By Tom Anderson
In my last article, I discussed the important question that any American presidential nominee faces in the choice of a vice-president (VPOTUS or ‘veep’ for short), who can be both a minor, symbolically-chosen figure but also the man or woman who will succeed him if that president passes away during their term. Naturally, history has turned on the fact that presidents have had to face a compromise between those two factors when it is very much unclear whether such a succession is realistic or not. Abraham Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson, a southern unionist, as a symbol of national unity during the Civil War; yet it was Johnson who found himself thrust into the White House when Lincoln was assassinated, and the Republican Party was forced to confront a president who was opposed to their own policy towards the South and the freed former slaves after the war. A century later, John F. Kennedy was elected alongside the Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, the circumstances of whose vice-presidential nomination remains hotly debated. In some ways there was a parallel to Lincoln’s case in that Kennedy needed the support of Southern Democrats like Johnson in order to win the nomination; on the other hand, Johnson was regarded as an enemy of organised labour, which did not endear him to other factions within the party. When Kennedy met his own end at an assassin’s bullet in 1963, ‘LBJ’ succeeded him; yet, unexpectedly to some, it was he who delivered the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, in contrast to the case a century earlier.
Parallels are frequently drawn between Kennedy and Lincoln’s assassinations; there was a particular craze for them in pre-internet memes of the 1970s found in Books Full Of Fascinating Facts. These range from the banal (both men were first elected in a year ended in zero, and succeeded by a man named Johnson from the South) to the memetic (both men were assassinated by men known by three names, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald) to the thought-provoking (in both cases the vice-president was almost simultaneously killed but survived, by a failed plot in 1865 and a panicked soldier in 1963). Both assassinations have also spawned reams of tiresome conspiracy theories, although the Kennedy ones are naturally more familiar to us as they lie closer in time and are more manifest in visual media.
One could therefore be forgiven for assuming that Lincoln and Kennedy were the only two U.S. Presidents to be assassinated, but—as I mentioned in my last article—this is not the case. This leaves us with the disturbing conclusion that there is such a thing as an obscure U.S. presidential assassination, implying that there are so many that it is easy to lose track of them. The latter part is not strictly true, as there were only two other successful presidential assassinations—albeit with a number of failed ones; Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, for example, were both hit with bullets but survived. In this article and the one after it, I want to take a little time to look into the two lesser-known presidential assassinations and their consequences for history: the killings of James A. Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley twenty years later in 1901.
James A. Garfield, like many involved in U.S. politics in the post-Civil War Gilded Age period, had served in that war as a major general. Born in poverty in Ohio, he had worked his way up through academic skill, marrying one of his fellow students and then serving as an itinerant teacher. Though his parents had been devout members of the Church of Christ, he was only a dutiful churchgoer until he had a religious awakening in 1850 and became a born-again Christian, baptised in the waters of Ohio’s Chagrin River. He worked as a janitor to pay his way through Hiram College. It was the politically charged atmosphere there at the time, with a strong abolitionist mood among the students, which helped inspire him to enter politics and ultimately fight for the Union in the Civil War. In an example of how American politics never changes, halfway through the war in 1862, Garfield’s friends asked him to run as a Republican for Ohio’s 19th congressional district—as the state legislature had just finished redrawing it as a Republican gerrymander. In the middle of a civil war. He accepted and entered Congress, taking Radical Republican views at the start (strongly abolitionist and regarding the Southern secessionists as traitors who had forfeited their constitutional rights as American citizens).
Despite his public image suffering from his involvement in the Crédit Mobilier scandal (concerning corruption in how the Union Pacific Railroad was financed) and being responsible for heading up an unpopular pay rise for himself and his fellow Congressmen, Garfield continued to be re-elected to Congress. He became de facto Minority Leader in the House of Representatives after the Democrats won control of it in the 1874 midterms, and was involved in the Electoral Commission that determined the winner of the disputed 1876 presidential election. This saw a ‘corrupt bargain’ by which Southern electoral votes were changed to support the Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes, in return for Hayes withdrawing federal troops from the South and ending Reconstruction. This act was not only immoral but drastically short-sighted from a partisan point of view, as it ensured the Southern Democrats could exclude black Americans from voting (along with any white people they didn’t like) and effectively rig all elections in their favour for almost a hundred years. No Republican would win an electoral vote from the South again until 1928, when Herbert Hoover’s Republican landslide combined with Southern Democratic distaste for Al Smith’s Catholicism. The election rigging (via poll taxes and fake literacy tests, among other acts) would not be ended until the aforementioned Civil Rights Act of 1964, upon which point state parties had to resort to more inventive ways to exclude those they did not wish to exercise their democratic right to vote.
