Born Nov. 19, 1831 — 180 years ago this week — in the Western Reserve section of Ohio known as "New Connecticut," James A. Garfield was more than 6 feet tall and weighed about 210 pounds. He was a large, athletic man, especially for his times.
Garfield's physical size was matched by the largeness of his character. Generous and kind-hearted by nature, he was beloved and respected by all who knew him. Loyal and self-effacing, he never sought the presidency, but ended up being drafted against his will as a compromise candidate by the hopelessly deadlocked delegates of the Republican National Convention in June of 1880. Among the first to cast key votes to turn the deadlocked convention toward Garfield were the 11 members of the Connecticut delegation, who had been moved earlier by Garfield’s eloquent nominating speech for his fellow Ohioan, John Sherman.
Three days after Garfield was drafted as the Republican candidate for president, a deeply troubled man named Charles Guiteau boarded a steamship in Stonington, CT, bound for New York City. Off the coast of Old Saybrook, his ship, the S.S. Stonington, collided with its sister ship, the S.S. Narragansett. The fiery inferno that followed resulted in at least 30 deaths and scores of injuries. The delusional Guiteau took his survival as a sign from God that he was to carry out a divine mission to assassinate James Garfield.
Guiteau began to stalk Garfield, and just over a year later, on July 2, 1881, he fatally wounded the new president in a Washington, D.C., train station. Shot both in the arm and in the back, President Garfield survived the attack for 80 days before finally succumbing on Sept. 19, 1881, to an overwhelming infection brought about by unsanitary medical practices. Garfield was exactly two months shy of his 50th birthday.
President Garfield and all four of his sons were graduates of Williams College. Another Williams grad, Cyrus W. Field, son of David Dudley Field of Haddam, CT, and famous for laying down the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, set up a trust fund of $350,000 for Garfield’s widow, Lucretia, and their five surviving children to live on.
That Cyrus W. Field and so many others would be moved enough by Garfield’s death to establish a trust fund for his family can be explained by the remarkable achievements, character, and most interesting nature of James A. Garfield.
- While a congressman, Garfield made a lasting contribution to the history of mathematics by formulating a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem by using a trapezoid.
- James Garfield remains the only presidential candidate to have given a campaign speech in a foreign language (German).
- Garfield is the only person in American history to be a congressman, senator-elect, and President-elect at the same time.
- Garfield exhibited a degree of ambidexterity so remarkable that he was able to write in two different languages simultaneously — Greek with his left hand and Latin with his right!
- So gifted a teacher and so brilliant a student was he, that he was made president of a college in Ohio when he was only 26!
- Despite having had no military experience, Garfield was commissioned a colonel in charge of Ohio’s 42nd Regiment during the Civil War. Using his mathematical mind, Garfield devised a brilliant strategy to save Kentucky from the Confederates. He created a ruse by employing a staggered 3-sided attack that made the Confederate commander — a West Point grad — believe that he was outnumbered. The rebels withdrew despite vastly outnumbering Garfield’s regiment. Kentucky was saved, and Garfield was soon promoted to general.
James Garfield’s enlightened racial views mark him as extraordinary for his times as well. He often spoke passionately about the need for racial equality in this country. An ardent abolitionist himself, he referred to slavery as a "giant evil" and once even helped to hide a runaway slave. In his inaugural address in March 1881, Garfield addressed the issue of racial inequality:
The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both ... So far as my authority can lawfully extend, they shall enjoy the full and equal protection of the Constitution and the laws.*
When most Americans think about James A. Garfield, they understand little about him other than he was one of the four presidents to have been assassinated. That may change with the recent publication of a riveting biography of Garfield entitled Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard. It is the inspiring and tragic story of a truly remarkable and under-appreciated American who had several significant connections to Connecticut.
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