So the WaPo has a Presidents Day editorial devoted to James Garfield because, well, why not. Or, as they quite reasonably, though perhaps hyperbolically, explain:
He was James A. Garfield, who may have been the best president we never had, or hardly had … “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 of 1787,” he said. “NO thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people. It has freed us from the perpetual danger of war and dissolution. It has added immensely to the moral and industrial forces of our people. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both. It has surrendered to their own guardianship the manhood of more than 5,000,000 people, and has opened to each one of them a career of freedom and usefulness. It has given new inspiration to the power of self-help in both races by making labor more honorable to the one and more necessary to the other. The influence of this force will grow greater and bear richer fruit with the coming years.”
There was more along those lines, and it bears reading. Moreover, Garfield appointed four black men, among them Frederick Douglass, to posts in his administration. We are left to wonder today what a president of conviction and conscience such as Garfield might have done to rouse the country and lead it against the vicious new institutions of repression and virtual re-enslavement that were taking hold in the American South, with the silent acquiescence of the North.
OK, so perhaps he was a pretty awesome guy? Also, In other news about potentially fantastic presidents America never got to experience, the footnote that is William Henry “Tippecanoe” Harrison (“I died in thirty days!”) was taken out of school by his father while he was a teenager because he had taken to running around with an anti-slavery crowd. He won the 1840 election by 234 electoral college votes to 60, and also with help from a campaign chant that required the singer to periodically spit tobacco juice. The 1840 campaign was the kind of friendly one that saw Harrison and his Whig buddies give incumbent Martin Van Buren the nickname “Van Ruin” and Democrats responding with an accusation that Harrison was a coward as a general — they dubbed him Granny Harrison, the petticoat general, and said if elected president, he’d sit around in a log cabin and drink hard cider all day instead of governing the country. Harrison subsequently adopted the log cabin and hard cider as totems for his campaign, probably reckoning that voters thought such things were pretty neat. Harrison was far-sighted enough to want to introduce paper money and wanted to clean up the spoils system — that is, jobs for the boys. Then he caught pneumonia and died.
Anyway back to Garfield — but keep the spoils system in mind. The guy who killed Garfield was a man named Charles Guiteau, and though I don’t mean to glorify anyone who assassinates a democratically elected leader, I’d like to take a moment to talk about how thoroughly batshit insane Guiteau was. As would-be assassins go, his madness approaches that of John Hinckley, Jr., the guy who shot Ronald Reagan because he thought it would impress Jodie Foster. (Though, according to the courts, Guiteau’s insanity wasn’t of the legally exculpatory kind.)
Guiteau was a big admirer of President Ulysses S. Grant, and showed it by writing a speech in his favour called “Grant vs. Hancock.” When Garfield showed up on the scene, Guiteau rejigged the speech (pretty much by subbing in references to Garfield and removing ones of Grant), renamed it “Garfield vs. Hancock” and then decided that his efforts were pretty much the reason Garfield won the election of 1880.
As such, he figured Garfield should make him ambassador to either Paris or Vienna. When Garfield decided that request was not a reasonable one, Guiteau figured the best way to deal with his disappointment would be to assassinate the president.
To do so, he purchased a gun, favouring one with an ivory handle because he figured it would look better when displayed in museums as the murder weapon.
After he shot Garfield (who probably only died because doctors kept prodding his wound with their dirty fingers), Guiteau was put on trial. He insisted he was sane and spent much of the trial cursing and insulting the judge, the witnesses, the prosecution, and his own lawyers. Also, he delivered his testimony as a series of epic poems, and spent the trial period dictating his own autobiography, which ended with a personal ad seeking “a nice Christian lady under 30 years of age.” He figured he would escape conviction and began laying plans to run for president in 1884.
The jury had other ideas though and he was convicted and hanged in 1882.