By this point, Garfield had shifted away from his earlier Radical positions, like many Republicans who had become fatigued with the apparent never-ending struggle in the South. In particular, in 1871 Garfield opposed the passing of the Ku Klux Klan Act which sought to give the President (Ulysses S. Grant) the power to suspend habeas corpus in order to suppress the KKK and other white supremacist organisations. Garfield (accurately) described the KKK as terrorists with distaste, but felt the bill represented dangerous executive overreach. In 1880 he was elected to the U.S. Senate for Ohio, but paradoxically never took his seat as he had been elected President in the meantime!
At this point, in part because the Republicans were so dominant in much of the northern states with the Democrats regarded as the party of the southern traitors, there were two main factions within the Grand Old Party: the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds. The Stalwarts, whose leader was Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, supported machine politics and the existing corrupt ‘patronage system’, by which election winners would reward their supporters with well-paid civil service roles, regardless of whether or not they were suited to them. The Half-Breeds, led by Senator James G. Blaine of Maine wanted reform to end these abuses of power. The Half-Breeds were so dubbed by the Stalwarts due to accusations of only being half-true Republicans. The issue had been brought into focus because the incumbent President Rutherford B. Hayes had become hugely unpopular, even with his own party as he had appointed Southern Democrats to civil service roles. Unsurprisingly, Hayes announced he would not seek a second term.
For the 1880 nomination, the Stalwarts wanted former President Ulysses S. Grant to return for an unprecedented third term, while the Half-Breeds wanted Blaine as the nominee. It was clear that neither man could command a majority at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, especially after Blaine fainted and some of his supporters got cold feet over his health—again something which has frequently reappeared in American politics of late. A possible compromise candidate would be Treasury Secretary and former Senator John Sherman, who was well respected as a financial authority, advocate of the Gold Standard and who had helped rebuild the national economy after the Panic of 1873. However, Sherman was far from charismatic, he was described as the ‘Ohio Icicle’. It should be noted that politicians from New York and Ohio tended to be quite dominant in the Gilded Age period, in part because they were two of the few large states which could conceivably be won by either party—rather than the Republicans being dominant in many northern states as the Democrats were the party of treason, or the Democrats just rigging all the elections in the South. So having a New Yorker or an Ohioan on the ticket seemed like a good way to swing those states and speak for the nation as a whole. Of course, they were also both simply large and economically important states with strong industrial development.
In fact, Sherman proved so uncharismatic that he managed to lose the nomination to his own campaign manager—Garfield, who had entered the convention supporting his fellow Ohioan Sherman. Garfield was thus nominated as a ‘dark horse’ candidate. He had risen to prominence when he gave a well-received speech attacking Roscoe Conkling’s attempt to expel the West Virginian delegates because they refused to endorse his motion to support the party’s nominee no matter whom it turned out to be. Such was the unpredictable nature of U.S. politics in an era in which the convention was the crucial deciding point, rather than a mere rubber-stamp to the primary season as it has become today—barring the oft-mentioned but never-seen will-o’-the-whisp that is a modern brokered convention, in which no candidate had obtained a delegate majority in the primaries.
The final vice-presidential selection was made without consulting Garfield himself; he and his supporters wanted a New York Stalwart ally of Conkling to help reunify the party and smooth over ruffled feathers. During Hayes’ term, he and Sherman had made false starts on reform by targeting Conkling’s machine; the highest-profile victim of this was Chester A. Arthur, a Stalwart who held the role of Collector of the Port of New York. The office was responsible for charging and collecting import duties on all the foreign goods imported into New York City, then the busiest port in the world. Arthur not only possessed this lucrative role, but controlled many other jobs through it. Under the ‘moiety’ system of the time, Arthur and his employees could supplement his income by a percentage of cargoes seized from importers attempting to dodge the import tariff. This resulted in Arthur enjoying an effective income higher than the President himself. While this system was later changed, Arthur was still paid more than Sherman as Secretary to the Treasury. Hayes and Sherman eventually managed to eject Arthur from his position, but had created a lot of bad blood with the Stalwarts in the process.
