What I've been reading
Long-time readers of the blog may recall that I absolutely adore the Gilded Age. It is by far my favorite time period of American history. One problem with this era (let's say the end of the Civil War, 1865, to the beginning of the United States' involvement in World War I, 1917) is that there aren't a lot of books written about it, or at least books you can find in your average bookstore. I mean, there's plenty written about Theodore Roosevelt (not that there's anything wrong with that), but there's a lot more to the time period than Teddy, right? I mean, that Grover Cleveland - he was a pretty neat, guy, right? Where's his biography???? (Okay, they exist. But you get my point!) The other big topic of "Gilded Age" writing is the expansion of the white man into red man territory. Again, there's nothing wrong with that, but I'm a bit sick of George Custer.
So I was happy to see this book, as Garfield's assassination is probably the least well-known of all the presidential killings. Granted, there have only been four of them, but Lincoln's, McKinley's, and Kennedy's are of much more interest to the general public, even if McKinley's is only such because he was succeeded by Roosevelt. I mean, Garfield was succeeded by Chester A. Arthur, whose name does not resound in the Presidential Pantheon (although he, as well as Garfield, probably doesn't get as much respect as they ought to). I certainly didn't know much about Garfield's life and death, and even after reading Assassination Vacation, I didn't, as Vowell focused more on Charles Guiteau, the assassin, than Garfield himself. This book doesn't focus on Garfield's life as much as it focuses on the events surrounding his nomination and brief presidency, and it's a fascinating read.
Ackerman begins with an argument in 1866. Two titans of the late 19th-century American political scene, Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York and Senator James Blaine of Maine, got into an argument over a piece of a bill, and this tiny little disagreement escalated into a name-calling donnybrook on the Senate floor. Both men were extremely proud, and this argument led to a lifetime of acrimony that influenced the political course of the country. It's fun to read about these bitter fights in Congress because these days, everyone is so polite. Sure, the two parties don't agree with each other and take shots at the policies of their opponents, but Conkling and Blaine were both Republicans, for one, and it's rare that one senator calls another from the same party a liar in public, as Conkling did to Blaine that day in April 1866. That's just a taste of the political scene during the Gilded Age, where the men spoke high-mindedly but were far more insulting than they are today.
Then we flash to the Republican Convention in Chicago in late May 1880. Remember when conventions were held in late May? Okay, probably not. The other interesting thing about conventions back in those days was that no one knew who the nominee was. There were no primaries, so the two parties just got together to decide on a candidate. In 1880, the Republican party had developed a rift between the "Stalwarts," those who supported Ulysses Grant's bid for a third term as president, and "Half-Breeds," those who didn't back Grant because of the scandals of his two terms. Grant had left office in 1877, but in the years since, he had become more popular, mainly because of the ineffectiveness of Rutherford Hayes, the man who replaced him. Conkling was Grant's biggest supporter, and he threw the weight of the New York Republican machine behind him. James Blaine, who had run for president in 1876, was another candidate, representing those who wanted to move past Grant. John Sherman, the Secretary of the Treasury (and brother of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman), was the dark horse candidate. He counted among his supporters James Garfield, the senator-elect from Ohio.
The backroom dealings of the parties is fascinating to read about, especially because the actual wannabe candidates back then didn't attend the convention - campaigning was considered unseemly. So their proxies campaigned for them, and they had to convince delegates to throw their lot in with a certain candidate. Sherman didn't have much support, but it was hoped that he could swing the nomination one way or the other. Conkling had heard rumblings about a group of Republican delegates from New York breaking from him and not supporting Grant, something he could not abide. Parties ran things with iron fists back then - you voted for a party, not really a candidate - and the idea of New York Republicans breaking with their party boss was astonishing. Yet break they did, as did delegates from two other supposedly "solid" Grant states - Illinois and Pennsylvania. Without all of the delegates from those states, neither Grant nor Blaine got enough votes on the first ballot to secure the nomination, and led to more wrangling.
