James Abram Garfield (president from 1881-1881)
By Richard E. Noble
At nineteen Garfield becomes a Disciple of Christ, a minister, preacher, and defender of the faith. In 1858, James had a well publicized debate with a man by the name of John Denton. Denton was an evolutionist, one of the many who preceded Charles Darwin and his famous "Origins of the Species." Public debate, orations, and conversations were a very popular form of entertainment of the day. In a five day debate James was able to hold his own against the well prepared, well educated, thirty-seven year old, Denton, from England.
James Garfield is an American tragedy. He is a Civil War veteran and officer, a successful politician, a grand debater, public speaker, preacher and educator. He got the Republican Party nomination, basically as a reaction against the nomination of Ulysses S. Grant. Garfield hadn't even put his name in the running, and complained when it was brought up without his consent.
Ulysses Grant had two extremely controversial terms, filled with corruption, graft and dirty dealing of one nature or another. Grant though, was still loved and admired by the people and had recently returned from a very popular and successful jaunt around the world.
Garfield wasn't even in the running, but by the end of thirty-six ballots at the convention, somehow he emerged as the Republican choice. The Democrats have their own General, Winfield Scott Hancock. He is a rather lack-luster type, and the only real controversy seemed to be between the moderates and the extremist in the Republican Party. After just serving four months as president, a man by the name of Charles Guiteau, steps up behind Garfield at a Washington train station and shoots him in the back. One bullet gets lodged somewhere; but where, no one knows. The tragedy isn't that Garfield dies from this senseless attack, though this is case enough, but that he dies, like George Washington, from the incompetence of his doctors and the medical practices of the day.
The doctors fearing that the bullet is lodged in some dangerous spot keep probing and searching for it. Infections from unsanitary conditions and surgical practices set in, and Garfield dies after two and a half months of doctor probing and poking. What a shame.
It seems that this post Civil War period does not only involve a reconstruction of the South, but a reconstruction of the North and the Federal government as well. The Grant administration was a horror. Though Hayes was a supposed return to righteousness, corruption, controversy and violence were bubbling up everywhere. Wage earners were organizing and rioting, super wealthy railroad barons and industrialist were flexing their muscle, blacks were emerging with their new found freedom, the KKK was countering with lynching and murder, ideas like communism, socialism, woman's rights, planned parenthood, birth control, Darwinism, atheism, white supremacy and anarchism were on the rise. There was a lot going on between 1840 and the First World War, and most of it was violent.
James Garfield seems a hapless victim of the violent times. The nation was still in controversy. The federal government was split. The Republican Party was split. The Democrats were trying to recuperate and re-establish themselves in the South. The political spoils system was rampant. Hayes had promised reform, but couldn't deliver. Garfield's assassin, a disgruntled political, claims he shot Garfield on behalf of the virtuous vice president Chester A. Arthur who would restore honesty and fair play to government.
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