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Posts Tagged ‘President James Garfield’

During the course of Barack Obama’s first term as President, much has been made of his group of czars.  I honestly don’t know much about the people involved, but there is much consternation, particularly from his opposition on the Republican side.  It is claimed that these men and women (I’m assuming both men and women are included) are influencing decisions being made by the President without the benefit of being elected by the people or appointed or approved by Congress.

But as Today’s History Lesson uncovers, President Obama isn’t the first Commander-in-Chief to get a little “outside help”.  And while it’s true that our example isn’t nearly as far-reaching or controversial as what we see in the White House today, it had a truly profound effect on the President in question.

The assassination attempt on President James Garfield not only shocked and angered the nation, it terrified Chester Arthur, the Vice President.  As we may recall, Garfield had been elected the previous year (1880) in most unlikely fashion, having been nominated at the Convention without ever being a candidate.  A groundswell of emotion and good will swept him into the White House.

And Chester Arthur?

He was actually a political opponent of Garfield, and was controlled by Roscoe Conkling, the senior Senator from New York who was, until the election, probably the most powerful man in America.  He was also very unpopular, so much so that when the news broke that Garfield had been shot, conspiracy theorists immediately pointed at Conkling and, by extension, Chester Arthur.  In her masterful book Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard writes, “It was widely assumed that he [Arthur] was in close and constant discussions with the man who had made him, planning for the day when he would be king, and Conkling his Cromwell.  So little respect was there for the vice president and so openly had he aligned himself with the president’s fiercest enemy, that to accuse him now of conspiring with Conkling was simply stating the obvious.

But to the contrary, Arthur was distraught over the President’s plight.  A journalist, finally gaining an audience with the Vice President who had largely disappeared from the public eye, noted that “His whole manner, rather than the words he uttered, showed a depth of feeling. . .which would astonish even many of those who think they know the man well.

Unknown to many, Chester Arthur had a “czar”.  Thirty-two year old Julia Sand was not elected and was not appointed.  And while she may have been an invalid, she knew how to write a letter.  Arthur received his first letter from her shortly after the President was shot, and she didn’t mince words.  “The day he was shot,” she penned, “the thought rose in a thousand minds that you might be the instigator of the the foul act.  Is not that a humiliation which cuts deeper than any bullet can pierce?”  She continued, “Your kindest opponents say: ‘Arthur will try to do right.  He won’t succeed, though – making a man President cannot change him.’ ”  She then worked to encourage the troubled Arthur.  “But making a man President can change him!  Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant half a life.  If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine.  Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you – but not to beg you to resign.  Do what is more difficult and more brave.  Reform!

The letter clearly affected Chester Arthur…he kept it.  The letters from Julia kept coming, urging him Arthur to be strong and courageous, to think for himself, and to free himself from the bonds with which men like Roscoe Conkling would tie him, which is exactly what he did following the death of Garfield and his swearing in as the country’s 21st President.  And while Arthur would only serve out Garfield’s term, he did so as a respected and hard-working President.

On August 20, 1882, President Arthur made a special trip and met Julia Sand for the first time.  She was stretched out on the sofa, and Millard writes, “Arthur would stay for nearly an hour, pleased to finally have a face-to-face discussion with one of his most trusted advisers.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic – If you read just one book of history this year, read this one. It’s that good.

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Now that Garfield was dead, Americans’ greatest fear was that Guiteau would get away with murder – not because he was innocent, but because he was insane.  The insanity defense was already widely known and almost uniformly despised.  Even Garfield, ten years before his own murder, had expressed deep skepticism about the plea.

So begins the aftermath of the assassination of President James Garfield from the pen of Candice Millard in her book “Destiny of the Republic.”  Charles Guiteau had shot the President in July of 1881, and the President had succumbed to his wounds two months later.

And just like clock-work and daily sunrises, Guiteau submitted his “not guilty” plea to the judge in October.  “I plead not guilty to the indictment,” Charles would say.  “The Divine pressure on me to remove the president was so enormous that it destroyed my free agency, and therefore I am not legally responsible for my act.”  In other words, Garfield’s assassin blamed God for his actions.

And so the trial, which ran from November to January, centered on Guiteau’s mental state.  The defense brought psychiatrists to the stand that, after studying Charles, found him to be crazy.  The prosecution brought even more of them to the stand to prove him otherwise.  Guiteau himself claimed that his insanity had occurred only at the time of the shooting.  He claimed that he was now sane as any man, and wouldn’t shoot Garfield (were he still alive to be shot) for any amount of money.  He believed Garfield’s doctors were the true assassins of Garfield, as their rudimentary and unsanitary treatment had ultimately killed the President (a point which was pretty sane…and pretty accurate).

Those in the courtroom (and around the country) watched the drama unfold, and most of them just wanted Charles Guiteau dead for his crime, regardless of mental condition.  And to their relief, jury deliberations lasted less than one hour.  The jury found Guiteau sane and guilty.

Even after the verdict, Charles Guiteau hoped he would be set free.  He wrote to the new President, Chester Arthur, on several occasions, desirous of a pardon.  Guiteau believed his death would “make a terrible reckoning for you and this nation.  I made you…and the least you can do is let me go.”  John Guiteau, who had defended his brother at trial, requested a stay of execution in order to gather more evidence of insanity.  All entreaties were denied.

On June 30, 1882, Charles Guiteau climbed the steps of the gallows, read some Scripture from the Bible’s book of Matthew along with a short poem, and was hanged for his crime.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic

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The next day, as the delegates made their weary way back to the hall, few of them held out any hope for a quick conclusion.”  These words, from Candice Millard’s terrific book Destiny of the Republic, seem rather obvious after our discussion from yesterday’s version of Today’s History Lesson.  The nomination process at the 1880 Republican National Convention had turned into a nightmare, as the previous day’s twenty eight ballots had failed to determine the party’s Presidential nominee.  Millard continues, “When the first ballot of the day, the twenty-ninth, showed little change from the day before, their fears were only confirmed.” June 9, 1880 was starting out just the way the previous day had ended.

You and I aren’t used to this kind of gridlock.  Well, actually, we are if we’re referring to “traffic with an accident two miles ahead.”  We understand that.  But in our experience, the outcome of nominating conventions is well-known in advance.  And since they are now televised, events need to fall into preset time slots.  Hiccups are anathema to live TV.  And, let’s be honest, in today’s political world, where the press has largely prostituted itself to one party or another, a multi-balloted nomination looks less clean and potentially provides not only the opposition, but a host of media outlets, with one more hand grenade in its arsenal.  Thirty ballots?…no way!!

But this convention had thirty, which became thirty-one, then thirty-two, then thirty-three ballots.  This was beginning to look suspiciously like the Democratic convention twenty years before, which required a remarkable fifty-nine ballots (over two conventions) just to select the candidate (Stephen Douglas) that would lose to the winner (Abraham Lincoln).

Then came the thirty-fourth ballot, and that single vote for James Garfield from the previous day became seventeen, as Wisconsin gave him most of its votes.  Garfield was shocked!  He wasn’t even running and immediately protested.  Addressing the convention president, he said, “The announcement contains votes for me.  No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name, and vote for him, in this convention.”  The president (who was something of a Garfield supporter himself), told him to sit down and be quiet.  It was about to get crazier.

The thirty-fifth ballot saw votes from Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, and North Carolina given to Garfield, who suddenly had fifty votes and was rapidly becoming a viable candidate, despite his vehement protests.  He urged his own delegation from Ohio to remain true to John Sherman.

Like cracks in a dam, however, the little drips of water that were the thirty-fifth ballot led to a “collapse and gusher” in the thirty-sixth.  The votes for Garfield poured in.  John Sherman saw the proverbial writing on the wall and, writing from his office in the Treasury Department, sent a quick telegram to the Ohio delegation, urging their unity in a vote for Garfield.  He urged other states to do the same.  When Ohio’s turn came, Garfield shouted his vote for Sherman, but it was no use.  His voice was just one in the flood and was swept away.  When the votes were tallied, James Garfield sat with 399 votes.

A fairly popular congressman, an excellent orator, and a man who came to the convention to speak on behalf of another candidate had just been handed the Republican nomination.  When the convention president asked if the nomination be made unanimous, it was Roscoe Conkling – arguably the most powerful man in America at the time and a backer of Ulysses Grant – who stood in stunned defeat and made the motion.  When it was seconded, bedlam erupted.  A roar of elation swept the floor, and Garfield was surrounded by well-wishers.  Garfield’s response to the congratulations was classic…”I am very sorry that this has become necessary.

The momentum continued and carried Garfield to victory in the general election as well.  Of course, we know that the term “President” would be applied to James Garfield for less time than other man except William Henry Harrison, as an assassin’s bullet would end his life just months after taking office.  But to my knowledge, no nominating convention has been so soundly turned on its head as was the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic

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Every four years, I am treated to thousands of Presidential commercials on TV.  I get numerous fliers and brochures in the mail, created in a such a way as to convince me of a particular candidate’s viability.  I get dozens of phone calls (which I almost never answer) reminding me of the importance of voting.