Initially the vice-presidential nod was offered to Levi P. Morton, a Stalwart who had served one term in the House of Representatives. Morton turned the role down on the advice of Conkling; in the event he would go on to serve as vice-president to Benjamin Harrison a few years later instead. Chester A. Arthur was offered the role instead as the ultimate sop to healing the party divide; though Conkling said the same to him, Arthur accepted, saying ‘The office of the Vice-President is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining’. Considering that Arthur had never held any elected office at this point, it was certainly a meteoric rise, and would probably have been noteworthy even if Garfield had served out his term without incident.
Garfield and Arthur initially campaigned in the 1880 election based on emotively appealing to memories of the Civil War and painting the Democrats as still the party of southern treason, an approach that was pejoratively described as ‘waving the bloody shirt’ at the time. But the war was now years past, Hayes’ ending of Reconstruction seemed to have drawn a line under it in the eyes of many, and the Democratic nominee was the unimpeachably heroic Pennsylvanian general Winfield Scott Hancock, who had fought in both the Mexican War and as a Union general in the Civil War. When this campaign style thus failed, Garfield and Arthur instead focused on economics, accusing the Democrats of favouring lowering the tariff regime (the same one which Arthur had lined his pockets from) which protected American industry against foreign imports.
The resulting election was incredibly close in the popular vote, with the Republican ticket winning the smallest victory margin in history whilst still carrying the popular vote—just 1,898 votes out of almost 9 million votes cast. However, with the Republicans still dominating the populous and industrialised northern states, Garfield defeated Hancock by a disproportionate margin in the electoral college of 214 to 155 votes.
Garfield’s problems with balancing his party factions were not over; he still had to carefully share out Cabinet roles between Stalwarts and Half-Breeds. Some attribute his rather incoherent and underwhelming inauguration speech to distraction with this problem. It is perhaps rather appropriate that Garfield had found time, four years earlier amidst his political career, to publish a new trapezoid-based mathematical proof for Pythagoras’ Theorem! His inauguration speech had included a strong appeal to universal education as a transformative means to lift the black population in the South out of poverty, reflective of his own former career as a teacher. But Congress had grown wearily indifferent, if not outright hostile, to the plight of black Americans in the South at this point, and his proposal got nowhere. Garfield did, however, appoint a number of black Americans to positions, most notably the great orator Frederick Douglass as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia.
In the end Garfield would not serve out his term in office. We can speculate about how things might have gone if he had. Lacking much experience in foreign policy, he mostly deferred to Blaine, now his Secretary of State; the United States began more foreign engagement, in particular attempting to negotiate an end to the ruinous War of the Pacific in South America and beginning to explore the question of a Panama canal. Internally, Garfield attempted to undo some of the damage Hayes had done in the South by exploring an alliance with the anti-Democratic Readjuster Party in Virginia. He also appointed William H. Hunt, a Louisiana Republican who had had served as Attorney General of the state before Hayes’ withdrawal ensured the end of free elections there, as Secretary of the Navy. (The Attorney Generalship of Louisiana would not be held by a Republican again until 2011). Hunt and Garfield were alarmed by the naval military progress of other nations, especially in South America, and advocated the modernisation of the U.S. Navy—which would eventually materialise as the ‘Squadron of Evolution’ or ‘ABCD Ships’, consisting of the first four modern ships USS Atlanta, USS Boston, USS Chicago and USS Dolphin.
Inevitably, though, it seemed Garfield’s biggest decisions would involve the controversial civil service reform. This was tragically cut short when he was shot on July 2nd, 1881 at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington DC. The shooter was not some southern revanchist or bomb-throwing anarchist, but Charles J. Guiteau, a Walter Mitty character who falsely believed he had played a key role in Garfield’s victory and thus deserved to be rewarded with an office via the spoilage system! (In fact Guiteau had written a speech in favour of Ulysses S. Grant against Winfield Scott Hancock, then had essentially just done find-and-replace with ‘Garfield’ for ‘Grant’; it was delivered perhaps twice and written copies may have been handed out at the National Convention in Chicago). Guiteau envisaged becoming consul in Vienna or Paris for his allegedly vital work. After shooting Garfield, he announced “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts...Arthur is President now!”
