April 13, 2012
You could almost hear the audible sighs of relief that went up in the suites in Washingtonand on Wall Street when Rick Santorum suspended his campaign for President. The reaction was quite familiar to me: I remember well how one of my college friends greeted the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. My friend, the owner of a Mercedes dealership in town, said: This is better than Reagan. Now, if you and your friends in the trailer parks of Manassas will just shut up about abortion and school prayer, we will have heaven on earth.
Well, we all have our religion, dont we? There was a time, however, when Republicans were not so antagonistic to Evangelicals. The untold story of the rise to power and prominence of James A. Garfield is one of deep devotion and special pathos.
Candice Millards Destiny of the Republic tells how Garfield was the surprising choice of the Republican convention in 1880. The party was torn between Stalwartssupporters of former President Ulysses S. Grantand Half-Breeds, those who sought modest reforms and who aligned with Maines charismatic James Gillespie Blaine.
Congressman James A. Garfield came to Chicago for the GOP convention determined to place in nomination the name of his good friend, Ohios U.S. Senator John Sherman. Shermans young brother, William Tecumseh Sherman, was credited with the Union victory in the Civil War. Republican delegates would clearly have preferred Gen. Sherman to his colorless brother, but Cump had cut them off: If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve. Ever since, thats what people mean by a Shermanesque refusal of candidacy.
Garfield dutifully placed in nomination his states favorite son, but Sen. Sherman soon proved to be a non-starter. When Grants Stalwarts were unable to win an unprecedented third term nomination for the Hero of Appomattox, and Blaine could not secure a majority, the weary delegates in that smoke-filled hall, beaten down by thirty-five ballots, turned in desperation to Garfield. He protested. Cast my vote for Sherman, he cried out, but his voice was muffled in the roar of approval for his name.
New Yorks wily Sen. Roscoe Conkling had led the Stalwarts for Grant, but he acknowledged Garfields victory and made the nomination unanimous.
Garfields war record was his strongest qualification in an era where Republican canvassers regularly waved the bloody shirt. During the war, young Gen. Garfield had been responsible for securing Kentucky for the Union. Lincolns secretary, 23-year old John Hay, once told visitors the president hopes to have God on his side, but he must have Kentucky. Many Americans thought the tall, broad-shouldered Garfield was heaven-sent for just that task.
Garfieldhad been a college president and a member of Congress. He had even been chosen as the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Still, his unexpected nomination was surely that of a dark horse.
Tradition prevented Garfield from campaigning for president. But he could decorously welcome delegations of party faithful who trekked to his Mentor, Ohio farmstead. Garfield greeted one of these, a gathering of German-Americans. He delivered his remarks in flawless German, thus becoming the first candidate to offer a campaign address in a foreign language.
Easily elected, Garfield determined to reconcile the South without abandoning the newly freed black voters living there. He was insistent on equal rights for all.
Then, tragedy struck.Garfieldarrived atWashingtons Baltimore & Potomac railroad station onJuly 2, 1881in close conversation with his Secretary of State, James G. Blaine. A disappointed office seeker, Charles J. Guiteau, fired on the president, his bullet striking the 49-year old in the back. I am a Stalwart and now [Vice President] Arthur is president, yelled Guiteau as he was wrestled to the floor.
Soon, the fallen president was surrounded by doctors. Disregarding the pioneering work on antisepsis that had been introduced by Britains Dr. Joseph Lister, Dr. Willard Bliss bossily took over the care of the stricken Garfield. Bliss and other attending physicians probed the wound with unsanitary fingers and instruments.
The brilliant inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, volunteered to help locate the bullet. He used technology hed mastered in his invention of the telephone. He devised and successfully tested an induction balance. But Bliss was so sure he knew the path of the bullet, he would not permitBellto examine the presidents right side.
All through July and August of 1881, President Garfield wasted away as infection spread through his body. Finally, in September, he demanded to be taken to the seaside. A specially constructed train took Garfield to Elberon, on the Jersey shore.
To reach the seaside mansion that had been loaned to the presidents family, a thousand men worked through the night to lay railroad track. When the final approach to the home proved too steep, two hundred men pushed the presidents rail car by hand.
There, lulled by the ocean waves he loved, this brave Christian man died onSeptember 19, 1881. Once, during his long decline, Garfield asked a friend if he would be remembered in history. Better than that, his friend said, youll be remembered in the hearts of the people. And for some years, he was.
Im indebted to Candice Millard for the moving and beautiful story of a great man who never had the chance to become a great president. After a brief affair early in their marriage, James Garfield learned to cherish Lucretia for her strength and courage. Through the years, they were bound together in mutual love for their five living children and in shared grief for the two beloved little ones they had lost. Deeply repentant, Garfield even became a minister in the Disciples of Christ church, our only president to be ordained.
Perhaps most touching of all scenes in this powerful portrayal was the reaction of Washingtons black community to Garfields death. Many of these newly freed former slaves, still struggling to make a living, tore their best suits and dresses in strips to drape their modest homes in mourning black.
James Abram Garfield, war hero, scholar, able public servant, Evangelical, deserves a place in our hearts. Thanks to Candice Millards fine work, he has a place in mine.