James Garfield — An American Tragedy

While I would not be the first author to notice that the United States has fallen on hard times, there is still little consensus concerning a historical timeline for the emerging “decline and fall” narrative. Some mainstream circles have, rather suddenly, opened up to the possibility of such a narrative after the election of Donald Trump. On the other hand, the prominent declinist Morris Berman marks the landslide victory of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter as a major inflection point in modern history. This was the moment when America decidedly chose the life of gaudy consumerism over intellectual and moral substance.

All this aside, it is remarkable that we are simply having this quiet dialogue over national failure, a subject previously relegated to the fringes. In this discourse, the right wing hopes to “make America great again” through a conservative political renovation, and the left wing retorts that America was maybe actually never that great. Without taking the sloganeering of politicians too seriously, suffice it to say that this popular conversation largely focuses on America’s rise and decline as a world power since World War II. The present is contrasted with the relatively stable, secure industrial society of the 50s and 60s, which both conservatives and liberals find admirable for different reasons.

Stepping back from the familiar rhetoric of contemporary journalism, I want to examine an event in American history that seems quite surreal, and yet still seems very relevant in today’s social atmosphere. The assassination of President James A. Garfield was a truly remarkable event, a singular occurrence that satisfies the classicist’s desire for myth as well as the journalist’s taste for contemporary analogies.

James A. Garfield was never supposed to become president. Born into very humble circumstances in eastern Ohio, his early biography reads more like that of somebody expected to become a country farmer and school teacher. As the last president to be born into a log cabin, his biography carries some of the charms of a simpler world into the industrial and commercial explosion of the Gilded Age. He distinguished himself as a student of Latin and Greek while attending very unassuming western educational institutions such as the Geauga Academy and Hiram College, which today still boasts only around 1,000 students.

If these qualifications weren’t enough to qualify Garfield as a bona fide legend of American classics, consider that he began teaching Latin and Greek while still a student at Hiram, a position to which he has promoted from his original student job as a janitor. Just to make the story a little sweeter, he meets his future wife Lucretia Rudolph as a classics student. She would later become the only American first lady to share a name with an Epicurean philosopher.

Young James Garfield
James Garfield, student, janitor, professor of Classics, and future president of the United States at age 16

Garfield then extended his education out east, and eventually graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts. While there, he supported himself by teaching penmanship (!), and was later made president of Hiram College when he returned to Ohio. He also became more politically aware after becoming familiar with the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts. After taking the bar exam, he became active in the Republican Party in Ohio, and was elected as a state senator.

Without any prior military training, Garfield then participates in the Civil War as a Brigadier General. As he becomes a national political figure as a representative and then later a senator, he also produces a new proof of the Pythagorean theorem. In spite of all these testaments to his intellectual prowess, the story that he could write at once in Latin and Greek with two different hands is likely apocryphal, though he was notably ambidextrous.

After starting his first term as a senator, Garfield is nominated for the presidency in a fluky compromise at the 1880 Republican Convention. Upon winning and assuming office, the accidental president undertook the thankless task of reforming patronage in the civil service. A compromise candidate in a system that has been suffering from gridlock since the end of the Civil War, Garfield engaged in managerial projects, including reforming the Post Office, as well as more ambitious initiatives, such as establishing a federal educational system for all citizens, including African-Americans.

On July 2, 1881, James Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a derelict dabbler in theology, free love, and Republican Party politics who had been harassing the Garfield administration for an appointment to a consulship in Paris. He believed was divinely inspired in shooting Garfield, who had unjustly denied him this position.

Garfield does not immediately die, and his wounds are treated without any concern for infection, as the American scientific community did not yet accept the germ theory of disease, articulated in Europe by doctor Joseph Lister. Some sources also note that Garfield’s doctor, Dr. Doctor Bliss (his actual first name), was a man of great professional vanity, and may have restricted the search for the bullet lodged within Garfield to only the right side of his body, fearing that his earlier pronouncement of its location may be contradicted if it were found on its left side.

Finally, Alexander Graham Bell also joins the committee to save Garfield, bringing an early metal detector to find the bullet. This effort was confused by the presence of metal springs in Garfield’s bed, which were rare at the time. The old Ohio country boy would be let down by the STEM professionals of his day.

After losing over 100 pounds in the course of his medical treatment, James Garfield died after a summer of agony on September 18, 1881. Though Guiteau pled insanity, he was executed for the murder of the President in January of the following year.

By way of contrast, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is not terribly difficult to comprehend in historical context — it was the final death of an incredibly bloody war, and John Wilkes Booth had a very clear political motive. But the assassination of Garfield is very disquieting because it seems extremely contemporary. It has become something of a cottage industry to speculate on the motives of mass shooters in the United States, and we typically discover an incoherent mix of half-articulated motives.

