President James Garfield

The Mediocre Presidents (Song)

We are the mediocre presidents.

You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!

There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,

There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.

There’s William Henry Harrison,

Harrison: I died in thirty days!

We… are… the…

Adequate, forgettable,

Occasionally regrettable

Caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!

-The Simpsons

Last week my wife was at her graduate school taking a break when she overheard two profs discussing where President James Garfield was assassinated.  She immediately texted to see if I knew the answer.  (The train station in Washington, D.C.)  I became interested in Garfield after reading Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening.  Garfield plays a significant role in Goodheart’s narrative and the author is especially adept at describing the intellectual underpinnings of Garfield’s abolitionist philosophy and how he entered Ohio politics and then the Army.  I was intrigued just enough to read Ira Rutkow’s small biography James A. Garfield, which is part of the late Arthur  Schlesinger’s American Presidents series.  When done well slim tomes such as these serve as part biography and part meditation setting the record straight on the subject at hand.

General James Garfield

Rutkow spends a great deal of time on the assassination attempt and the poor medical care Garfield received afterward that led to his death.  Now author Candace Millard has a new book on the assassination and its aftermath.

One thing I do not think I understood until reading Rutkow’s book was the degree to which the Gilded Age presidents were hampered by the relative newness of the Republican Party.  When Garfield became president in 1881 the party was less than three decades old.  The lack of precedent on such issues as patronage had tremendous implications for the country and hampered governance at a time when leadership was needed most.  It was the patronage issue that led to Garfield’s assassination.  I do not think a wholesale revision of Gilded Age America and its leaders is in order, but it is a richer history than we tend to believe and one that deserves more consideration.  Who knows?  We may even end up giving Garfield, et al more kudos for their modest but hard won accomplishments.

(Images/Library of Congress)