James Garfield’s Life Lessons Still Resonate

Known more for his assassination than his policies, the Ohio-born president was both a radical and a unifier, says biographer C.W. Goodyear.

In President Garfield, a new Simon & Schuster biography of Ohio’s own, C.W. Goodyear offers a vivid account of a leader better known for his death than his policies. James Garfield rose from a northern Ohio log cabin to the White House before being assassinated in 1881, his first year in office. He was the second murdered U.S. president, following Lincoln.

C.W. Goodyear

Goodyear’s subtitle “From Radical to Unifier” hints at something else in Garfield’s life, though: lessons for our turbulent times. The Washington, D.C.-based writer will discuss and sign copies of his new book at 7 p.m. July 11 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.

We’ll get to the unifier in a second. Who was Garfield the radical? 

During the Civil War and after, James Garfield was one of the most socially progressive members of the Republican Party. He went from being one of the youngest U.S. Brigadier Generals to one of the youngest member of Congress. His motivation in both fields was the same: He wanted to be part of this liberating crusade into the South to end slavery.

When he was serving as a general in Alabama during the war, he was deeply frustrated at not being able to liberate slaves himself. When he was in Congress, he fought not just for the abolition of slavery but the creation of equal voting rights and equal citizenship rights. He was a firebrand. He really believed in the religious aspects of his cause.

What about Garfield the unifier?

He was also this pathologically reasonable person in an irrational time. His congressional career spanned from 1863 to 1881, which at the time was almost unheard of. He became a polite compromiser, working within a fractured Republican Party and across the aisle. He helped solve some of the crises of those decades, including the first presidential election that was perceived as fraudulent, the election of 1876. That was his style, and that’s why he ended up being elected president in 1880. Garfield was the only person all Republicans could stand to be in a room with.

How did Ohio shape him?

Ohio shaped him foundationally. He was born in the Western Reserve in 1831, as the last U.S. president to be born in a log cabin. That rugged life really shaped him and gave him some political imagery that helped later. But he always had a volcanic ambition—not just for what he could become but for what the union could become, too. Ohio was a place he could always go back to, and the farm he ended up settling on, in Mentor, was the focal point of his presidential campaign of 1880.

What lessons can we take today from his radical and unifying streaks?

With biographies it’s always a fractal prism. Each reader will look at it differently and find different things. But his life, I would argue, is the most compelling rise to political power in the 19th century. You hear a lot today about how the debates we’re having are unprecedented, but what Garfield experienced—the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age—shows that our crises really aren’t that unprecedented. It’s reassuring in that the country came out of that period intact.

But Garfield’s life also explains why we’re still where we are today. His leadership is a great case study of someone being pragmatic and trying to solve every single issue. When you have a pathologically reasonable person trying to keep the country together, you end up with a lot of ugly deals and compromises. And that creates complicated outcomes.

Garfield’s legacy tells us that compromise is a valuable political tool, but compromise also defers the solution of some of our great problems to future generations.

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