James Garfield

Presidential Assassins: The Failure

James Garfield, the second president to die at the hands of an assassin, in one way resembled Lincoln.  Like Lincoln he rose from poverty.  Unlike Lincoln he was college educated, enjoyed swift political success, and had an extensive military record, rising to Major General during the Civil War.  Also unlike Lincoln he had little time in office, being shot on July 2, 1881, during his first year in office.  He lingered in ever increasing pain until September 19, 1881.  He doubtless would have survived if modern medicine had been available.  He died as a result of a massive infection caused perhaps by the unsuccessful efforts of his doctors to probe his wound with unsterilized instruments and fingers in a fruitless effort to find the assassin’s bullet which had lodged in his abdomen.  His weight also plunged, intravenous nourishment being more than eighty years in the future.

No doubt it irritated, to say the least, Garfield when he learned that his assassin was a disappointed office seeker.

Born in 1841, Charles Julius Guiteau had failed at everything he turned his hand to: college, member of a commune, newspaper publisher, law, theology and marriage.  With such a record of failure it was inevitable that he would turn to politics.  Supporting Garfield in the 1880 election, he wrote a speech in favor of Garfield that may have been delivered twice.  When Garfield was elected, Guiteau convinced himself that he was responsible for electing Garfield.  Along with hordes of other office seekers he went to Washington where he unsuccessfully requested that he be named consul in Paris although he could not speak French and had no diplomatic experience.

Outraged, Guiteau purchased a revolver and stalked the President, finally ambushing him as he was entering the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station.  After shooting Garfield Guiteau shouted,

“I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. … [Chester A.] Arthur is president now!”  The reference was to the Stalwart faction of the New York Republican Party that opposed Civil Service reform that Garfield supported.   Guiteau was convinced that this reform prevented him from getting the job he sought.  Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service reform act in 1883, Guiteau having made opposition to such reform politically impossible, and converted Arthur to the cause of reform. Continue reading

James Garfield Songs

Something for the weekend.  It is a political season and so we take a look at If The Johnnies Get Into Power, a campaign song of the James Garfield campaign in the election of 1880.  For a generation Republicans would “wave the bloody shirt” against Democrats, conjuring up the bogeyman of the terrible things that would happen if the Democrats, Confederate loving traitors!, elected a President.  In the South Democrats would return the favor, using hatreds born of the Civil War and Reconstruction to keep the South a one party section of the nation.  Not the most edifying period in the political history of our nation.

Here is a video of the great Johnny Cash singing a song about the assassination of James Garfield: Continue reading

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