If you are like me (pity for you) you know little about the life and career of James Garfield beyond the received wisdom that all good Ephs garner in the form of trivia-cum-school-pride. One among that faceless clutter of Gilded Age presidents, assassinated too soon to leave a mark on the nation, Garfield has seeped as deeply into historical anonymity as someone who once served in the highest office possibly can. As alums of Williams we can add a little bit to his biography if Garfield comes up in conversation — “he was assassinated on his way to an alumni reunion at Williams!” we can helpfully add when the twentieth president comes up as a topic of discussion — but seriously, how often does that happen? I’m a professional historian, albeit not of the Gilded Age, and I knew little beyond the rudiments before today.

My guess is that few of you are inclined to dig deep into the library to find the latest Garfield scholarship. But Times Books has a useful series, edited by the estimable Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The American Presidents.” The books are short and readable, geared toward a broad audience (well, as broad an audience as biographies of most presidents are likely to receive), but not without merit for students and scholars. Ira Rutkow, clinical professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and an accomplished scholar of medical history, has written James A. Garfield for the series. Because of its accessibility, brevity, and readability, it is worth the space on your bookshelf.

The section on Garfield’s time at Williams is of necessity brief, but it reveals how important his time in Williamstown was to the future president’s development. Mark Hopkins plays a prominent role during Garfield’s tenure at the school (truncated not, as some legends have it, simply because he did not graduate, but rather because he had spent two years at what would later become Hiram College in Ohio before heading to the Purple Valley and graduating from the college in August 1856) and fingered Garfield for future greatness. The burly Ohioan was renowned as the finest debater not only of his, but perhaps of any era at Williams. He also served as chief editor of the literary magazine Williams Quarterly, was president of the school’s litarary club (the Philologian Society), was involved with the Theological Society, took leading roles in both the campus anti-secret society and the anti-fraternity faction, and won class salutatorian. On his graduation day he gave the college’s “Metaphysical Oration,” a high honor. (See p. 9.)

Garfield quickly rose to prominence in politics, first in Ohio, then, after an interregnum in which he served as a General in the Union Army, at the national level — it was at Williams that the theretofore disengaged Garfield took an interest in politics. Garfield eventually reached the highest ranks of government during an era in which the Republican Party was deeply divided.

Unsurprisingly, Rutkow is at his best in dealing with the medical issues surrounding Garfield’s utterly avoidable death at the hands of Charles Guiteau, well known to those conversant in the thumbnail sketch as a “frustrated office seeker,” but who was also reacting to the divide within the Grand Old Party. Rutkow shows how a combination of negligence, hubris, and ignorance led to Garfield’s death seventy-nine days after he took two bullets in the train station from which he was to head to Williams.

Garfield today hovers in the marginalia of American history, yet at the time his death was seen as a tragic loss to the Republic. Americans deeply mourned his death. Songs were written. (Johnny Cash sings a song devoted to Charlie Guiteau that I assume originates from the era.) Garfield’s tenure and subsequent assassination can be qualified as one of those great “what ifs?” in American history.

Rutkow’s book also, perhaps, will allow Williams folks to feel a bit more pride about our one contribution to the center of executive power on Pennsylvania Avenue (perhaps I am especially sensitive to this issue because, as a New Hampshire native, I am also shackled to Franklin Pierce, who was undoubtedly a failure as President). One of Garfield’s sons, Harry, would serve a long tenure as President of Williams; another, James, would serve as Secretary of the Interior under Teddy Roosevelt (indeed, his sacking in favor of a far less conservationally inclined successor would prove to be one of the reasons for the demise of William Howard Taft in the eyes of Progressives). But Garfield’s premature death does not place him in the category of failed presidencies, but rather of ones cut tragically short.

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