Garfield was a long shot to get the nomination, obviously, as he was actually in Chicago as a supporter of Sherman. As the balloting went on (this was the longest Republican convention, at 36 ballots; Democrats needed a two-thirds majority to select a nominee, so many of theirs went longer), Garfield suddenly became a viable compromise candidate. Blaine would never allow his delegates to support Grant because of his vitriol toward Conkling, and Garfield was seen as someone whom Blaine would support. When his name was first mentioned, Garfield actually protested, but soon the support for him became a groundswell. Unbelievably, Garfield became the nominee, and as a compromise, he picked Chester Arthur, Conkling's protégé, as his running mate. Actually, based on the rules of the day, the convention picked Arthur. Garfield had no choice in the matter.
Ackerman then has to bring Charles Guiteau into the proceedings, which he does efficiently. Guiteau was a huge fan of Conkling and the New York Republican Party, and he began writing speeches in order to get the Garfield/Arthur ticket elected. He even wrote a speech that he later claimed was crucial to Garfield's win. He hung out at the headquarters of the campaign and spoke often to Arthur, believing that he was friends with the vice presidential candidate. Of course, he barely registered with the higher-ups of the party, although they later recalled speaking to him. Ackerman makes the point that patronage was the way business got done in 19th-century politics, and Guiteau was just doing what many others did - he helped out the campaign with the expectation that he would be rewarded in the new regime. Of course, he was basically a nobody, so that probably wouldn't happen, but it didn't stop Guiteau from believing that he was more important than he really was.
Garfield won the election, of course, and then his problems began. He had to satisfy two powerful members of the party who hated each other - Blaine and Conkling. As he had Arthur as a vice president, he offered the job of Secretary of State to Blaine, which angered Conkling, as that position was far more important than that of VP back in the day. Conkling was peeved that Rutherford Hayes had fired Arthur as Collector of the Port of New York, the most lucrative job in the civil service, and he wanted one of his men installed in that post. Garfield balked at it even though the Stalwarts claimed he had promised it to them. When this became public knowledge, it sent Guiteau over the edge. Ackerman makes it clear that Guiteau didn't shoot Garfield because he didn't get the job he wanted; he shot him because he believed Garfield was screwing his "friend" Chester Arthur and Arthur's mentor Conkling.
Garfield became more revered for standing up to Conkling and garnered sympathy after he was shot. Ackerman goes into detail about the doctors basically killing Garfield with their inept care, as they often stuck unwashed hands into the wound and didn't even know where the bullet was until they did a postmortem examination. Arthur, of course, was horrified that Guiteau shot the president because he wanted Arthur to succeed to the office. The mood in the country was ugly for months afterward, because most people resented Arthur and his boss, Conkling. When Garfield defied the New York senator, Conkling resigned his seat in protest. Back then, senators were appointed by the state legislatures, and Conkling just assumed he would be sent back in triumph. The legislature, however, sent a different man, breaking Conkling's power. Arthur distanced himself from Conkling and gained a measure of respect from the country at large. It didn't help him in 1884, and he wasn't nominated.
The book is riveting, not only for the story Ackerman tells, but the little facts he drops into the narrative about the way politics worked 120 years ago. We learn about the backroom deals, the patronage system that Guiteau inadvertently destroyed (Hayes had begun reforming the civil service, but Arthur took it further and created a meritocracy), and how conventions and elections worked. Ackerman gives us an interesting statistic: almost 80% of those eligible voted in the 1880 election (of course, women weren't eligible, but that's still an impressive number). He also writes extensively about the Republicans' relationship with black voters, as this was a time when the Republicans were the party of the black man and the Democrats were often connected to ex-Confederates. This is only four years after Reconstruction ended, after all, and the ex-Confederates were re-asserting their power in the South. It's interesting reading some of the statements the Republicans made about African-Americans, because many of the politicians said things that some of today's Republicans would find reprehensible and some of today's Democrats would agree with. It's a fascinating shift.
There's a ton to like about the book, and I encourage everyone in this political season to read it (or at least a political book!). I mean, a senator who resigns with Conkling got caught having sex with a prostitute in his hotel room, and other legislators lined up to take turns looking at him through the transom. That's pretty awesome. It gives us a glimpse into a relatively forgotten age of American politics, shows us that many powerful people in American politics were not president (in case you didn't already know that; Conkling and Blaine were very powerful kingmakers), sheds new light on a president who showed a great deal of potential in only a few months in office, and is surprisingly tense even though we know how it ends. It's easy and fun to read yet is amazingly complex. I blazed through it, and you can too!