By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-Residence
On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield twice. The president had been about to board a train when the assassin, an unhinged office seeker, opened fire. Guiteau was quickly subdued, and Garfield was removed to the White House, where he malingered for more than two months before dying.
The story of Garfield’s short presidency, which lasted only six months (including the 80 days between his shooting and death) is largely forgotten today. Certainly, its brevity left little room for accomplishment. We can never know what Garfield may have become, but his two decades in politics indicate that he was a man of integrity and principle.
James Garfield rose from poverty–his father died when he was very young–to the very height of American politics, advancing not because he sought personal glory or accolades but because others respected him. He was president of a college at 26, was shortly thereafter elected to the House of Representatives, served as a general in the Civil War, and then finally nominated for the presidency in 1880. He was a strong abolitionist and had helped a runaway slave escape to Canada. After the war, he lobbied hard to extend equal rights to freed slaves. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he showed little sign of racism or prejudice.
At the time of Garfield’s ascension to the presidency, the Republican Party was divided into warring factions–the Stalwarts, led by powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conklkng, and the Half-breeds, embodied by outgoing President Rutherford B. Hayes. The Stalwarts favored maintaining the spoils system, which allowed those in power to reward political loyalty with prized, well-paying government positions. Half-breeds wanted to fill those positions with the most qualified individuals, taking power from the political bosses. Garfield was a Half-breed, and within months of his inauguration, he had forced a conflict that resulted in Conkling’s resignation from the Senate.
Charles Guiteau claimed to be a Stalwart, although in his 40 years on Earth he had claimed to be many things–a lawyer, an author, a minister. He also believed a speech he had given in fsvor of Garfield’s election entitled him to a consular position in Paris, a belief not shared by anyone in the White House. This rejection,, as well as Conkling’s downfall triggered Guiteau’s desire to shoot the president. God, he said later, wanted him to murder Garfield to aid the Stalwarts (one of whom was Vice President Chester Arthur) and promote sales of a religious book Guiteau had self-published. Neither gambit worked.
In the aftermath of the attempted assassination, two things were apparent to everyone–Guiteau was insane, and Garfield would pull through. The assassin babbled incoherently, mixing theology and delusion, unable to understand why he was not a celebrated hero. Garfield, meanwhile, had been incredibly fortunate; the bullet lodged inside him had missed all his vital organs. Unfortunately, the constant probing of his wounds by doctors using unsterilized equipment and unwashed fingers filled him with an infection that eventually killed him.
The loss of President Garfield seems particularly tragic in hindsight. His forward-thinking policies on race were never fully implemented, leaving African-Americans vulnerable to the degradations of Jim Crow. That he died from easily prevented medical malpractice became obvious as soon as the autopsy.
The assassin himself attempted to avoid execution by saying at his trial, “We admit the shooting, but not the killing. His doctors killed him.” Despite this argument, Guiteau was soon hanged.