“When he (James Garfield) was still a very young man, he had hidden a runaway slave… In Congress, he fought for equal rights for freed slaves. He argued for a resolution that ended the practice of requiring blacks to carry a pass in the nation’s capital, and he delivered a passionate speech for black suffrage…‘Let us not commit ourselves to the absurd and senseless dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage, the talisman of liberty.’”
…Author Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic, Anchor Books, 2011
“In the course of his comments, (Donald Trump) said things which were hate-filled, vile, and racist…He said these hate-filled things, and he said them repeatedly…‘Haitians? Do we need more Haitians?’ (used also in reference to El Salvadorans and Hondurans)…And then he went on and started to describe immigration from Africa…calling the nations they come from ‘shitholes’—the exact word used by the president…”
…U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, Jan. 11, 2018
By Harold C. Ford
On the very day that the current occupant of the White House reportedly uttered words that CNN Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza described as the “lowest ebb of a presidency defined by a series of low ebbs,” I finished a terrific read about a previous American president that was, by contrast, inspirational. Following a distinguished career in academia, the military, and the US Congress, James A. Garfield assumed our nation’s highest office from March 4, 1881 until his premature death on Sept. 19 of that same year. His life was shortened by the bullets of an assassin and the resultant infections that wracked his body.
Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President served as a necessary antidote to the daily drumbeat of lies, racism, regressive politics, and misgovernment currently emanating from our nation’s capital. The contrasts between this republic’s 20th and 45th presidents are stark. Garfield’s strengths—his personal history, his genuine scholarliness, his lofty values, and the exhibited grace in his social relationships—are what we would wish from the holder of our nation’s highest office.
Humble origins and humility:
Garfield was born into fatherlessness and hardscrabble, abject poverty. “If I ever get through a course of study I don’t expect any one will ask me what kind of coat I wore when studying,” he wrote to his mother, “and if they do I shall not be ashamed to tell them it was a ragged one.”
Garfield refused to seek an appointment or promotion of any kind including the presidential nomination of his party. “I so much despise a man who blows his own horn,” he wrote, “that I go to the other extreme.”
Intelligent and articulate:
Garfield was driven to excel in academics. “He had a great desire and settled purpose to conquer,” a classmate wrote. “To master all lessons, to prove superior to every difficulty, to excel all competitors, to conquer and surpass himself.”
In 1851, Garfield enrolled in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in northern Ohio. Unable to pay the tuition, he worked as a janitor in exchange for his education. By his second year, he was promoted from janitor to assistant professor teaching literature, mathematics, ancient languages, penmanship, and Virgil—all this while still taking classes as a student.
In 1854, he enrolled in the Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts where he became the school’s president by age twenty-six.
While Garfield appreciated mathematics and the arts, it was science that he admired most. “The scientific spirit has cast out the Demons and presented us with Nature, clothed in her right mind and living under the reign of law. It has given us for the sorceries of the Alchemist, the beautiful laws of chemistry; for the dreams of the Astrologer, the sublime truths of astronomy; for the wild visions of Cosmogony, the monumental records of geology; for the anarchy of Diabolism, the laws of God,” he wrote.
Progressive and principled
Garfield was an inspiration to the nation’s immigrant population, according to Millard. “Between 1850 and 1930, the country’s foreign-born population would rise from more than two million to more than fourteen million…In Garfield’s humble origins, remarkable rise, and soaring erudition, they found justification for their sacrifices, and hope for their children,” she states.
He was such an ardent abolitionist that he found it difficult to condemn those who took up violence in its cause, including John Brown. “I do not justify his acts,” Garfield wrote in his diary. “But I do accord to him, and I think every man must, honesty of purpose and sincerity of heart.”
His candidacy for the presidency was supported by no less a figure than Frederick Douglass. “James A. Garfield must be our President,” he shouted at a political rally.
“For freed slaves, an impoverished and, until recently, almost entirely powerless segment of the population,” Millard writes, “Garfield represented freedom and progress, but also, and perhaps more importantly, dignity.”
