In the hands of a talented debut biographer like C.W. Goodyear, though, Garfield’s life becomes a fascinating national portrait of an imperfect union struggling across its first century to live up to the promise of its founding. “President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier” is ultimately not just a careful study of Garfield but a portrait of a nation in transition — from its wild youth, where Garfield emerges, the last president born in a literal log cabin, through its awkward, violent adolescence with the Civil War, where Garfield becomes the Union’s youngest general, and onward as it heaves through Reconstruction and the Gilded Age toward adulthood as an industrialized economic empire.
Garfield lived it all — starting work as a teenager on an Ohio canal towpath, traveling across a region whose canals his father helped build, teaching and ministering on the frontiers of the Western Reserve, then rising in local politics through the turbulent prewar years as the country was wrenched apart by slavery, ascending to fame in Civil War combat as one of the few Union officers who showed any ambition and aggression in the early years, and then catapulting himself into Congress at 31. From his first election as head of the debating society at Williams College to a then-long tenure of 17 years in the House and finally on to the White House, Garfield never lost an election. “The truth is no man ever started so low who accomplished so much in all our history,” Garfield’s presidential predecessor Rutherford B. Hayes once wrote. “Not Franklin or Lincoln even.”
“President Garfield” is delightfully and energetically written, and its subject brims with what he once called the “tossing bubbles of ambition.” At one point, asked why he was speaking at an event with nine people in the audience, he smiled and replied, “That is the way to get larger audiences” — and he was filled with an unstoppable curiosity about the world around him. (“He was always anxious to know all the whys and where,” one friend commented.) On his first trip to New York, he stopped a fruit vendor to ask about the strange, curved fruit on display; told with a puzzled sneer that it was a banana, Garfield remarked to his friend, “I have long since determined not to let an opportunity pass for learning something, simply because I must expose my ignorance in doing so.” He clearly possessed a mind of unending fascination: At one point, already well established in Congress, he published an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem.
It was this intellectual curiosity and thirst for education that would be one Garfield’s most lasting legacies: He fought for the creation of the federal Department of Education as one of the reforms necessary for a maturing country, which had extended the franchise to Blacks in early Reconstruction. “Shall we enlarge the boundaries of citizenship, and make no provision to increase the intelligence of the citizen?” he challenged his congressional colleagues.
Garfield spent 20 years of war and peace in the then-tiny capital of Washington, and it’s hard to find a notable figure he didn’t cross paths with, a collection of anecdotes, cameos and character sketches that together illustrate how America wrestled with what it wanted to be when it grew up. Characters of 19th-century historical significance weave in and out through Goodyear’s telling of Garfield’s story, from his teaching in 1854 at a Vermont school headed by a new headmaster named Chester A. Arthur; to his Union service around Ulysses S. Grant; to his interactions with a wealthy man he called “Rockafeller”; to a young Teddy Roosevelt, who cast his first presidential vote for Garfield in 1880; to Thomas Edison, who lighted a New Jersey street to signal Garfield’s presidency and then invented the world’s first metal detector to try to save the wounded president’s life. (One puzzle in the book is the seemingly short shrift Goodyear gives Grant: Though the Union-preserving general’s reputation — long savaged by Lost Cause-friendly historians — has been restored by writers like Joan Waugh and Ron Chernow, Grant as general, president and ex-president here appears as a somewhat one-dimensional bumbler.)
Despite never living there himself, Garfield’s story is as much a New York story as a Washington one, his political career inseparable from the force of the Empire State and the rise of Wall Street after the Civil War. Goodyear notes that the number of bankers in Manhattan soared tenfold between 1864 and 1870 — and Garfield’s congressional career became linked to that state’s tough-edged spoils system, political machines, the scandals that swirled around them, gold panics and the brewing economic unrest of the new Gilded Age. (Capital, Garfield told workers on the campaign trail, is “only another name for crystallized labor saved up.”) The political drama and machinations of such scandals and literal backroom deals drove an era when elections were actually stolen — not the least of which was the presidential electoral stalemate in 1876 between the Republican, Hayes, and the Democrat, New York Gov. Samuel Tilden, whereby with a backroom deal Hayes ascended to the presidency and killed the vestiges of Reconstruction. To prevent any such problems in the future, Congress “solved” the conundrum with the Electoral Count Act, which, well, we now know didn’t exactly solve the problem of contested elections.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Garfield’s story is the decidedly radical path he cut through U.S. politics — a man generally forgotten by modern history was one of the most big-thinking of his time. In his early days in Congress as a Republican, he was the only member of the Military Affairs Committee who supported equal pay for White and Black soldiers, and a Democrat called him “as wild a radical as ever sat in Congress.” For that era, it meant supporting Reconstruction, fighting back as Southern Democrats and the Klan unwound the short-lived progress of Black politicians in the South, and backing a reform agenda that rarely seemed to make much headway. Indeed, for all his wild, and clearly deeply held, beliefs, Garfield comes across as a sensible pragmatist, an “amiably obstinate” politician more interested in dealmaking than enemy-making — a conciliatory path that ultimately launched his presidential career as the compromise candidate for a Republican Party torn asunder by factions.
Ultimately — spoiler alert — Garfield’s presidency was cut short, very short, by an assassin who stalks the president across the book’s final pages and shoots him on the 121st day of his presidency in the train station in Washington. The story of Garfield’s death, though, shows how culturally, politically and scientifically immature the country remained: His murder at the hands of a disgruntled (and seemingly mentally ill) office-seeker was traceable to the generation-long fight against the spoils system, under which federal jobs were objects of patronage instead of merit; and any chance the president had at recovery was poisoned, literally, by the dirty fingers and instruments of purportedly learned doctors who had yet to embrace the practices of antiseptic medicine.
Garfield died as he lived — as a transition figure, killed in a country he loved and led that hadn’t matured enough to save him. Now his life and death offer an important reminder of how far America has come and how — then and now — it still has further to go to achieve its founding dream.
Garrett M. Graff is the author of, among other books, “The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert S. Mueller III’s FBI” and “Watergate: A New History.” His latest book, “UFO: The Inside Story of the U.S. Government’s Search for Alien Life Here — and Out There” will be published in November.
Simon & Schuster. 624 pp. $35
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POST AUTHOR: Garrett M. Graff