James Garfield, another Republican and an experienced politician and orator became the 20th president of the United States in 1881. He was one of those admirable American self-made men. He began his life in poverty, raised by his widowed mother in the state of Ohio. As a boy, other kids mocked him for being poor, fatherless and sensitive. He reacted by working harder than the neighborhood bullies and found himself jobs at an early age. Bullying is not a new form of aggression. His teenage jobs varied, including being responsible for the mules that pulled canal boats, working as a carpenter’s assistant and taking on other menial work. He managed to prepare himself for higher education by working as a school janitor in return for studying in the school where he worked. At age 23, he entered Williams College in Massachusetts, and ended up graduating second in his class. He joined the new Republican Party during his college years, feeling that he identified with their antislavery beliefs. But he had no first-hand experience with the plight of the oppressed Negro slaves in the South. After graduation, he took a teaching job and eventually got his law degree.
He was interested enough in politics that he campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. The Civil War began in 1861 and Garfield saw it as a crusade against the slave power. In the beginning of the war, he mostly worked to appropriate funds for the Union Army, recruit soldiers, and read military texts. But then suddenly he was ordered to lead a military operation that was to drive the Confederates out of eastern Kentucky. The Confederate troops had taken over a town, and although Garfield did not have more men than the Confederates, he positioned his troops in a way that they appeared to far outnumber the enemy. There was a battle, and the end result was that the Confederate troops withdrew. Garfield was promoted to brigadier general, and soon after, he demonstrated his sensitive and forward-thinking side when he announced that any men who had fought for the Confederacy would be granted amnesty if they would be loyal to the Union and if they would return to their homes and live peacefully.
While the war was still in progress, Garfield began his political career as a congressman. It turned out that although he was anti-slavery, he did not agree with President Lincoln politically. Garfield came to believe that the leaders of the succession had forfeited their constitutional rights and that their land should be confiscated and their leaders should be executed or exiled, a much more radical approach than Lincoln held. During this time, he described his fellow Republican president as “ . . . strange phenomenon in the world’s history, when a second-rate Illinois lawyer is the instrument to utter words which shall form an epoch memorable in all future ages.”
He was re-elected to Congress 9 times and in 1871, during the Johnson administration, he voted against the passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act, on the grounds that it opposed freedom. He was right in the middle of the warring factions within the Republican Party. He received the Republican presidential nomination just after had just been elected as a senator for the first time.
As you can guess, he won. James Garfield was sworn in as 20th president of the United States in March of 1881. In his inaugural address he said, “The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect on our institutions and people. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relationship which enfeebled both.”
After his inauguration in 1881, he spent the first couple of months assembling his cabinet with appointees, incurring rivalry, frustrations, disappointment, humiliation and angry resignations. As far as I know, that is what usually happens in the beginning of a new presidency. But in Garfield’s story, his appointments were to have grave consequences.
He began his presidency by making strong decisions and changes. One of those was to clean up the corruption in the federally run post office, a civil service reform that gained him some strong enemies. But he also gave a lot of attention to advocating agricultural technology and to civil rights for African Americans. As a matter of fact, the press was calling his civil rights attitude another holy crusade against slavery.
But his negative press did not last very long. On July 2, 1881, after only 4 months in office, a man named Charles J. Guiteau shot James Garfield twice in a D.C. railway station. Guiteau had repeatedly written to Garfield to ask for a presidential appointment as ambassador to France, and had been repeatedly denied.