A dedicated family man:
James and Lucretia had five living children. “Garfield had always made the most of his time with them, swimming, playing croquet, working on the farm, correcting their Homer recitations from memory, or simply reading to them by lantern light after dinner,” Millard writes. “With his daughter and four sons gathered at his feet, he read for hours without rest, eager to introduce them to his favorite works, from Shakespeare’s plays to The Arabian Nights to Audubon’s detailed descriptions of the woodchuck, the brown pelican, and the ferruginous thrush. His summers and holidays at home, however, always seemed too short, and he regretted deeply the time he was away from his family. ‘It is a pity,’ he wrote, “that I have so little time to devote to my children.”
Generous and forgiving:
“Nor was Garfield capable of carrying a grudge…,”Millard writes. “Years before, Garfield had resolved to stop speaking to a journalist who had tried to vilify him in the press. The next time he saw the man, however, he could not resist greeting him with a cheerful wave. ‘You old rascal,’ he said with a smile. ‘How are you?’ Garfield realized that, in a political context, the ease with which he forgave was regarded as a weakness, but he did not even try to change. ‘I am a poor hater,’ he shrugged.”
While on his death bed for more than two agonizing months, Garfield’s values did not abandon him. “Despite the fact that his health, his work, and quite possibly his life had been suddenly and senselessly taken from him,” Millard wrote, “he remained unfailingly cheerful and kind, day after day.”
A great read:
Millard’s book is crisply written and easily accessible for the most casual of historians. It’s difficult for most Americans to find interest in the grim-looking, bearded, mustachioed Gilded Age presidents of the late-1800s: Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland (twice), Harrison, et al. Millard’s storytelling will draw you in and have you wanting more as described by People Magazine: “Think you’re not interested in James Garfield, our twentieth president? Millard’s action-packed account of his life and truly strange death should change your mind.”
Destiny is a multi-track narrative of compelling stories that intersect throughout the book’s 300 pages. You learn, certainly, of the heroic arc of Garfield’s life from dire poverty to erudition, loving relationships, and estimable character that would draw the devotion of a nation and propel him to the presidency. But other important persons of this era are brought to life by Millard’s research and writing:
- Rosco Conkling was a self-serving, Nixonian-like, Republican senior senator from New York committed to, and benefitting from, the political spoils system opposed by Garfield.
- Charles Guiteau survived a disastrous collision of steamships, wound his way through the Oneida commune, failed attempts at law, and multiple rejections when seeking governmental appointments by the Garfield administration. The rejections would lead Guiteau to purchase a self-cocking .44 caliber British Bulldog with which he would shoot the president.
- Alexander Graham Bell had gained fame with the invention of “a new apparatus operated by the human voice”, the telephone. Bell worked frantically, tirelessly on his induction balance contraption which, he hoped, would locate the bullet lodged in the abdomen of the grievously wounded Garfield.
- Joseph Lister had discovered one of the most important advances in medical history, antisepsis—preventing infection by destroying germs. Unfortunately, most American doctors shrugged off Lister’s discovery, including the team of physicians that attended to Garfield’s bullet wounds. The blundering decisions of that medical team, led by Dr. D. Willard Bliss, would contribute to Garfield’s death.
- Chester Arthur, Garfield’s vice-president, would become his own man upon the assassination and death of Garfield and subsequently lead the effort to end the spoils system and replace it with a merit-based system of civil service that endures today.
A personal note
My adopted, dark-skinned daughter has deep roots in one of the countries disparaged by the current occupant of the White House. Fanny was born in New York City to Honduran immigrant parents. She is wonderfully bilingual, will graduate from Old Dominion University in 2018, has a full-time teaching position, and pays her taxes. She is a responsible, attentive parent. She served honorably in the US Navy for six years including a Middle East tour as part of the Operation Enduring Freedom campaign in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
“As a black woman, as a taxpayer, as a veteran, I was offended by what he said,” she told me. “I am contributing to society every day of my life.”
Reflecting upon the “shithole” utterer at the one-year mark of his presidency easily conjured up for me another two-syllable word that also ends with the letters h-o-l-e. I wait impatiently, hopefully for our nation’s next James Garfield.
EVM Staff Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.