Wednesday, September 19, 2007

September 19, 1881:

James A. Garfield Dies

James Garfield, 20th President of the United States, was also one of the more luckless occupants of the office. Not only did he did in office by assassination, he died a lingering, painful death that could have prevented by proper care, even at the time, had his doctors been up to it -- but the job was botched.

Garfield's term thus became the second-shortest in presidential history, after William Henry Harrison. "During the long deathwatch [the public] eagerly scanned the latest telegraph bulletins and grabbed the special editions of the newspapers that chronicled the distinguished patient's medical ups and downs," wrote historian Allan Peskin in Presidential Leadership (2004). "When the end came, the nation erupted in a cathartic burst of extravagant grief. Thousands waited patiently in the Washington heat to view the body of the lost leader as it lay in state under the Capitol dome. Tens of thousands lined the railroad tracks to pay homage as the funeral train carried him back to Ohio. Hundreds of thousands crowded into Cleveland to witness the last rites, and millions of copies of memorial tributes, biographies, and eulogies flooded an apparently insatiable market.

"Clearly, Garfield in death, if not in life, touched some vital chord of American sentiment. The public mourned him more for what he was than for what he did. They remembered an impoverished boy, reared in a log cabin by his widowed mother, who was redeemed from a life of dissipation by a religious experience, who then rose from menial labor to respectability through education, becoming a professor of ancient languages and then president of his small Ohio college. The Republican Party brought him into politics, and the Civil War thrust him onto the national stage as the Union's youngest major general. From there it was an easy step to Congress, where he served for seventeen years, becoming a master of financial legislation and his party's floor leader, then to a surprise presidential nomination and a narrow electoral victory -- the only sitting House member ever elected president."

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