Charles Guiteau was not unlike the psychopaths in the news today. After failing his college entrance exams as a young man, he joined the Oneida Community; a cult founded in New York State that believed that Jesus had returned to Earth in 70 CE and enabled them to form a perfect community. They also believed in free love and were against possessiveness, a belief that permitted them to have had sex with each other as long as it was consensual. This cult also founded the prestigious Oneida silverware company, which still exists and is the largest supplier of dinnerware to the foodservice industry in North America nowadays. Guiteau was what young people today call a loser, and was in and out of the community and in the end he sued its founder. By the time he was in his mid 30s, Gaiteau’s father was telling everyone that Satan possessed his son. But Gaiteau himself thought he was divinely inspired and began to preach whenever he could find anyone to listen to him. He was also interested in politics and made a few unrequested speeches in favor of Garfield during his presidential campaign. When Garfield won, Gaiteau believed that it was due to his speeches and requested an ambassadorship in Paris. After a series of rejections, he came to believe that God wanted him to “remove” the president from office. With borrowed money, he bought an especially nice revolver; he chose one that would look impressive in a museum after the assassination. He shot President twice from behind in the D.C. railway station, and then surrendered to the police.
But President Garfield didn’t die. Or rather, didn’t die immediately. Guiteau had missed all the president’s vital organs. Today it is generally believed that if doctors had just left the president alone, he would have survived. But doctors began to poke and prod Garfield’s open wounds even while he still lay on the germ-infested train station floor. It is on record that twelve different doctors inserted unsterilized instruments and fingers into the president’s back, as at that time, unlike many European doctors, American doctors didn’t believe that germs existed. While the president’s infections and abscesses spread throughout his body, the doctors at one time called in Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Bell had invented a kind of a metal detector and they thought it might find the bullets and enable their removal. But they only allowed Alexander Bell to examine the part of the president where they thought the bullets were lodged, and guess what? The doctors were wrong and Bell found nothing in the part of the president he was given access to. Gangrene slowly poisoned the president, and he died 80 days after having been shot. The country almost paralyzed during the time of his illness, as the Constitution was ambiguous about whether or not the vice president was supposed to take over during a presidential illness.
Two positive things resulted from the president’s suffering and death; first, the North and the South came together in their sorrow and loss. And second, American doctors finally accepted the use of antiseptics, which were already in use in many parts of Europe.
As for Charles Guiteau, he was tried and sentenced to death, all the while proclaiming loudly that he only shot the president, and it was the doctors that had killed him. There was a lot of debate during the trial about whether he was insane or not. He was hung 2 days before the first anniversary of the shooting, and just before his death he recited a poem that he had written while incarcerated, “I am going to the Lordy”. He had asked for an orchestra to play while he sang the poem, but that request was denied. As soon as he finished reciting the poem, a black hood was placed over his head and the gallows’ trapdoor opened. Curiously, his body was autopsied in a corner of the jail yard, and it was discovered that he had a condition known as severe phimosis, and at that time it was thought that this had caused his insanity. They also thought Guiteau’s brain a bit abnormal, and you can still see parts of it on display in a jar at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the gun he so carefully chose was lost a long time ago.
Vice President Chester Alan Arthur became president in 1881, also a Republican. The new president had participated in the Union Army during Civil War, but as a lawyer and at desk jobs; he did not see battle. He was seriously ill when he took over but hid this from the public, as most public people do. He apparently did not feel prejudice against Negros because when he was running for vice president, he had a black man on his election team, shocking many people. Later, that man became his doorman and still later, after he became president, his valet. Arthur gave the man’s wife a minor position in the federal government, causing a lot of gossip at the time. But he was unable to do anything significant to improve living conditions or civil rights for Negros as in 1883 the Supreme Court established a “separate but equal” doctrine that again legalized racial segregation. Although he was very ill with kidney problems, he decided to run for re-election anyway, afraid that if he didn’t, the public would think that he didn’t believe in himself or in anything he had achieved while president. He lost, and returned to his New York home to practice law. Less than a year later he ordered all of his papers burned, both personal and official. He died the day after the burning, having left little mark on American history. Arthur’s ineffectualness is attributed with having a Democrat elected to succeed him.
That Democrat was Grover Cleveland, a lawyer and former governor of the State of New York. He became the 22nd president of the United States in 1885. Cleveland was a hard-working, focused man who did not serve in the Civil War, but instead paid a Polish immigrant to serve in his place, a practice that was perfectly legal and accepted. He became popular because of his fight against political corruption while governor of New York. On a personal note, he was a bachelor and became engaged and then married while president, the only president to ever marry in the White House.
The Civil War had ended only twenty years before he took office. The average Southerner and the average Northerner were not sympathetic towards each other. The Southerners were living in a devastated part of the country, on the land where most of the war had been fought. Without fertile land or anyone to work it, they were at a loss as to how to get on with their lives. And many simply didn’t want to get on with their lives under their new circumstances. They had the Jim Crow laws and their state governments governing (or overlooking) punishments for race-related crimes that were often triggered by frustration, and as a whole, development was at a standstill in that part of the country. Some white Southerners thought a Democrat in the White House would help bring rich whites back into power. That didn’t happen.
In 1887 Congress removed the governments from the South, and sent the Army there to govern. The army held new elections in which freed slaves could vote, and men who had held leading positions under the Confederacy were temporarily forbidden to vote or to hold office. There were angry feelings everywhere. And just to mix things up more, people called carpetbaggers began to arrive from the North, among them many educated Negros and some escaped slaves. The carpetbaggers came to be known as exploiters and opportunists. Most of the South continued not to support anything that came from the federal government, especially Reconstruction. And those who did were called scalawags. One of the many things the president had to deal with were fraudulent claims from Civil War veterans who claimed disabilities and wanted government pensions. He vetoed all of them.
The Northern part of the country was developing rapidly, causing the federal government many new kinds of problems. President Cleveland faced a lot of conflict with the new railroad barons and forced them to return land to the country. He also signed and enforced the first laws that regulated railroads, making a lot of wealthy enemies. As an example of how he tried to enforce the American forefather’s philosophy of how the country should be built, he vetoed a bill that would have approved the distribution of seed grain to drought-stricken farmers in Texas. He explained it in this way: “”Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character . . . .”
On the other hand, the Southern part of the country was still stagnant. There was no way to replace the animals that had been confiscated during the Civil War. Former slaves competed with poor whites for agricultural jobs, angering both the poor whites and the cash-strapped landowners who really didn’t want to pay either of them wages. President Cleveland worked hard to never favor any economic group and became known as a very honest president, but a stubborn person. He was not skilled at political survival. He became a candidate for re-election in 1888, and won by a larger popular vote than the Republican candidate, but received fewer electoral votes. In other words, he was defeated at his bid for re-election.
I was born near the end of WWII and raised in a small town in New Jersey, just a little more than a 30-minute drive from NYC. It was a wonderful place to be brought up, feeding ducks and canoeing on the river that meandered through the town in the summer, and ice-skating on that same river in the winter.
My two brothers and I were privileged to be raised in a lovely town that was safe to explore on foot, but close enough to NYC to be taken there on day trips to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily B & B circus, museums, Chinatown, street fairs in the spring and Broadway shows as we grew older. But we thought nothing of it.
Later as teens, we would go into NYC to buy a couple of beers (the drinking age in New York State was 18, and 21 in New Jersey) and hang out in Greenwich Village where we saw singers such as Bob Dylan who were on the first rung of the ladder on their way to fame.
The sixties were a time of speaking out and creating change. I decided to do my part by joining the Peace Corps, an innovative cold war program established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. I arrived in Brazil at the end of 1966, and after an adaptation period, was sent to serve in Porto Nacional, in what was Goias at that time. I can’t say I changed the course of the country, especially as I was immediately called upon to teach English in the local high school.
I have been teaching ever since; high schools, college literature, college language pedagogy, financial English and everything in-between. I married a wonderful Brazilian from Rio and we had 3 boys and moved around some, as he was an engineer who worked on hydro dams. Nowadays I am a widow and live in BH with 3 cats, one of which has extraordinary powers, and I have 4 wonderful and uniquely different grandchildren nearby. Thus far, I have had an interesting life, and this new endeavor called a blog should make it even more interesting.