The Parenthetical Presidency of James Garfield

REVIEW: 'President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier' by C.W. Goodyear

An engraving of President Garfield's assassination (Wikimedia Commons)
July 3, 2023

If James Garfield had never existed, Aaron Sorkin would have had to invent him.

America's 20th president was born in a single-room log cabin, fatherless by the age of two (he was raised on the frontier by his mother), and employed early in life as, by turns, a mule driver, a carpenter, and a janitor. Nevertheless, he rose to become a minister, a college president, and a major general in the Union army. In his free time, Garfield could be found devising an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem, conducting agricultural experiments on his farm, and greeting German visitors to the property by quoting poetry in their native tongue. This is all before we get to him being the youngest member of Congress upon his election in 1862—or getting elected president in 1880 without so much as pursuing his party's nomination.

That litany alone makes Garfield seem primed for the kind of rehabilitation that recent biographies have given traditionally second-tier presidents like John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, and Calvin Coolidge. Just one problem: James Garfield also had the second-shortest administration in American history, holding office for only about six months. Nearly 40 percent of his presidency was spent in an ultimately failed convalescence from an assassin's bullet.

As a result, any fair-minded reader of C.W. Goodyear's new biography, President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier, has to grade the project on a curve. Indeed, it's something of a misnomer to call this a presidential biography. Of the book's 28 chapters, only one deals with Garfield's abbreviated administration (two if you include the final chapter's stomach-turning account of his months-long march to the grave).

It's a wise choice. Garfield had only four productive months on the job, most of them spent—as was standard for presidents in the decades after the Civil War—trying to sift through the hordes of office seekers who poured into the White House, a task on which he is recorded to have spent 17 hours a day. Indeed, the work was so mind-numbing that the president confessed to battling depression, pining for his old job as minority leader in the House of Representatives, where he was "treating of the fundamental principles of government," rather than "considering all day whether A or B should be appointed to this or that office."

As a result of his parenthetical presidency, one question looms large over any account of Garfield's life: What would a Garfield administration have looked like if allowed to reach full flower? Goodyear, abiding by the boundaries of a sober historian, does not address it—at least not explicitly. The clues littered throughout the book, however, suggest that the conventional answer is likely wrong.

Like most presidents who hail from forgotten eras, James Garfield is today remembered mostly in caricature: the backwoods savant who could both lead men into battle in the wilds of eastern Kentucky and entertain visitors by simultaneously writing in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other (perhaps the most popular piece of trivia about Garfield, it is also, alas, apocryphal). This has given rise to an excessively romanticized notion that Garfield could have eventually become a kind of proto-Teddy Roosevelt, a soldier/scholar bringing epochal change to American politics by sheer force of will.

Yet Goodyear's thorough telling of Garfield’s nearly 18 years in the House—this is, in truth, much more a book about the Reconstruction-era Congress than about the presidency—suggests something quite different: Far from being a hard-charging visionary, Garfield's primary political assets were his amiability and his plasticity.

This was a Republican congressman who, based on an overwrought sense of fair play, would tip off Democratic colleagues to the content of his speeches so that they could prepare comprehensive responses. This was a defender of civil rights who nevertheless thought there wasn't much the federal government could do about the matter. This was an opponent of the spoils system who didn't think twice about handing out government jobs to his Ohio constituents. Indeed, this was a man who secured the GOP's presidential nomination in 1880 only because the balloting went on for 36 rounds and the exhausted delegates opted to order off menu and simply settle for the least objectionable choice.

The office of the presidency has, of course, made bona fide executives out of less. But even during his limited time in the White House it was widely suggested by both politicians and the press that Secretary of State James G. Blaine (one of the failed candidates from that deathless Republican convention) was leading Garfield around by the nose. Goodyear presents more evidence to support that thesis than to refute it.

None of which is to suggest that Garfield couldn't at least have wound up one of the better presidents of his era. His legislator's sense for which way the political winds were blowing would surely have represented an improvement upon his predecessor, Rutherford B. Hayes, a sort of 19th century Jimmy Carter figure who so badly misunderstood Washington that he had alienated even his fellow Republicans within days of his inauguration. Likewise, Garfield's instinct for accommodation marked him as a sharp contrast with the man who'd next be elected president, Grover Cleveland, perhaps the most stubborn chief executive in American history. Nevertheless, this was no aborning Teddy Roosevelt. If anything, Garfield—a House minority leader elevated to higher office on the basis of the fact that people found it impossible to hate him—resembles no one so much as Gerald Ford.

As it turns out, however, at least one man did hate Garfield: Charles Guiteau, the assassin who gunned him down at a Washington train station in the summer of 1881. At the risk of sounding macabre, it is somewhat surprising that Guiteau is not a larger figure in American history for the simple reason that no other presidential assassin trod a path quite as eerie nor possessed a backstory quite as resonant with modern anxieties.

Though he claimed a political motivation for the shooting (to elevate Vice President Chester Arthur, who differed with Garfield on the then-potent issue of civil service reform), the evidence is overwhelming that Guiteau's crime actually stemmed from a long history of mental illness. Nearly a decade before Garfield's murder, Guiteau had announced to an acquaintance that, lacking any means to attain the notoriety he craved, he had resolved that the best way to get attention was to simply "shoot some of our public men." That Garfield became the ultimate target owed only to the fact that he had infelicitously intersected with Guiteau's delusions of grandeur. The shooter had actually campaigned energetically for Garfield's presidential bid (read: given rambling speeches that no one much wanted to hear) and only soured on the new administration once he had been denied a diplomatic post he believed to be his just reward. Guiteau had even sent an unbidden note to the president's desk, in which he nonchalantly pronounced, "I think I prefer Paris to Vienna."

The reader's skin crawls as Goodyear describes the easy access a deranged Guiteau had to Garfield. He was able to walk into the White House and personally petition the president for a job (though his strange behavior would later get him barred from the executive mansion). He buttonholed the first lady at a social event. He stalked Garfield and Blaine on a nighttime stroll the evening before the assassination. He even once stood at the back of the room as Garfield attended church services, planning to shoot the president in the head as he worshipped.

Guiteau's plan finally came to fruition on July 2, 1881, though Garfield—who likely would have survived the attack had it not been for his incompetent medical care—managed to cling to life until September 19. Guiteau was marched to the gallows the following June and, insane to the end, was shocked by President Arthur's failure to issue him a pardon.

As a result of Guiteau's crime, any biography of Garfield has the odds stacked against it. How do you tell the story of a man remembered primarily for unrealized potential? Goodyear's answer to that question is to present Garfield as he was rather than as he could have been. The result is a richly detailed account of a too-neglected period in American history that is likely to remain the definitive Garfield biography for at least a generation.

President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier
by C.W. Goodyear
Simon & Schuster, 624 pp., $35

Troy Senik is a former presidential speechwriter and the author of A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland.