Useful Notes: James Garfield

Garfield: "Old boy! Do you think my name will have a place in human history?"
Rockwell: "Yes, a grand one, but a grander one in human hearts. Old fellow, you mustnít talk in that way. You have a great work yet to perform."
Garfield: "No. My work is done."
—Conversation between Garfield and his secretary, Colonel Almon F. Rockwell, the day before he died. These have been reported as his last spoken words.

James Garfield (November 19, 1831 — September 19, 1881) is most famous for having the same name as a cartoon cat.note 

James Garfield was president in 1881, right after Rutherford B. Hayes and before Chester A. Arthur. In his early career, he served as college president and a preacher before joining the army. He distinguished himself enough to rise to the rank of Brigadier General before serving as Chief of Staff to the commander of Ohio's Army of the Cumberland. After the war, he had an 18-year career as a State Representative for Ohio. In 1880, he was elected to the presidency straight from his seat as a Representative, becoming the only American ever to do so. He won the popular vote by fewer than 8,000 votes.

As President, Garfield had the second shortest term, 199 days, beaten only by William Henry Harrison. On July 2, 1881, he was shot in a train station by Charles Guiteau, a mentally-ill man who believed in his insanity that he was owed a government job, and that Garfield was refusing to appoint him.

The wound would not have killed him if it were left alone, but then the doctors got involved. Their terribly botched treatment (as Pasteur had not yet discovered germ theory, they tried to remove the bullet with their bare hands) turned a minor bullet wound into a massive, fatal infection, which left the president in intense pain for eighty days before killing him. Garfield died on Sunday, September 19, 1881.

Despite Guiteau claiming the doctors had killed the president, not him, ("I only shot him," more than a little correct)note , he was duly found guilty and executed.

This incident is credited by some for convincing future Presidents that perhaps using government jobs as rewards may not be such a good idea. Garfield himself had complained before his shooting about how many would-be officeholders were requesting a handout, and the fact he was gunned down by a would-be appointee spurred the system. He also notably complained that being in politics cut down on his free time - in a commencement address. While not often portrayed in popular culture, he was, of course one of the subjects of the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins. He was also discussed in Sarah Vowell's book Assassination Vacation, and was voiced in the audiobook by none other than Jon Stewart.

He could write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other at the same time. Garfield was also the first President to ever talk on the phone - the man on the other end was Alexander Graham Bell, no less!

Tropes commonly associated with Garfield:

  • Arch-Enemy: Senator Roscoe Conkling. A New York senator and important political figure, leader of the Republican Stalwart faction. He headed an infamously corrupt political machine that controlled the appointments for the most important federal civil service posts. He and Garfield became bitter rivals due to the latter's plans to carry out a civil service reform.
  • Badass Bookworm: He could read an entire 500 page book in one day. He greatly enjoyed the nuances of legal work and policy making, even being capable of writing entire journals of policy notes and could write in two different languages at the same time. When he was in Congress in 1876, he constructed a novel proof to the Pythagorean Theorem.
  • Badass Preacher: He was a protestant lay preacher until the late 1850's, when he saw the Civil War approaching and decided to begin military training. He eventually became a pretty efficient Brigadier General.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: A few months before shooting Garfield, Charles Guiteau visited the White House to request a position as Ambassador to France. He met Garfield and Secretry of State James Blaine, who heard his request, but swiftly dismissed him.
  • Genre Savvy: He foresaw the outbreak of the Civil War by the mid-1850's, upon which he became involved in politics and military training.
  • Pens Akimbo: He could write in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other at the same time.
  • Stop Helping Me!: The bullet wound that Charles Guiteau inflicted on him was non-fatal. However, the severe infections that he developed due to unsterilized treatment by his doctors weren't.
  • What Could Have Been: Though he's typically been dismissed as a nonentity, a lot of recent historians (namely Kenneth J. Ackerman and Candace Millard) argue that Garfield, due to his honesty, willingness to stand up to Conkling and other Stalwarts, and enthusiasm for reform and African-American rights, would have made a great President had he lived. Of course, this is mere conjecture.