From all possible paths, thirty-second soundbites are driven into my consciousness.  It’s become a rather painful experience.  Since this year is one of those “every four years” (and we’re only in June), I’ve got about five more months to endure.  And because this promises to be one of the most expensive elections – I recall Newt Gingrich saying that President Obama would likely raise close to $1 billion and, in all likelihood, Mitt Romney won’t be far behind – I expect that my senses of sight and hearing will be assaulted like never before.

This summer, we’ll be invited to watch each party’s national convention on television.  As of now, we don’t know who’s going to speak or what will be said, but we can expect hours of endless banter about the silliness of the opposing party’s platform, the inability of the opposing party’s candidate to lead, and the disasters that await our country should the opposing party win.  And we pretty much know the outcome of each convention:  President Obama will be the Democratic nominee and Mitt Romney will stand for the Republican Party.

There won’t be any 1880 surprises.  Remember that one?

The 1880 Republican Convention opened on Tuesday, June 2nd in Chicago with not one front-runner, but three viable candidates.  Two-term President Ulysses Grant was running for a third term.  James Blaine, the Senator from Maine, was also running, as was Treasury Secretary John Sherman.  Throughout the week, there was jockeying between the candidates and their supporters.  On Saturday evening, each of the candidates was presented to the floor by a speaker.

The speaker for Sherman was James Garfield, who had originally supported Blaine, but switched when Sherman entered the race.  Taking the stage after Roscoe Conkling had whipped up the crowd in support of Grant, Garfield was nervous.  He had no prepared speech, and didn’t have the political power of Conkling, a Republican strongman.  But he was an excellent extemporaneous speaker, and did an admirable job.

On June 8, 1880, the convention moved to the voting phase.  The delegates knew that no single candidate had a majority of the votes required to secure the nomination, so it would require at least two votes.  But no one could have guessed how crazy this process would become, nor how it would end.  Beginning at 10:00am, the first ballot (as expected) didn’t produce a nominee.  Neither did the second ballot, but it did produce a small surprise.  One vote, from a Pennsylvania delegate, was cast for James Garfield.  And vote after vote, the gridlock continued…along with one little vote for Garfield.  Eighteen ballots were cast before dinner and ten after, yet no one candidate could garner the necessary 379 votes.

It was late, nerves were frayed, and it was time for bed.  The convention adjourned for the night.  The next day would see an incredible turn of events…but that’s for tomorrow.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic – An excellent read!

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In the last couple of years, the Republican Party seems to have fractured a bit.  Of course, there have always been “wings” to the party…a more conservative wing and and one with a more liberal bent.  The same holds true for the Democratic Party.  And I suppose there are more subgroups than just the liberals and conservatives.  I happen to be in the subgroup that prefers to lick postage stamps rather than peel-and-stick…I’m just nostalgic that way.

Anyways, now there’s this Tea Party, which I think is a Republican Party off-shoot…I think.  I don’t know for sure, and I don’t really care all that much, either.  We’re here for history…aren’t we?

I mention that because it provides something of a lead-in to Today’s History Lesson.  During the late 19th century, there were factions within the Republician Party.  There were Stalwarts, who either were men “marked by outstanding strength and vigor of body, mind, or spirit“, or they were more conservative Republicans who really liked President Grant and wanted him in office for a third term.

On the other side were the more moderate Republicans, called Half-Breeds (they called themselves that?!?), who liked more moderate guys, like President Rutherford B. Hayes (whose middle initial is, for some reason, extremely important).  For the 1880 elections, the Half-breeds wanted to nominate James Blaine, who apparently was more in the mold of Hayes.

Neither side liked the other’s candidate, so a compromise was reached with the selection of the “middle man”…Half-Breed James Garfield (no middle initial required).  The Vice Presidential candidate was Chester Arthur, a Stalwart.  Got that?  There’s probably more to it, but I’m certainly not an expert on the subject (I’m still working to plow through James Madison’s biography).

Garfield won the election, took office in 1881, and was promptly shot by an angry Charles Guiteau, who gave himself the title of “Stalwart of Stalwarts” (rather ironic, given the cowardly nature of his deeds).  President Garfield lived the better part of 3 months before dying on September 19th.

The next day, September 20, 1881, would see Chester Arthur (shown above) sworn in as the 21st President of the United States.

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I took today off from work, simply because as we move into a holiday weekend, about 75% of our company’s workforce will be doing the same.  And while there’s plenty to do, the prospect of a 4-day weekend was too tantalizing to pass up.  But still I ended up riding my bike to work and back home (as I’ve been doing often since April) just for the exercise.  I got a haircut, then walked out of the Great Clips to a flat tire on the car.  The valve stem had failed (it failed on one of the other tires last year).  I started changing it, but the bolts were rusted in place and I had no WD-40 (or any penetrating liquid) in the car.  And I’d left my cell phone at home…it was just a haircut after all.