We can engage in the same speculation about Guiteau. His personal desire for a diplomatic post does not seem like a sufficient explanation for his actions, which seem tied to a more general psychotic breakdown. His trial was full of grandiose claims and long rants. In a very striking contrast, Garfield, sound of mind and simple in purpose, was the victim of another man’s insanity.

Yet, in spite of this, the two men’s lives are in some ways very similar. Just as Garfield found himself in a thoroughly unexpected position of prominence by advancing through the Republican Party ranks, so did Guiteau imagine (in a rather more narcissistic way) that he could raise himself above the anonymous mob by his party affiliation. But if Garfield had expected the fate he eventually found, he would have also been regarded as somewhat crazy. As in most great tragedies, the line dividing the participants is thinner than we may otherwise suspect.

At a more subtle level, the two men shared a strong sense of the historical significance of their lives. On the date of his death, Garfield is reported to have asked his friend A.F. Rockwell if he would have a place in history. Guiteau was also concerned with his mark on our memory, and at least in part viewed the assassination as a way of promoting his book The Truth, which echoed the viewpoints of theologian and utopian socialist John Humphrey Noyes.

Though Garfield was never so eccentric in his views, he was also very animated by religious ideals, taking time to preach through the South during the Civil War. The two seemed to have had an uncanny familiarity with metaphysical and historical worlds in which they would persist after their death, looking to the pages of a future biography or a new religious conception to overcome the nihilism of the new machine world. As Nietzsche was suggesting at the same time in Europe, they stared into a senseless abyss marked by a particularly mad kind of violence, and found themselves in a cosmic-historical drama.

This is a uniquely American tableau, a tragedy of democracy and ambition and the wayward spiritual longing for a place in secular history. At this moment in history, Garfield seems to be the ultimate personification of the Horatio Alger myth, a story of hard work and earnest ambition handsomely rewarded. Yet we also see the same myth gone wrong in Guiteau’s psychotic conviction in his own ambition, in his refusal to accept or understand why he shouldn’t be rewarded with a government post in France without any serious diplomatic experience.

In an eerily convenient mythology, this is the story of two men at the dawn of the modern world: one who found an unlikely home from a frontier and another who found himself banging on the doors outside. In an oft repeated detail of his character, Garfield was in the habit of giving bear hugs to his intimate associates and never seemed to make a real enemy, while Guiteau was little more than an unwanted pest to the political machine, rebuffed at every turn, though he believed he was vital in his own megalomania. You can almost feel Guiteau losing his mammalian qualities in his mad alienation, becoming the modern human-insect Kafka will describe.

Perhaps their lives may have been mutually improved if they had stepped out of their spheres to have a conversation with each other, but this is not possible in the new Rome, in which an acquired (and largely necessary) indifference is the mark of a patrician and desperate ambition animates the insecure plebeian.

And perhaps this thought is far too idealistic, and they should have had nothing to do with each other, but this is also impossible, and the suggestion only serves to emphasize the artificiality of their relationship. Garfield and Guiteau both found themselves participating in a rather alien political process, a process so distorted that Guiteau thinks that he is somehow owed intimate personal favors by an almost complete stranger.

The machine system made a winner of the one who seemed more at home reading Greek, and a loser out of the one with untamed ambition. Yet this strange game was the only game in town. What could we expect but madness?

It’s a tragedy still playing out today. From a stated starting point of human rights and equality, we end in the spectacle of citizens randomly gunning each other down. From the responsible career path of going to school to be an orthodontist, we end in a million dollars of lifetime debt. From auspicious beginnings we get macabre, absurd social results, whose lack of any clear solution saps our very belief in our own efficacy.

It is one thing to be arrogant, imperious, and full of hubris; this much we certainly share with the Romans. But there is something worse in the American experience (the modern experience), something epitomized in the Garfield story. There comes a point where a society can’t make sense of itself, where there is a huge gulf between the system’s internal logic and the results it produces. At this point, the republic doesn’t collapse because Brutus and Caesar and Marc Antony are willing to kill each other to implement their vision of society; that is much too straightforward.

Instead, Charles Guiteau and his descendants decide they’ve had enough of being a hero in their own minds, of being a nobody in a society that tells them that they deserve to have it all, and they decide to spread their madness to all of us, making us clutch in pain as we wonder how someone could do something so senseless

Remember James Garfield, surely the last American president to have committed much of the Aeneid to memory. The medical technology of the 20th century came just a bit too late for him, but we can ensure he lives on nonetheless. Perhaps it is only a romantic notion on my part, but I believe he would offer us some wise counsel.

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