James A. Garfield arrived at the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago as part of a delegation to support John Sherman as the party nominee. On June 8th, at the end of a two day, 36 ballot session, Garfield had been chosen as the party nominee. In November he was elected president. He was shot in July 1881, and died in September.
History tends to come at us in boldface names. When it comes to presidents, your average Americans can usually think of Washington, maybe Adams and Jefferson, then Lincoln, Roosevelt (either one or both), Kennedy, and then anyone who’s been in office during their lifetime (who, of course, take on inflated importance in our eyes, convincing us that they’ll join the ranks of the memorable). All the others are just filler in between the big guys, with maybe an occasional name popping up from a barely remembered social studies class (oh yeah…Madison, didn’t he invent ice cream and the White House?).
James Garfield is one of those in-between, forgettable names, a president remembered for little more than dying. In Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, Kenneth D. Ackerman makes the case that Garfield’s year had enough drama, tension and larger-than-life characters to make it one of the most memorable in American history.
Ackerman begins the story of Garfield’s surprise nomination years before the 1880 convention, in the immediate aftermath of the civil war, when two young Congressman on the rise became lifelong enemies. Roscoe Conkling, a young, dashing lawyer from New York, known for his speaking skills, good looks, and considerable interest in women who weren’t his wife, proposed the elimination of the office of the Provost Marshall, held by General James Barnet Frye. Conkling thought the office was rife with corruption and irregularities, and made a speech denouncing the office and the man.
James G. Blaine, a Maine Congressman, thought that Conkling had gone too far. Blaine, known as the “Magnetic Man” for his charismatic personality, protested Conkling’s insult to Frye (he also launched his own investigation of the office which, months later, showed that there hadn’t been any irregularities in use of funds). The two engaged in a back and forth game of insult trading on the Congress floor, which culminated in a Blaine speech about Conkling’s ever-growing pomposity that referred to the New Yorker’s “turkey gobbler strut.” The widely reported insult made them lifelong enemies.
As Conkling and Blaine rose through the party ranks, becoming senators, their personal animosity contributed to a growing divide in the party that reached its peak in 1880. Conkling arrived at the Convention as the leader of the Stalwarts, Republicans who supported a return to office for Ulysses Grant. The Civil War hero had left the presidency after his second term in 1876, but dissatisfaction with his replacement Rutherford B. Hayes led to a call for Grant’s return (Hayes wisely saw the way the tide was turning and chose to not even pursue the nomination; he didn’t seem to want it anyway. He and his wife, Lucy, literally could not wait to leave Washington). After a few years off, Grant was ready to come back to the presidency.
Grant’s nomination was opposed by a group of Republicans known as “the Half-Breeds”—they were Republicans, of course, but were considered renegades for being against the party power’s choice. Some Half-Breeds were just philosophically opposed to the idea of a president having more than two terms. Some were against Grant, who, for all his glory as a general, had had numerous scandals break out during his administration. Grant had not actually been involved in or profited from some of the financial shenanigans that went on while he was in office, but people felt he hadn’t done anything to prevent them, or punish those involved, and had overall made poor choices for those who served under him.
Many of the Half-Breeds wanted to nominate James Blaine. The Maine senator had tried to run in 1876, but had had his chance ruined by his involvement in a railroad scandal. John Sherman, an Ohioan currently serving as Hayes’s Secretary of the Treasury (also brother of General William Techumseh Sherman, and future author of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act), was the other main candidate.
The 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.
The convention got off to a rocky start, as Conkling and his cohorts from two other delegate rich states, J. Donald Cameron of Pennsylvania and John Logan of Illinois, tried to force through “unit rule.” Voting by unit rule meant that a state would have to pledge all their delegates to the candidate supported by the majority of their group. This was important to Conkling, who knew that although the majority of New Yorkers at the convention supported Grant, a sizeable group of Half-Breeds (each one of whom Conkling absolutely loathed) were ready to vote for Blaine, his longtime enemy.
When the Republican National Committee met, Cameron tried to force through unit rule, but a number of committee members rebelled. Party infighting threatened to grow worse, and Conkling called in Chester Arthur, part of his New York political machine to broker a compromise. Arthur managed the problem and although unit rule was put aside for the moment, at least Cameron retained his position.
Conkling tried another gambit, proposing a resolution on the convention floor that all delegates would have to agree to support whoever was nominated. When a number of men protested, Conkling demanded that they identify themselves. Most, fearing for their political careers, stepped back, except for three West Virginia delegates. Conkling excoriated them, but Garfield made a speech supporting their right to dissent.
This was when people began to notice Garfield. A war hero himself, he was a well-liked member of Congress, who was articulate, an intellectual (he had been a college president), and had something of the peacemaker about him. This image was further reinforced when Garfield made a speech in support of Sherman that many felt served Garfield better than Sherman. In those days, candidates didn’t attend the nominations themselves or even campaign for themselves. Garfield was able to make an immediate impression that affected the delegates that none of the other nominees could.
No candidate received enough votes the first day of balloting. On the second day, as the rounds of balloting went on and on, Garfield began to pick up a few votes. When a group of Wisconsin delegates switched all their votes to him, he tried to protest, saying that he could not be nominated when he hadn’t even consented to run. His argument was dismissed. As the voting continued, Blaine, in Washington, began to see that he couldn’t overcome the number of delegates committed to Grant. However, if he threw his support to the suddenly popular Garfield, then not only could he keep Grant and the Stalwarts, led by the hated Conkling, out of the White House, but he could pick up a plum Cabinet position that would make him almost as powerful as the president. Sherman, Garfield’s candidate also eventually was persuaded to have his supporters vote for Garfield. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Garfield won the nomination.
In an effort to win over the angry Stalwarts, Chester Arthur was proposed and nominated as vice-president. Garfield recognized that in order to win the election, he needed the support of the Stalwarts, particularly Conkling and Grant. A meeting with the leaders of the Stalwarts (except for Conkling and Grant), Garfield asked for their support. The Stalwarts came out of this meeting believing that the support they gave Garfield implied a reward of important jobs in the administration if Garfield was elected. Garfield, however, didn’t seem to be under that impression.
The Stalwarts campaigned for Garfield. Conkling and Grant even made numerous speeches—however, hard-liners to the end, they usually managed to avoid even mentioning Garfield, more or less campaigning just for “the Republican party.” But with their help, Garfield narrowly defeated the Democratic candidate, Winfield Scott Hancock.
Garfield spent the early months after his election anxiously trying to parcel out jobs to both the Stalwarts, in order to keep them happy, as well as the Half-Breeds who had supported him from the beginning. He also needed to create a geographical balance that would make sure no area of the country felt neglected or underappreciated. The Cabinet was much smaller than, but almost all jobs were doled out to political appointees, each one a patronage prize that could often lead to important extra income.
Conkling was infuriated when Garfield made Blaine Secretary of State. He also angered the Stalwarts when he didn’t make New Yorker Levi Morton Secretary of the Treasury; Garfield felt that he had suggested that was possible, but the Stalwarts thought it was a promise. Numerous other positions resulted in hurt feelings or cries of broken promises. The last straw came when Garfield nominated William Robertson, leader of the Half-Breeds in New York, and Conkling’s nemesis, to the powerful position of the Collector of New York (this involved the busy port of New York; the Collector stood to make a lot of money).
People tried to talk Garfield out of it, suggesting other positions for Robertson and other compromises. Garfield, though, had become heartily sick of the maneuvering and trading. He realized that if he wanted to be seen as his own man, and not a puppet of the Conkling political machine, he could not back down.
Popular opinion backed Garfield; they admired him for not toadying up to Conkling. The senators who would be responsible for voting on the Robertson nomination took note of the public response and began to move away from Conkling. In response, Conkling and Tom Platt, another Stalwart, resigned from the Senate. They expected that they would be re-nominated by the New York state legislature (at that time, senators were elected by state governments, not popular vote), but they weren’t. Garfield, seemingly, had won.
Exhausted by the fight, Garfield took some time off with his family at the New Jersey shore (no word on whether he told people “we’re going down the shore”), then planned a trip around New England and into Ohio to make appearances for the voters who had elected him. Unbeknownst to him, he had angered another job-seeker.