So my wife’s boss very generously drove some spray to my car and (because he’s stronger than me) helped me break the bolts free.  After he left I still had to wrestle them off…any idea how hot bolts get just from the friction of removal?  I got the spare on (one of those hideous little donut tires), then made my way to Costco (where I’d bought the tires)…only to find out there was a 3-hour wait in the tire department.  I’ll go back on Monday.  I got back home at 3:30 in the afternoon (my haircut was at 11:30), thinking that a day in the office may not have been so bad.

Such are the vicissitudes of days off…anyways, I better say something historical on the anniversary of our Founding Fathers’ vote for independence.

Sometimes, in our weaker moments, we’ll think things that we shouldn’t.  When I’m driving and someone in another car acts foolishly (which I never do), I wish I was a passenger in his (or her) car so it would be easier to hang up their cell phone and hit them with my shoe.  Or maybe a co-worker oversteps his (or her) bounds of authority at your expense, and you begin plotting retribution.

Thoughts are powerful things, particularly when they don’t just stay thoughts.  I can’t name all of the famed “Seven Deadly Sins”, but at least some (lust, greed, pride, envy) definitely start out as merely thoughts.  And as long as we kill them while they remain in our brains, we’re alright.  It’s when the “translation to action” happens that the real trouble begins.  Years ago, comedian Jake Johannson had the idea of “safety rhymes”.  When talking about drive-by shootings, he joked that maybe a rhyme would prevent people from pulling the trigger.  He humorously suggested, “I’m going to shoot that guy…let’s have some pie!”

Clearly a safety rhyme may have done some good for Charles Guiteau, who had nasty thoughts running around in his head.  He had repeatedly been denied a job working in the U.S. consul in Paris, and it made him angry.  The new U.S. President, James Garfield, had been in office less than 4 months, and was putting the final touches on his Administration…and it didn’t include Guiteau.  But rather than seek gainful employment elsewhere, Guiteau let his thoughts get away from him.

On July 2, 1881, an angry Guiteau took a gun and used it to shoot President Garfield as he walked through the Washington, D.C. railroad station.  The Commander-in-Chief was hit twice, in the arm and the back.  But it was the bullet in the back that did the most damage, and ultimately took the President’s life nearly three months later.

We’ll never know what Guiteau’s life would have been like had he disposed of his evil thoughts properly.  But we know for sure that his actions cost the life of the President, and ended his own the following year on the hangman’s noose.

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The 50 years that span 1860-1910 were especially tough ones for U.S. Presidents.  The Civil War was catastrophic.  Reconstruction was painful and expensive.  The mending of a fractured Union was difficult.  The end of slavery represented (at least for the South) a real paradigm shift in labor laws.  And the beginning of an entirely new Industrial Revolution presented vast new challenges.  But on top of that, Presidents kept getting assassinated, which probably made the job even less desirable.  Lincoln in 1865.  McKinley in 1901.  And the subject of Today’s (rather brief) History Lesson:  President James Garfield.

President Garfield took the oath of office in March of 1881, but barely got his feet wet as Commander-in-Chief before calamity struck.  On July 2nd, while on his way to deliver a speech at his alma mater (Williams College), he was gunned down by Charles Guiteau at the Washington, D.C. railroad station.  And unlike the killers of Lincoln and McKinley, who carried out their deeds for ideological reasons, Guiteau’s actions were much less noble (as if shooting any President could be considered “noble”).  He was upset because he had been denied a government position as U.S. consul in Paris, a job he had asked for numerous times and had no qualification to hold.

Like McKinley’s assassination, two bullets hit Garfield, and one did most of the damage.  Like McKinley, doctors could not find the 2nd bullet, which (almost like McKinley) had lodged in his spine.  Like McKinley, it would be the rudimentary (compared to today) medical conditions that would lead to the infections that took the President’s life.  But unlike McKinley (who lived just 8 days following his shooting), President Garfield would suffer from his wounds for 80 days before succumbing on September 19, 1881.

In a rather strange turn of events, part of Charles Guiteau’s trial defense contended that the doctors were Garfield’s real killers, and the President’s death was on their heads due to poor medical care.  Fortunately, the jury didn’t buy it, and Guiteau was executed by hanging (probably with an unsanitary rope) the following June.

President James Garfield tenure, at just over 6 months, was the 2nd shortest (to date) in U.S. history.  Only William Henry Harrison, who got sick on Inaguration Day and died a month later, served a shorter term.

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