For those of us Americans that did not pay close attention in junior high school Social Studies class–me, for example–many of our nineteenth-century presidents kind of run together in a pudgy, high-collared blur. We all know Abraham Lincoln, we know about Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant and anyone else featured on our money, but the remaining guys are often considered as an aristocratic whole, a bunch of faceless members from the Monopoly man’s extended family. You don’t often hear people praising Franklin Pierce, or Rutherford Hayes, or even Andrew Johnson–vice president to Abe Lincoln, for crying out loud. But no grade school student ever has to make a construction paper report about him. What could they say? “Andrew Johnson was the sucker tasked with filling a vacancy left by the revered and beloved Abraham Lincoln, and did a piss-poor job of it.” I’d give the kid an A.
James A. Garfield was a bearded president who was shot by some schizophrenic guy and died in office.
William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, leaving Vice President Teddy Roosevelt in charge.
For some reason, I was glad to leave it at that. There exist, and I have read, dozens of books about the presidencies and assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. These two and their fatal termini have been analyzed and dissected by scholars and armchair historians, archivists and conspiracy theorists from all over the world. And yet, the lives and deaths of James Garfield and William McKinley seem to be regarded as minor events in America’s history. After reading a couple of books about these guys, I have to wonder why. What strikes me is not how unique or different they were, but how eerily similar their presidential terms and circumstances seemed next to the more popular presidents who met violent ends while in office.
In Garfield’s case, perhaps it isn’t because he met his end at a handgun’s report, but because he died on a sweat- and pus-soaked mattress, months after being shot. Technically speaking, it was not the bullet fired from madman Charles Guiteau’s gun that killed him, but sepsis. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard does a fantastic job dovetailing the lives of Guiteau, Garfield, his attending surgeon Dr. Willard Bliss and even inventor Alexander Graham Bell into an enjoyable narrative set against one of my favorite periods: America after the Civil War. Echoing the assassination of JFK, Charles Guiteau was a lone gunman, also off his rocker in having the erroneous, unfounded belief that he was a political insider owed something from Garfield. He plugged the president in the middle of the day in plain sight at a train station, but that would be a pleasant beginning compared to the rest Garfield’s ordeal. His convalescence dragged on for months as doctor after doctor stuck their grubby fingers in his bullet wound, at a time when washing your hands seemed a spurious luxury though everything was covered in a fine layer of horse manure. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between Garfield’s literally being prodded with the metaphorical prodding of Lincoln and JFK, albeit postmortem. Garfield, like JFK and Lincoln, was also a reformer, his intention was to reform the Republican party from patronage to a system based on merit. Seems like a small cause in today’s times, but remember that he was challenging the status quo during Reconstruction against rival U.S. Grant, hero of the Civil War (except to the South.)
The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller is a very different book than Destiny of the Republic, yet many of the same uncanny similarities between Lincoln, Garfield, and Kennedy persist. McKinley was president at a time of robber barons and magnates, of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, when the disparity between the wealthy and the working poor was tremendously palpable. Men, women and children worked ten hour days, six days a week, under stifling, dangerous conditions for twenty-five cents every pay day. Meanwhile, McKinley’s policies favored unrestricted trade and further boons for business owners. Enter Leon Czogolz, another lonely man, entranced by a budding anarchist movement heralded largely by Emma Goldman. After hearing one of her stirring lectures, Czogolz determines to make a spectacle by killing McKinley, though his connection to anarchism and, indeed, the working class is tenuous at best. Unlike Garfield, McKinley expires within ten days of being shot. The President and the Assassin is an engaging book, but it provides a bit too much detail about McKinley’s rise to power for those who actually only wanted to read about the president and his assassin. Additionally, it jumps backwards and forwards in time which can be a little confusing. It’s all important stuff, however, to describe the conditions that eventually allowed Czogolz to get within range of McKinley and shoot him.
We see the same occurrences, again and again: a lone gunman of dubious sanity shoots a president calling for political and social reform. This leaves a vacuum that is filled to moderate capability by the vice president, sometimes bettering the legacy of his predecessor. If anything, the four presidential assassinations–two remembered, two forgotten–teach us that we should pick our presidential candidates based not only on their integrity, but on the integrity of their potential posthumous successors. No one likes to think about it, but the availability and easy use of guns can change our political fortunes overnight. Imagine if George H.W. Bush had been assassinated in office and Dan Quayle became president! Only a few synaptic misfires and a functioning trigger finger separated that thought from reality.