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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

James A. Garfield and politics

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, February 11, 2007

"Dark Horse; the surprise election and political murder of President James A. Garfield" was published in 2003, and written by Kenneth D. Ackerman.

 

I was given a copy of the book, and it has been sitting on my shelf ready to be read for too long.

 

It is a beautifully written book, although complex in its subject matter; and sounded like it would be a "more serious read."

 

Garfield is an Ohio President that I didn't know much about, and thought this would be a good way of finding out.

 

It was, but along the way I became fascinated with American politics of 1880 compared to today.

 

Like so many in 1880, Garfield had served in the Civil War and often used his military title of "General" more than his elected office title as "Representative."

 

Indeed, much of the U.S. Senate went by "General" rather than "Senator."

 

U.S. Senators were not elected until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913.  State Legislators selected the two Senators to represent their state.

 

General Garfield had served in the House of Representatives for 16 years, when selected for the Senate in 1880.

 

He also led the Ohio Delegation to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1880 as a "Dark Horse" candidate, a little-known local favorite.

 

In those days, Presidential candidates were really selected at the summer convention based on the work of supporters.

 

Former President Ulysses S. Grant and Maine Senator James G. Blaine were the frontrunners for the nomination.

 

Chicago was excited to host the Republican Convention in 1880 to show off the rebuilding after the famous fire of 1871.

 

The new Interstate Industrial Exposition Building held the 15,000 delegates, dignitaries, newsmen, and spectators.

 

Before public address systems, the speaker had to shout from the podium, with men and bullhorns around the hall repeating the speeches.  People still couldn't hear, and read the speeches in the newspaper the next day after they were telegraphed.

 

On the 36th ballot, enough state delegates had changed their votes to select Garfield as the Republican candidate for the 1880 Presidential election.

 

In the 19th century, Presidential candidates accepted the nomination by letter, and typically didn't campaign for the office, leaving that to the political party and supporters.

 

Supporters were numerous, as each President selected thousands of federal employees in the days before the Civil Service system.

 

The election was held in September, October, and November, since a national election day had not yet been established.

 

Garfield defeated the Democratic candidate, Winfield Scott Hancock, by a mere 1,898 votes out of 8.8 million cast.

 

Garfield served but a few months in office, when one of his supporters not selected for a job after the election, shot him in a D.C. train station.

 

He survived for 80 days, but died from infections of the bullet wound.

 

From his death and the actions of assassin Charles Guiteau, the Civil Service Act was adopted in 1882.

 

Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's son, witnessed Garfield's assassination; as well as the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, an oddity of history.

 

Today, the era of President James A. Garfield seems so brief, but from that time we have changed political conventions and the hiring of federal employees.

 

Sometimes a short time can have a larger impact on history.