The assassination shocked America, whose public opinion had considered Lincoln’s assassination to be an anomaly due to the unprecedented situation of the Civil War. There was little in the way of any security for the president at this time. Garfield had been hit by two bullets, and one had lodged in his abdomen. As the President, he was seen by some of the key medical authorities of the day, in particular his friend Dr Willard Bliss, who frankly put his chances of his survival at a hundred to one. A fey Garfield responded “Well, Doctor, we’ll take that chance.” In the end he lived for an agonising eleven weeks of intensive care, during which time the nation watched and prayed, before finally passing away of what is thought to be an infection, though some medical scholars disagree.
It is generally considered that Garfield’s life could have been saved if he had received better medical care. At this point the medical establishment did not accept the work on antisepsis by Ignaz Semmelweis and Joseph Lister, and Garfield’s wound was probed by the unwashed fingers of doctors that likely gave him the fatal infection. X-rays would not be invented for another fourteen years, but these could have found the bullet. At the time, remarkably, Alexander Graham Bell used a metal detector he was working on (related to his best-known work, the telephone) to try to locate the bullet, but may have been thrown off by picking up metal springs in the bed that Garfield was lying on.
Guiteau, who was executed for his crime despite his counsel attempting the insanity defence, had ensured that the arch-Stalwart Chester A. Arthur would occupy the presidency. Yet public revulsion ensured that the act backfired. Arthur, of all people, became the architect of civil service reform. While today’s America is still home to eyebrow-raising policies like victorious presidents gifting ambassadorial roles to random financial supporters who know nothing about the country they are sent to, the passing of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883 ended the blatant spoils abuses of the past and enforced a merit system. The argument was not over—as I mentioned in a previous article, the world was shocked a decade later when the Mayor of Chicago was assassinated by a disgruntled supporter wanting a job in the middle of the World’s Columbian Expo. But America had changed.
Arthur, perhaps the most unlikely and unexpected president in history (though there are other claimants) served out the remainder of Garfield’s term before retiring. He did not see eye to eye with Blaine, who would unsuccessfully run to occupy the White House in 1884, defeated by Grover Cleveland, the first Democratic President since the Civil War. Blaine was replaced with Frederick T. Frelinghuysen as Secretary of State, who ended the attempts to negotiate an end to the War of the Pacific. Arthur continued and deepened Garfield’s alliance with the Virginia Readjusters and attempted to force links with the new opposition Greenback Party and independents in the South, trying to find domestic allies against the dominant Southern Democrats. This was seen as a lukewarm effort by some black Republicans and their allies, although Douglass still endorsed it as better than nothing, as the Readjusters had been elected in Virginia on a platform of broadening education and abolishing the whipping post and poll tax. However, the effort would ultimately come to nothing as the Readjusters would collapse after Cleveland’s election.
Immigration was a huge political issue in Arthur’s term, with him constantly at odds with Congress over panicked attempts to limit it, especially of Chinese workers. Arthur spent much of his time trying to come to a compromise over this, and ended up passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, which (building on the earlier 1875 Page Act) was the first time a specific group or country were targeted as ‘undesirable’. He also favoured the idea of Native Americans (or Indians as they were called at the time) transitioning from tribal land ownership to individual land ownership—which manifested itself as one of his last acts as President being to open up the Crow Creek Reservation in the Dakota Territory to white settlement. (His successor Cleveland promptly reversed this decision, and the Reservation, now in South Dakota, exists to this day).
This has been a brief look at the life and presidency of a man whose assassination is today so obscure that hardly anyone can read the words ‘President Garfield’ without picturing an orange cartoon cat wearing a suit behind a podium with a presidential seal on it. Yet hopefully it has made clear just how important that event was. If Garfield had lived, how might history have been different? Would the Republican factional divide over the spoils system and machine politics have continued to impact American politics more directly (especially if no assassination attempt was made, rather than Garfield recovering from it)? Could Blaine have ended the War of the Pacific early and helped save thousands of lives in South America? Would the Republicans have been in a better (or worse) position to beat the Democrats in 1884? How might Garfield have handled the immigration questions that Arthur had to in our timeline, and what impact would it have had on the demographic history of America?
In my next article, we’ll look at the other ‘obscure assassination’—that of President William McKinley.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth