James Garfield, the second president to die at the hands of an assassin, in one way resembled Lincoln. Like Lincoln he rose from poverty. Unlike Lincoln he was college educated, enjoyed swift political success, and had an extensive military record, rising to Major General during the Civil War. Also unlike Lincoln he had little time in office, being shot on July 2, 1881, during his first year in office. He lingered in ever increasing pain until September 19, 1881. He doubtless would have survived if modern medicine had been available. He died as a result of a massive infection caused perhaps by the unsuccessful efforts of his doctors to probe his wound with unsterilized instruments and fingers in a fruitless effort to find the assassin’s bullet which had lodged in his abdomen. His weight also plunged, intravenous nourishment being more than eighty years in the future.
No doubt it irritated, to say the least, Garfield when he learned that his assassin was a disappointed office seeker.
Born in 1841, Charles Julius Guiteau had failed at everything he turned his hand to: college, member of a commune, newspaper publisher, law, theology and marriage. With such a record of failure it was inevitable that he would turn to politics. Supporting Garfield in the 1880 election, he wrote a speech in favor of Garfield that may have been delivered twice. When Garfield was elected, Guiteau convinced himself that he was responsible for electing Garfield. Along with hordes of other office seekers he went to Washington where he unsuccessfully requested that he be named consul in Paris although he could not speak French and had no diplomatic experience.
Outraged, Guiteau purchased a revolver and stalked the President, finally ambushing him as he was entering the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station. After shooting Garfield Guiteau shouted,
“I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. … [Chester A.] Arthur is president now!” The reference was to the Stalwart faction of the New York Republican Party that opposed Civil Service reform that Garfield supported. Guiteau was convinced that this reform prevented him from getting the job he sought. Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service reform act in 1883, Guiteau having made opposition to such reform politically impossible, and converted Arthur to the cause of reform.
Guiteau’s last failure came with his trial for murder after Garfield’s death. Guiteau’s court appointed attorneys attempted to argue that he was insane, an argument undermined by Guiteau’s insistence that while he had been legally insane at the time of the shooting, he was no longer medically insane. Guiteau engaged in arguments with his counsel during the trial, effectively sabotaging their efforts to represent him, despite their having one of the foremost “alienist” of the day, Doctor Edward Charles Spitzka, a pioneering psychiatrist, testify that Guiteau was insane. Guiteau was confident of acquittal and planned to run for President in 1884. He dictated his life story to the New York Herald and ended it with a personal ad seeking a nice 30 year old Christian lady. When the jury inevitably found him guilty, he cussed them out, calling them consummate jackasses and other endearments. He was hanged on June 30, 1882.
His role of failure continued after death. By cutting short the administration of James Garfield it is difficult to see what large impact Guiteau had on our history. Arthur pledged himself to carrying out the policies of Garfield and did so. If Garfield had run for a second term it is possible that Grover Cleveland would never have been president, which of course starts in motions a whole line of “what ifs”, which is the most that can be said for the impact of the assassination on American history.