodies.  R.J. Brown describes the process.

However, they were in a quandry over Garfield, as the metal detector proved futile.  Bell and Newcombe tried a second time but similarly to no avail.  Garfield passed away three months later due to infection.  It was only discovered after his death that the reason the metal detector didn't work is because Garfield lay on a bed with metal spring coils, one of the first in the country, which the two men had no way of knowing.  Candice Millard argues in her 2011 biography, Destiny of the Republic, that the president would have lived if this oversight hadn't happened.

It is difficult to say what Garfield would have accomplished as President, but Chester Arthur didn't revisit Reconstruction.  In fact in 1883, the Supreme Court overturned the last remaining legacy of the era, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had allowed Blacks public access in society.  It was this fateful decision that paved the way for Jim Crow laws in the South and discrimination in the North.  The Stalwarts along with their Democratic allies had placed the final nail in the coffin of Reconstruction.

Persons and events easily get lost in the fog of history, but it is pretty hard to miss the Garfield monument at the Lake View cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.  There is also a monument in his honor in Washington D.C.  He was a well-loved and well-respected man in his day.

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