The Garfield Assassination Altered American History, But Is Woefully Forgotten Today

Why we need to have historical marker on the site where Charles Guiteau shot the President in 1881

An engraving of James A. Garfield's assassination, published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper(Wikimedia Commons)
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When President James A. Garfield was shot in the back by an assassin on July 2, 1881, the news electrified the country. Garfield was entering the Washington, D.C. train station, headed for summer vacation, when the attack came. Charles Guiteau, the 40-year old assassin—a lawyer, former bill collector, salesman, preacher, divorcee and political hanger-on who’d failed at most things in his life—had stalked the president for weeks. On this morning, he waited inside the train station until President Garfield entered the room, walking in arm-in-arm with his friend, Secretary of State James G. Blaine. Guiteau stepped behind the president and fired two bullets. One grazed Garfield’s arm, and the other hit him square in the back, knocking him to the ground.

As police grabbed Guiteau and started dragging him away, Guiteau declared: “I am a Stalwart and [Vice President Chester Alan] Arthur is now president.”

Telegraph wires instantly flashed the news across the country. Newspapers flooded city streets with extra editions, copies carried by high-speed trains and horseback to every rural hamlet. For the 79 days between Guiteau’s shots and the president’s death, Americans waited breathlessly for medical bulletins from the White House. They followed every change in Garfield’s condition, praying against the worst. During this time, a team of self-serving doctors probed Garfield’s wounds with unwashed fingers and instruments, allowing the President to contract an infection that would ultimately kill him.  

More than 100,000 people came to see Garfield’s body lying in state in the Capitol Building Rotunda, and another 150,000 attended his funeral in Cleveland, Ohio. The new president, Chester A. Arthur, declared days of national mourning.  

Americans who experienced these events in 1881 had no trouble appreciating the tragedy of Garfield’s death and the importance of his life. Many considered him perhaps the most promising president of their era, despite his having served only four months in office before the shooting. That generation would be shocked to learn that today, in 2018, just 137 years later, Garfield and his story are largely forgotten. Even the spot where the shooting took place, the old Baltimore and Potomac train station, is long gone.

Garfield was the third youngest president when he took office, just 49 when elected in 1880. His five young children, four sons and a daughter, made the White House a happy, playful home, despite his wife Lucretia’s serious fever (probably typhoid) that spring. The morning of the shooting, Garfield himself, at 6 feet tall and 210 pounds, performed handstands for his young sons in their bedroom and tossed them in the air while playing and saying goodbye.  

The last president born in a log cabin, Garfield was raised in poverty on the Ohio Western Reserve, worked his way through Williams College, and taught at and became president of Ohio’s Eclectic University (now Hiram College). A lifelong abolitionist, he enlisted in the Union Army, became a captain, and participated in the Civil War battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga.

Elected to Congress in 1863, Garfield played leading roles in almost every major issue of the day. He helped win passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution to guarantee equal rights for freed slaves.

Garfield never actually ran for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1880—he attended the party’s convention that year to support another candidate, fellow-Ohioan John Sherman (brother of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman). But after the convention stalemated for 35 ballots, delegates stampeded to an alternative all knew as a competent and intelligent candidate, Garfield himself.   

When finally elected president, Garfield had little time to enjoy it. In office, he quickly became embroiled in a signature fight of the era, the struggle against political bosses who strangled the works of government through patronage and spoils. Ultimately, he forced the Senate to abandon its practice called Senatorial Courtesy and confirm a reform-minded Collector of the Port of New York over staunch opposition from New York’s own powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling, who in turn resigned over the conflict.

By winning this fight, James Garfield cleared the way for what he hoped would be a highly productive presidency focused on civil rights, education and economic growth. But this was not to be.

The fight over patronage was the spark that prompted Charles Guiteau, the “disappointed office seeker” as he was called, to decide that James Garfield must be “removed” from office. Guiteau was likely mentally ill, but his insanity was informed by the politics of the day. The shooting of Garfield resulted in adoption of the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Act, which mandated that government jobs be awarded on merit rather than political affiliation, and was one of the most important political reforms of the late 19th Century. 

Garfield is one of just four presidents killed in office, and the sites of the other three attacks are rightly treated as a having major historic importance: Ford’s Theatre in Washington, Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and William McKinley’s assassination site in Buffalo, New York. Each has a marker and displays explaining the history and significance of the event. Garfield deserves the same treatment.

The site, however, presents some challenges. The old Baltimore and Potomac train station, located at 6th and B Streets NW, today’s Constitution Avenue, was long considered an eyesore even before the assassination. Built in the 1870s on landfill over the infested old Washington City Canal, its tracks extended south, splitting the National Mall, shooting soot into the air and causing pedestrian accidents. When Washington’s new Union Station opened nearby in 1907, city officials quickly closed the old depot and had it demolished.  

Today, the spot where President Garfield was shot straddles Constitution Avenue between the National Gallery of Art and the Federal Trade Commission across the street, one of the busiest spots in the city. Thousands of locals and tourists alike pass by every day, having no idea of the shocking history that occurred here. On the Mall itself, walkways come within a few feet of the exact spot of the shooting with nothing to mark the spot.

It’s time for Garfield to have his marker too. It’s why I have joined the James Garfield National Historic Site’s initiative to memorialize the spot where an American president’s tenure was cut tragically short. History is too important to let it be forgotten.

About Kenneth D. Ackerman

Kenneth D. Ackerman is an author and lawyer in Washington, D.C., whose books include DARK HORSE: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. For more on his writing, see www.KennethAckerman.com.

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