James Garfield: The 20th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
James Garfield won the Republican nomination and the presidenct in 1881. He was the first former college president and only preacher to hold the office. He was the last person to move directly from the House of Representatives to the presidency.
He was large, outgoing, well read, and somewhat of a policy wonk. He was an indecisive politician who did not want to ruffle feathers. He tried to make everyone happy, and subsequently made no one happy.
The first job of the President was to dole out political appointments, a notoriously corrupt process. The administration of President Grant led to civil service reforms and merit based appointments. It would also lead Garfield directly to challenge the powerful Roscoe Conkling over the appointment of the Chief Collector of Port of NY. Conkling normally fulfilled these types of civil service posts with own cronies. Today, it’d be akin to a Senator from Virginia pointing to the Pentagon’s location in Virginia as giving him the right to appoint the Secretary of Defense and their staff.
A politician from New York who served both as a member of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, Conkling was the leader of the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party, the first Republican senator from New York to be elected for three terms, and the last person to refuse a U.S. Supreme Court appointment after he had already been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
As leader of the Stalwarts, Conkling controlled patronage at the New York Customs House. Although Senator Conkling was supported by President Ulysses S. Grant, Conkling did not support Grant’s Civil Service Commission reform initiative. Conkling also refused to accept Grant’s nomination of him as Chief Justice of the United States, believing his talents belonged in the Senate. The control over patronage led to a bitter conflict between Senator Conkling and President Rutherford B. Hayes. Conkling publicly led opposition to President Hayes’ attempt to administer Civil Service Reform at the New York Customs House. Conkling’s conflict with President Garfield over New York Customs House patronage led to his resignation from the Senate in May 1881 effectively ending the old spoils system.
An American writer, preacher, and lawyer who was convicted of the assassination of Garfield. A frustrated office-seeker, Guiteau shot Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1881; Garfield died two months later, on September 19. After being convicted, Guiteau was sentenced to death and hanged for the crime. He identified with the stalwarts in the GOP which included Conkling and Garfield’s Vice President Chester A. Arthur.
When Garfield moved into the White House, he was barraged by patronage requests. At this time, the White House was open. There was no secret service protection. Garfield would sit with office seekers though he only tried to appoint heads of departments.
Charles Guiteau felt he was owed a diplomatic appointment by the Garfield administration. He also opposed garfield’s civil service reforms. Along with a calling from God, he stalked President Garfield and shot him twice in the arm and torso. As he surrendered to authorities, Guiteau said: “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. … [Chester A.] Arthur is president now!”
Garfield didn’t die right away. Changes in his conditions were telegraphed across the country, and the nation rallied to support the President. He was far more popular after the shooting than before. Foreign instruments and fingers in the wound highlighted the atrocious medical care of the time as doctors may have been more responsible for his death than the gunshot wounds.
Garfield battled and beat the powerful political machine in New York by taking a stand against the spoils system. Congress was out of session when Garfield was shot; nonetheless, the country ran smoothly. Garfield is proof that you can’t please everyone even within your own political party.
Rutherford B. Hayes preceded James Garfield
Chester A. Arthur would follow James Garfield
It all started with George Washington.