“Murder Most Foul”

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“I was a very pulpy boy until I was at least twenty-two years old,” he remarked once after examining his youthful writings of “slush and gush.” At eighteen, he had joined the Disciples of Christ, an earnest sect that left its mark upon him. The Disciples largely avoided the hysteria and hell-fire preaching of the time, and laid great stress upon human rights, welfare, and education; they established several schools and colleges. Through one of these, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, young James began to work his way. He preached on Sundays, and drifted steadily toward the ministry—until he transferred to Williams. Here, too, he paid his way, with a little help from his remarkable mother and a sixty-dollar loan from Mark Hopkins. He also learned to have fun, at college foolishness and at mountain climbing. (“I think you are in danger of being too sober and sensible and may get old too fast,” he later cautioned a young Disciples friend he was helping through college.) Returning to Ohio, he taught at the institute, married Lucretia—a childhood playmate—and served briefly in the state senate until the Civil War swept him into a wider world. Elected commander of a volunteer regiment, he studied tactics and strategy—not, of course, neglecting Julius Caesar—while the boys drilled. He was a better-than-average field commander. He was elected to Congress from the Nineteenth Ohio District in the fall of 1862, while still in the Army; and he continued to serve, reaching the rank of major general before taking his seat in Washington in December, 1863. Even then he was somewhat reluctant; but Lincoln, who had good use for a Republican congressman with a knowledge of military affairs, urged him to resign from the Army. He complied.

It is easy to see why the Ohio voters kept sending Garfield to Congress. He was almost the embodiment of the Western Reserve itself, which had moved far beyond its log-cabin days. Though it favored the advance of science and education as the basis for a better material life for all, Cuyahoga County wanted no part of the scandalous Gilded Age that sprang up in Washington, New York, and Newport after the Civil War. Garfield, with his practical idealism, was their man. “The hand of God has been visible,” he would tell the House, “… leading us by degrees out of our prejudices to see that the fortunes of the Republic and the safety of the party of liberty are inseparably bound up with the rights of the black man.” He opposed monopolies, hoped for an eventual world of free trade, backed the sound dollar against greenbacks. He introduced a bill establishing a federal office of education, and another to appropriate funds for the Naval Observatory to observe “the transit of Venus” (a subject upon which his conservative opponents were unbearably witty).

He was probably the best-read man in Congress. He could mentally escape from a dull sermon by translating an ode of Horace; but he also read new books constantly, in trains and omnibuses. “Give me something to read I don’t know about,” he used to tell the Librarian of Congress before starting a journey. He had an engaging way of expecting other people to share his enthusiasms. When the novelist William Dean Howells visited the Garfields in Ohio, and began to talk on their porch one evening about poets he had known, the Congressman could not contain himself. He jumped up and ran across the grass, waving his arms wildly toward all the neighboring porches. “Come on over!” he shouted. “He’s telling about Holmes and Longfellow and Lowell and Whittier.” Obediently, the shadowy figures of his neighbors followed him to the house. “Now go on,” Garfield told his guest.

Like John F. Kennedy, Garfield won the presidential election by a tiny margin—9,464 votes out of over nine million cast—and to the country at large he was not very well known. His legislative box score, in the four months since his inauguration, was virtually zero. Yet the proper test of a Presidency, John Kenneth Galbraith recently observed, is not legislation but the progress made in “dealing with those grievances and reversing those trends which otherwise could destroy us.” And this test Garfield had already begun to pass.

There was then no civil service through which federal jobs were filled, and all appointments were controlled either by political bosses who used them to build the power of their own machines, or by the White House itself. This had been Garfield’s particular bête noire. Of course, as a seasoned congressman he was quite used to dispensing government jobs, but on a retail rather than a wholesale level. Some weeks before the shooting, he wrote that the torrent of White House job seekers “swept away my day … I felt like crying out in the agony of my soul against the greed for office and the consumption of my time.” He himself had never had to ask for a job in his life, and he soon came to hate the “Spartan band of disciplined office hunters who drew papers on me as highwaymen draw pistols.” He had predicted, in fact, that civil service reform would come by necessity after “the wearisome years of wasted Presidents have paved the way for it.”