22 Facts That Shatter Your Image of American Presidents

While it is true that James Garfield was actually killed by his own doctors, the part about Alexander Graham Bell is not stated accurately. He did not mislocate the bullet. Indeed, if Bell had been permitted to use his metal detector the way he wanted to, he might have saved Garfield’s life, even after all the bungling the doctors had done previously. While the metal bedsprings did present a problem, Bell’s methods could have overcome that. The greater problem was simply that Doctor Bliss had staked his reputation on the fact that the bullet was on the right side of Garfield’s body, and would therefore not let Bell examine Garfield’s left, where the bullet actually was.

I’m about to go off on a tangent …

Because his presidency was brief and not especially memorable, we learn little about Garfield in school, which is a shame, because he was in many ways the greatest man we ever elected to the office. He was as smart as Jefferson or either Adams and distinguished himself in many different fields.

His early career in academia was just about unbelievable. He entered college without the funds to pay tuition, so he spent his freshman year working as a full-time janitor and handyman in the school. Just one year later, he was teaching literature and classical languages. He did not apply for the teaching positions. The administrators simply recognized his extraordinary ability and appointed him. By the time he was 26, he was college president.

He then became a lawyer, passing the bar without the benefit of a legal education and eventually arguing before the Supreme Court. He also served as a preacher who was considered the premier orator of his era. He continued in those professions for a short time until the Civil War broke out, at which point he enlisted in the Union Army. His career as a soldier was again incredible. By the time he left he was a major general.

His career in the House was also incredible. He was nominated by admirers while he was still a soldier, and did not campaign. He was elected anyway. He was perhaps the only man in America who consistently held the moral high ground above Abraham Lincoln. Garfield admired the Great Emancipator in many ways, but found Lincoln to be a pussy, both in his indecisive conduct of the war and in his wishy-washy attitude toward slavery. Indeed, although they belonged to the same party, Garfield did not even support Honest Abe’s re-election to the Presidency, although neither did he oppose it. In retrospect, Garfield was right about the war in every way. On the slavery question, Garfield held the moral high ground above Lincoln, no small accomplishment in its own right, but Lincoln was a political pragmatist who had to hold together a fragile coalition, and could not always afford to pursue moral right without compromise. Garfield did not actually wield much power, so he could afford the luxury of moral certitude. After Lincoln’s death, however, Garfield became a skillful compromiser, but not on civil rights. No man of the era more strongly and unambiguously championed education and voting rights for African-Americans than James A Garfield.

His rise to the Presidency was similar to his reluctant entry into the House. He didn’t want to be President, and made absolutely no effort to get the office. He made no effort to get nominated, but was nominated anyway – after he drew the convention’s attention by making a speech nominating another candidate. After the nomination, he barely campaigned, but was elected anyway. He was the last member of the House to rise directly to the Presidency.

You may have noted a common thread in the stories above. He did not choose to be a professor, a congressman or the President. In each case, his competence and intellect were so universally admired that he was essentially handed the job. He was also known to be brilliant in both the bar and the pulpit. The only other career he actively sought was in the military, and he was obviously pretty damned good at that as well.

He accomplished all of that despite being raised in dire poverty. He was born in a log cabin, and his father died when he was 18 months old.

If you are interested to learn more about Garfield, I can tell you that Candice Millard’s “Destiny of the Republic” is a very readable bio.