I first encountered James A. Garfield in the course of my boyhood
As I grew older, American history became a passion and presidential biographies a favored genre, but Garfield eluded me. Nor did I pursue him. I did occasionally stumble upon
So it was that I came to President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier , a detailed, skillfully executed, well-written, if uneven full-length biography by historian C.W. Goodyear. The Garfield that emerges in this treatment is capable, intellectual, modest, steadfast, and genial—but also dull … almost painfully dull. So much so that it is only the author’s talent with a pen that keeps the reader engaged. But even Goodyear’s literary skills—and these are manifest—threaten to be inadequate to the task of maintaining interest in his subject after a while.
That Garfield comes off so lackluster is strikingly incongruous to his actual life story, which at least partly seems plucked from a Dickens tale. Born in 1831 to a hardscrabble struggle in the Ohio backwoods that intensified when he lost his father at a very young age, he was raised by his strong-willed, religious mother who favored him over his siblings and encouraged his brilliant mind. He grew up tall, powerfully built, and handsome, with an unusually large head that was much remarked upon by observers in his lifetime. Like Lincoln, he was a voracious reader and autodidact. After a short-lived stint prodding mules as a canal towpath driver in his teens, his mother helped secure for him an avenue to formal education at a seminary, where he met his future wife Lucretia, whom he called “Crete.” Employed variously as a teacher, carpenter, preacher, and janitor, he worked his way
Part of it is that in this account he seems nearly devoid of emotion. He makes few close friends. His relationship with Crete is conspicuous in the absence of genuine affection, and their early marriage marked by long separations that are agonizing for her but in Garfield provoke little but indifference; he eventually admits he does not really love her. A fleeting affair and the sudden loss of a cherished child finally bring them together, but in the throes of emotional turmoil he yet strikes as more calculating than crushed. If there is one constant to his temperament, it is a desire to navigate a middle path in every arena, ever chasing compromise, while quietly trying to have it both ways. In his first years of marriage, he demonstrates a determination to be husband and father without actually being physically present in either role. Likewise, this trait marks a tendency to moderate his convictions by convenience. The prewar period finds him a fervent proponent of abolition, but willing to temper that when it menaces harmony in his circles. Later, he is just as passionate for African American civil rights—that is, until that proves inelegant to consensus.
The book’s subtitle, From Radical to Unifier, more specifically speaks to Garfield’s shift from one of the “Radical Republicans” who advanced black equality and clashed with Andrew Johnson, to a congressman who could work across interparty enmity to achieve balance amid ongoing factional feuding. But “from radical to unifier” can also be taken as a larger metaphor of a trajectory for Garfield that smacks less of an evolution than a tightly wound tension that ever attempted to have that cake and eat it too. And since it is impossible to simultaneously be both “radical” and “unifier,” there is a hint that Garfield was always more bureaucrat than believer. But was he? Truthfully, it is difficult to know what to make of him much of the time. And it is not clear whether the blame for that should be laid upon his biographer or upon a subject so enigmatic he defies analysis.
Garfield indeed proves elusive; he hardly could have achieved so much success without an engine of ambition, but that drive remained mostly out of sight. As a major general in the midpoint of the Civil War, he stridently resisted calls to shed his uniform for Congress, but yet finally went to Washington. Almost two decades later, he stood equally adamant against efforts to recruit him as nominee for president, but ultimately ran and won the White House. Was he really so self-effacing, or simply expert at disguising his intentions? And what of his integrity? Garfield was implicated in the infamous Credit Mobilier scandal, but it did not stick. In an era marked by rampant political corruption, Garfield was no crook, but neither was he an innocent, trading certain favors for rewards when it suited him. Was he honest? Here we are reminded of what Jake Gittes, Jack Nicholson’s character in the film Chinatown, replied when asked that about a detective on the case: “As far as it goes. He has to swim in the same water we all do.”
For me, presidential biographies shine the brightest when they employ the central protagonist to serve as a focal point for relating the grander narrative of the historical period that hosted them. Think John Meacham, in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. Or Robert Caro, in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. Or, in perhaps its most extreme manifestation, A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Sidney Blumenthal, where Lincoln himself is at times reduced to a series of bit parts. What those magnificent biographies have in common is their ability to brilliantly interpret not simply the lives that are spotlighted but also the landscape that each trod upon in the days they walked the earth. Unfortunately, this element is curiously absent in much of Goodyear’s President Garfield.