Charles Guiteau, a failure at everything he had tried, had written a pro-Garfield speech during the election that he had handed out to numerous party powers. He became convinced that he had played a big part in Garfield’s election and afterwards headed to Washington to pick up the job he thought was owed him (he fancied ambassador to Paris). Guiteau haunted the offices of Garfield, Blaine, and others, but didn’t get anywhere. When the story of the Stalwarts and their perceived slights came out, Guiteau became convinced (by God as well as his own mind)that Garfield was disloyal to the party and that in order to save the Republicans, Garfield needed to be removed from office and replaced by Stalwart loyalist Chester Arthur.
Guiteau bought a gun, wrote letters to a number of people explaining his reasons for murdering Garfield and set out to do the deed. He did, however, fear an angry mob in the immediate aftermath of the murder, and included in his letters a request to be escorted to jail where he would be protected.
Guiteau caught up with Garfield, who was with Blaine, as they waited for a train to take them to Philadelphia to meet up with Garfield’s family before beginning their trip around New England. He shot the president twice and was apprehended not far from the scene. As he had hoped, he was taken to jail, which Guiteau thought was rather nice and quite liked. He enjoyed the food.
Guiteau shoots Garfield. James Blaine is with Garfield.
Garfield, meanwhile, suffered enormously as the doctors were not able to locate the bullet. Their probing in his wounds under extremely unsanitary conditions, led to infection. Garfield seemed to rally for a while, but on September 19th, after seventy-nine days of being confined to his bed, he died in Long Branch, New Jersey, where he had been taken to escape the noxious air of humid, dirty Washington, DC. While his wounds had been serious, there is no doubt that today Garfield would have survived; in fact, many doctors at the time thought he should have survived and publicly complained about the incompetent treatment he had received (it didn’t help when the team of doctors presented the government and Garfield’s widow with enormous medical bills).
Guiteau had expected that a grateful Arthur and the party would realize he had been right and would pardon him. Instead he underwent a trial in which an insanity defense failed (insanity, let alone a defense, was not something easily agreed on at that time). There were two attempts on his life while he was in jail, but Guiteau was finally hung on June 30, 1882. Before he was led to the gallows, Guiteau, a self-proclaimed theologian, read a poem he had written called “I am going to the Lordy.” Guiteau had requested an orchestral accompaniment, but none was provided. (The poem became the basis for the Guiteau character’s big number in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, and yes, it is performed a capella).
Chester Arthur, who had been wracked with guilt and fear that people would think he had been involved in a plot to kill Garfield (not to mention fear of the job—Arthur had no desire to be president), was sworn in at 2:00 am at his Lexington Avenue home in New York City. Arthur broke with Conkling while he was president, and while he eventually tried to reconcile with his erstwhile mentor, Conkling never forgave him. Arthur’s presidency was quietly competent; he did push through a civil service reform movement in order to create a merit rather than patronage system for government jobs. Arthur was not re-elected and died a few months after leaving office. Blaine tried to run again for president in 1884, but Conkling sabotaged his campaign by digging up old scandals. They remained bitter enemies to the end.
And so we end our story with the two who began it, Conkling and Blaine, titans in their day, neither boldface names now. Ackerman’s book sorts out all the rivalries and keeps their thread running throughout the book, pointing out how little we the people had to do with any election or government, despite any ideal we might hold of glory days past, when too often everything is perceived to be so much better, so much more honorable. Ackerman uses numerous contemporary accounts, which always helps. Sometimes, for some reason, which I can’t quite identify, the story, which should be so vivid, with its toweringly ambitious, grasping characters and political chess-playing, doesn’t quite come to life. It’s detailed and quite nice, but maybe a little passionless. For me, at least. I believe Ackerman thought his story was important and needed to be told, but maybe I wasn’t quite convinced that he loved it or any of the people in it, something that I want to see in an author. It is an elusive thing, love.
What was important to me was creating a person out of James Garfield, who had been just a flat name and blurry picture, another big bearded Civil War guy playing out the string of the nineteenth century. In this book, he comes across as a bright, thoughtful, extremely nice man. I don’t know if that would have been enough to make him a good president, if he had lived, but it is more than enough to mean that he deserves much better than he has gotten, both in life and in history.