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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: He Could Have Been Great

By Tom Morrow

If he had lived, James Garfield could have been one of America’s most popular and successful presidents. Unfortunately, an assassin’s bullet struck him down. He barely served 200 days in office, much of it trying to recover from his gunshot wound. Today, there are street signs and schools bearing his name as the only reminder of his presidency.

James Abram Garfield, born Nov. 19, 1831, was the 20th President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1881, until his assassination later that year. Garfield had served nine terms in the House of Representatives from Ohio. He had been elected to the U.S. Senate before his candidacy for the White House, though he declined the Senate seat he had also won once he was elected President. He is the only sitting House member to be elected president.

Garfield entered politics as a Republican. He married Lucretia Rudolph in 1858, and served as a member of the Ohio State Senate (1859-1861). He served as a major general in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and fought in the battles of Middle Creek, Shiloh, and Chickamauga. He was first elected to Congress in 1862 to represent Ohio’s 19th District.

Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a disgruntled office seeker, at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1881.

Guiteau had followed various professions in his life, but in 1880 had determined to gain federal office by supporting what he expected to be the winning Republican ticket. Guiteau, who considered himself a conservative Republican, deemed his contribution to Garfield’s victory sufficient to justify the position of consul in Paris, despite the fact he spoke no French, nor any foreign language.

One of President Garfield’s more wearing duties was interviewing office seekers; he saw Guiteau at least once and rebuffed him both times.

In those days, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was deemed a fluke due to the Civil War, and Garfield, like most people, saw no reason why the president should be guarded; Garfield’s movements and plans were often printed in the newspapers. Guiteau knew the president would leave Washington for a cooler climate. He purchased a gun he thought would look good in a museum, and followed Garfield several times, but each time was frustrated, or he lost his nerve. Guiteau’s opportunity came with Garfield’s departure by train for New Jersey on the morning of July 2, 1881.

Garfield was deep in conversation with a cabinet member and did not notice Guiteau before he came up behind and shot the president twice. One shot glanced off his arm while the other pierced his back, shattering a rib and embedding itself in his abdomen. Ironically, among those at the station that morning was Robert Todd Lincoln, who 16 years before had watched his father die from an assassin’s bullet.

A noted physician and surgeon Willard Bliss, who was an old friend of Garfield, and about a dozen doctors, led by Bliss, were soon probing the wound with unsterilized fingers and instruments. Garfield might have survived his wounds had the doctors had modern medical research, techniques, and equipment. Standard practice at that time dictated priority be given to locating the path of the bullet. Several doctors inserted their unsterilized fingers into the wound to probe for the bullet, a common practice in the 1880s. Historians now agree that massive infection was a significant factor in President Garfield’s death.

Guiteau was indicted on Oct. 14, 1881, for the murder of the president and he was sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed on June 30, 1882.

Garfield finally died on Sept. 19, 1881, ending weeks of excruciating pain and suffering. Because Garfield was only president for some 200 days, most historians refrain from rating him against other presidents. However, before and during his life and time in the White House, Garfield was one of the most popular politicians and presidents of the 19th century.

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