James A. Garfield was only in office as U.S. president for 200 days, but author Candice Millard believes his impact could have been tremendous, had it not been for his untimely death.
“He had a very strong character, he knew his ideals, he had strong morals, and he could stand behind them,” Millard said of the 20th president, who attended Hiram College as a student and later served as college president when it was known as the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. “It’s my guess that he would have done good things, had he been in office longer.”
Millard, the author of New York Times Best Seller “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President,” spoke Nov. 16 in the Kennedy Center, about her book which centers on Garfield. The event was held in conjunction with the 180th anniversary of his birth (Nov. 19, 1831).
At the speech, Doug Brattebo, Director of the Center for Engaged Ethics, presented Millard with the first $1 U.S. coin commemorating Garfield. The coin was officially unveiled a day later (Nov. 17) at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor.
“We thought it would be meaningful for her,” Brattebo said. “The (U.S.) Mint also thought that it would be quite appropriate, given that Candice Millard has done more to refocus appreciation for Garfield than any recent author.”
In an interview prior to her speech, Millard discussed how Garfield’s time at Hiram influenced his personal life and political career.
“He was extraordinarily devoted to education and to the classics,” Millard said. “That began here, really … That was a part of his life throughout his life, while he was in Congress and while he was in the presidency.”
Because academics were such a part of Garfield’s life, the college’s archives were one of the first places Millard came while conducting research for her book. She spent years researching Garfield’s letters and diaries, as well as news articles about his life and death, in order to portray him as a character, not just a historical figure.
“Destiny of the Republic” chronicles Garfield’s rise from extreme poverty to scholar, and then from Congressman to president. Millard said it takes a special type of person to do this and believes it was Garfield’s love of learning that helped him along the way.
“He realized that while he was (at Hiram): ‘This is something I’m really good at, that I love. Through it, I can pull myself out of poverty, I can make my life better, and maybe I can make other people’s lives better as well,’” Millard said.
While in Congress, he did make strides to better the country’s education by helping establish the first U.S. Department of Education. Millard said she has no doubt he would have continued to make those strides in the White House.
He would have been in a unique position as president, she said, because he didn’t want the job. Therefore, he could act on his own ideals, not campaign promises made to get elected.
“(At the convention) he stood up, he objected, but the votes just kept coming,” Millard said. “And he finds himself in … a very rare and unique position where he didn’t owe anyone anything. He could come, and he could do what he thought was right.”
Garfield’s time in office was cut short when Charles Guiteau, his would-be assassin, fired a shot at him in at a Washington, D.C. railroad station. The bullet did not damage any vital organs, and Millard said such an injury today would garner a few days of hospitalization and full recovery.
For Garfield, though, it meant days upon days of desperate attempts dislodge the bullet without using modern day sanitation. It involved help from inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who dropped his career in its tracks to develop technology that would locate the bullet. But it was to no avail, as Garfield died of an infection 80 days after being shot.
Though Garfield is often lumped into a group of late-nineteenth century presidents that get little mention in history books, Millard said he and the rest of them have an important place in history. Garfield was respected by the North and South and by slave owners and former slaves, something she said was unusual for a post-Civil War president.
“The country was so deeply divided at the time, but his death brought the country together in a way that we hadn’t seen since the Civil War,” she said. “Because his death was their loss, they grieved together.”