Forgotten President, Aerial Pioneer

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 28, 2007 | Go to article overview

Forgotten President, Aerial Pioneer


Byline: John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, was the last president to have been born in a log cabin, the second-to-last to have been a general in the Civil War, and the first presidential candidate to participate actively in his election campaign.

The reader will learn little of this from the short biography by Ira Rutkow, James A. Garfield (Times Books, $20, 168 pages), one of the series of presidential minibiographies to which Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has lent his name as general editor. Dr. Rutkow is a surgeon rather than a historian, and fully half of the book is devoted to the details often gory of Garfield's lingering death after he was shot in the back by a disappointed office-seeker.

Elected to Congress from Ohio in 1863 largely on the basis of his competent service in the Civil War, Garfield served in the House for 17 years before being elected president. There he quickly gained recognition as one of the hardest workers in Congress, and an expert on finance and tariff legislation. As a young man Garfield had rejoiced in the opportunities afforded him by a college education and by a period as a college professor. In Congress he became a reliable supporter of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.

Garfield was a friend to black Americans throughout his political career, and took a special interest in their education. From 1870 until his death he was a trustee of the Hampton Institute in Norfolk, Va.

But Garfield was also a partisan Republican who viewed the end of reconstruction in the South as bad news for the Republican Party. In 1876, as minority leader, he participated in behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to Rutherford B. Hayes being declared president in the disputed election of 1876, in return for a Republican commitment to withdraw Federal troops from the South.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1880, Garfield never took his seat. At the Republican convention that summer, a stalemate between factions led by ex-President Ulysses S. Grant and Sen. James G. Blaine resulted in the nomination of Garfield as a compromise candidate. He rejected the traditional front-porch campaign, writing, "I have never quite consented to the muzzling of a candidate" when he is an experienced campaign orator.

The ensuing election was one of the closest in terms of popular vote, but the ticket of Garfield and Chester Arthur would have won handily except for widespread voter intimidation in the South.

In the brief six months of his presidency, Garfield won a bitter battle for control of the Republican Party. He launched a vigorous investigation of fraud in the awarding of postal contracts. But on July 2, 1881, in a railroad station located on the site of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Garfield was fatally wounded by a Republican functionary who believed he was entitled to an office in the new administration.

Dr. Rutkow's account of the assassination and its aftermath, however disproportionate in length, is riveting. Garfield had the extreme misfortune of falling under the care of a committee of physicians, whose unsanitary probing of his wound, in the author's view, brought on the infection that killed the president. Dr. Rutkow is on firm ground in discussing 19th-century medicine, and believes that with better care Garfield would have recovered from his wound.

The most important result of the Garfield presidency was the enactment of civil service reform, which reduced the president's role as a distributor of patronage.

The Ohioan has a small but secure place in America's political history, and his story is more than a study of medical malpractice. …

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