One of the reasons I remain convinced there must be something beyond this earthly life is the little world that surrounds us. This is the world imperceptible by our unaided senses. It is inhabited by the microbes that give us so much benefit and so much trouble, and is the infinitesimal domain of the electrons, neutrinos, quarks, and who knows what else is out there. Years ago, when musing about the existence of angels in a Christmas column, the late Dallas Morning News columnist Paul Crume came to a “sudden realization of the endless and gigantic dark that exists outside the little candle flame of human knowledge.” That these realms even existed was unknown prior to comparatively recent times, and consigned to the supernatural. Those who speculated that they might part of the natural world were dismissed as alchemists and charlatans. Some, whose inadvertent manipulations of our tiny companions for the good, were given the status of magicians. This latter title is apt. As Arthur C. Clarke has observed, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. What else may exist still beyond the reach and comprehension of our naked and mortal senses?
On Presidents’s Day each year, it is appropriate to take a closer look at one or two of those who have served as our national government’s chief magistrate (as the Founders termed the office). This year, I choose a lesser known President, whose time in office was the shortest save one. His term was on the cusp of discovery of the little world, and the magicians who might have saved, and the alchemists and charlatans who killed him.
James Abram Garfield was the 20th man to hold the Presidential office. He was born on a farm — the last of our Presidents who was born in a log cabin — in Cuyahoga County, Ohio in 1831. His father died before his first birthday leaving his mother to raise the family alone. At sixteen, he had a brief stint as a laborer on the Erie & Ohio Canal, where he nearly drowned in an accident. Afterward, with the encouragement and support of this mother and older brother, Garfield sought an education. He enrolled in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College, in Portage County, Ohio), where he defrayed his tuition by serving a school janitor, giving validity to Newt Gingrich’s recent much maligned (by the present American left, that is) suggestion that it might be useful for high school students to do the same in our day. Garfield soon left to attend Williams College in Massachusetts. After graduating with honors, he returned to teach at Western Reserve and became president of the school at age 26. A mostly self-taught mathematician, Garfield published his own proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. In perhaps his spare time, he read law and passed the Ohio bar examination. When the Civil War broke out, Garfield obtained a commission as lieutenant colonel of volunteers in the Union army, and was soon promoted to colonel to command a regiment. His success in securing part of the border state of Kentucky for the Union led to his promotion to general. In 1862, Garfield was elected to his first of nine terms in the House of Representatives, although he did not leave the army to take his seat immediately. After the war, he sought a writ of habeas corpus for five Indiana men who had been tried and sentenced to death by a military tribunal for freeing Confederate prisoners. In this noteworthy case titled Ex parte Milligan, the Supreme Court decided that military tribunals did not apply to citizens in states that had upheld the authority of the Constitution and where civilian courts were still operating, a legal principle that still holds today, as we have recently observed.
By 1880, the Republican party had split into two factions, primarily over the issue of federal patronage. The Stalwarts, led by New Yorker Roscoe Conkling, wished to preserve the “spoils system” where the prevailing party and candidate appointed their supporters to federal government jobs. The “Half-Breeds” so called because of their perceived moderate politics and desire for reform, wished to end that system and install a merit-based civil service. These included James G. Blaine of Maine, and ultimately, Garfield.
When fellow Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes declined to run for re-election, the GOP nominated Garfield as a compromise candidate. Elected in 1880, Garfield served but 199 days. Like William Henry Harrison, who had been elected 40 years earlier and died after scarcely a month in office, he is generally excluded from lists rating Presidents. Even so, like most of the so-called Gilded Age Presidents, Garfield gets little respect from academic historians. Part of this is probably political bias – longtime Yale history professor C. Vann Woodward once observed that his colleagues are usually liberal Democrats – but the reality is that between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, American Presidents were generally passive, quietly presiding over the government while Congress took the lead in formulating national policy.
On July 2, 1881, one Charles Guiteau, ostensibly because of his disappointment over Garfield not appointing him as ambassador to France, shot Garfield in the back at a railway station in Washington. The wound was not fatal and was probably survivable even if left untreated – as were many similar wounds suffered by soldiers during the Civil War which had only ended sixteen years previously. Nevertheless, treating physicians who should have known better by this time, probed the wound over and over in septic conditions in a vain attempt to locate the bullet and caused a massive infection to set in that ultimately killed the President. This malpractice was even more egregious because Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, had also invented a magnetic induction device that probably would have located the bullet, had the physician in charge permitted its use on the side of Garfield’s body where the bullet was discovered after the President’s death. After more than two months of suffering, James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881.
Bell’s device, like his telephone, made use of the little world we cannot see – the flow of electrons along conductors and electromagnetic waves inducing such currents across space that carry information well beyond the range of our unaided senses. By 1880, the telephone had been acknowledged as a success, and President Hayes, Garfield’s immediate predecessor, had already installed one in the Executive Mansion (it was not formally called the “White House” until 1901). Of course, the telephone worked in a manner that anyone could perceive, even if the means by which it worked were invisible.
That was not the case with antisepsis, the other significant contemporary advance. The little microbes we now know are responsible for disease processes not only are invisible, but they take longer to do their damage and become symptomatic. A cause and effect between germs and disease was not so clear. But Joseph Lister, a British surgeon, had by the 1870s pretty well proven the germ theory of disease, and even presented it to the American medical community in an exhibition at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 (along with many other inventions, including Bell’s telephone). Nevertheless, Lister’s theory had not been widely accepted among American physicians by 1881, and was even disdained by one in particular, Garfield’s treating physician.
This physician was Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss (yes, ironically enough, his given name was “Doctor”). Bliss and those who assisted him administered alcohol and various heavy metals, such as mercury, which did little but induce vomiting. They probed the wound with dirty fingers, causing infections throughout the President’s body. Defending himself at trial, Charles Guiteau insisted that “General Garfield died from malpractice.” That was certainly true, but on June 30, 1882, just two days shy of the anniversary of his crime, Guiteau was hanged.
Garfield principal legacy as President is, unfortunately, his dubious distinction of being the second of four Presidents felled by assassins. He is also remembered, by historians mostly, for the Pendleton Civil Service Act, later passed and signed by successor Chester A. Arthur in 1883, that ended the spoils system. Garfield had supported that reform, and thus became a martyr to that cause, as Guiteau’s crime was touted as an inevitable consequence of the spoils system.
But James Garfield’s greater legacy as an American is not his final office, but his life before and how he got there. He was a teacher, lawyer, general, and conscientious Congressman. He was as much a martyr to the cause of advancing science and technology as he was to government reform. President Garfield had not been born to any advantage, quite the contrary. He grew up in less than comfortable circumstances, and overcame what obstacles placed before him, save the last. He embodied the American theme of the triumphant individual, and that is how he should be honored on this Presidents’ Day.
For those who wish more detail, I suggest the very readable account by Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, published last year, upon which I relied for many of the facts related here.