Garfield’s life was mostly centered upon the tumultuous times of Civil War and Reconstruction, but those who came to this volume with little familiarity of the era would learn almost nothing of it from Goodyear except how events or individuals touched Garfield directly. The war hardly exists beyond Garfield’s service in it. So too what follows in the struggle for equality for the formerly enslaved against the fierce resistance of Andrew Johnson, culminating in the battle over impeachment. Remarkably, Ulysses S. Grant, second to Lincoln arguably the most significant figure of the Civil War and its aftermath, makes only brief appearances, and then merely as a vague creature of Garfield’s disdain. And there is just a rough sketch of the disputed election that makes Rutherford B. Hayes president and brings an end to Reconstruction. Goodyear’s Garfield is actually the opposite of Blumenthal’s Lincoln: this time it is all Garfield and history is relegated to the cameo.
And then suddenly, unexpectedly, Goodyear rescues the narrative and the reader—and even poor Garfield—with a dramatic shift that stuns an unsuspecting audience and not only succeeds, but succeeds splendidly! It seems as if we have finally reached the moment the author has been eagerly anticipating. Garfield has little more than fifteen months to live, but no matter: this now is clearly the book Goodyear had long set out to write. Part of the reader’s reward for sticking it out is the deep dive into history denied in prior chapters.
Only fifteen years had passed since Appomattox, and the two-party system was in flux, reinventing itself for another era. The Democrats—the party of secession—were slowly clawing their way back to relevance, but Republicans remained the dominant national political force, often by waving the “bloody shirt.” Since the failed attempt to remove Johnson, the party had cooled in their commitment to civil rights, a reflection of a public that had grown weary of the plight of freedmen and longed for reconciliation. Fostering economic growth was the prime directive for Republicans, but so too was jealously guarding their power and privilege, as well as the entrenched spoils system that had begotten.
Party members had few policy differences, but yet fell into fierce factions that characterized what came to be a deadlocked Republican National Convention in 1880. The “Stalwarts” were led by flamboyant kingmaker Roscoe Conkling, who had long been locked in a bitter personal and political rivalry with James G. Blaine of the “Half-Breeds,” who sought the nomination for president. Garfield and the latter were on friendly terms, and had worked closely together in the House when Blaine had been Speaker, although Garfield was identified with neither faction. Conkling and the Stalwarts were Grant loyalists, and dreamed instead of his return to the White House. There were also reformers who coalesced around former Senator John Sherman. Garfield delivered the nominating speech for Sherman, but then—after thirty-five ballots failed to select a candidate—he himself ended up as the consensus “Dark Horse” improbably (and reluctantly) drafted as the Republican Party nominee! The ticket was rounded out with Chester A. Arthur, a Conkling crony, for vice president. Goodyear’s treatment of the drawn-out convention crisis and Garfield’s unlikely selection is truly superlative!
So too is the author’s coverage of Garfield’s brief presidency, as well as the theatrical foreshadowing of his death, as he was stalked by the unhinged jobseeker Charles J. Guiteau. Garfield prevailed in a close election against the Democrat, former Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. Once in office, Garfield refused to go along with Conkling’s picks for financially lucrative appointments, which sparked an extended stand-off that surprisingly climaxed with the Senate resignation of Conkling and his close ally Thomas “Easy Boss” Platt, asserting Garfield’s executive prerogative, striking a blow for reform, and upending Conkling’s legendary control over spoils. Meanwhile, homeless conman Guiteau, who imagined himself somehow personally responsible for Garfield’s election, grew enraged at his failure to be named to the Paris consulship, which he fantasized was his due, and plotted instead to kill the president. Guiteau proved both insane and incompetent; his bullets fired at point-blank range missed Garfield’s spine and all major organs.
Odds are that Garfield might have recovered, but the exploratory insertion of unwashed fingers into the site of the wound—more than once, by multiple doctors—likely introduced the aggressive infection that was to leave him in the lingering, excruciating pain he bore heroically until he succumbed seventy-nine days later. The reader fully experiences his suffering. It seems that Joseph Lister’s antiseptic methods, adopted across much of Europe, were scoffed at by the American medical community, which ridiculed the notion of invisible germs. For weeks, doctors continued to probe in an attempt to locate the bullet lodged within. In a fascinating subplot, a young Alexander Graham Bell elbowed his way in with a promising new invention that although unsuccessful in this case became prototype for the first metal detector. The nation grew fixated on daily updates to the president’s condition until the moment he was gone. He had been president for little more than six months, nearly half of it spent incapacitated, dying of his injuries. The tragedy of Garfield is mitigated somewhat by the saga of his successor: President Arthur astonished everyone when an unlikely letter stirred his conscience to abandon Conkling and embark on a reformist crusade.
Note: This edition came to me through an early reviewers’ program.
Note: I reviewed the Blumenthal Lincoln biography here: Review of: A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849, by Sidney Blumenthal