Allan Peskin, American history, biographies, Candice Millard, James Garfield, Kenneth Ackerman, presidential biographies, Presidents
I have no idea whether James Garfield took part in Halloween festivities during his childhood in rural Ohio, but among the first three words that spring to mind when I consider his presidency are “trick or treat!”
Senator-elect Garfield attended the 1880 Republican convention in Chicago as a delegate and supporter of his friend and presidential hopeful John Sherman. Just a few days later, in a state of utter disbelief, he left town as the Republican Party nominee for the presidency.
After one of the closest elections in the nation’s history Garfield became the 20th president of the United States. Unfortunately, just as he seemed to be settling into his new role (and after surviving a vicious political battle with one of his party’s power brokers) he was shot by a disillusioned and possibly mentally deranged assassin.
Eleven weeks later – and just 200 days into his presidency – James A. Garfield died. Only the presidency of William Henry Harrison was shorter; the ninth president’s service as chief executive lasted only 31 days.
The first book on Garfield I’m reading is “Dark Horse: the Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield” by Kenneth Ackerman. Published in 2003, this book is quite popular and well-liked. Everyone who has read this book recommends it enthusiastically, including several regular readers of this site. I’m anxious to see what the fuss is about.
My next Garfield biography will be “Garfield: A Biography” by Allan Peskin. Nearly every president has a thirty- or forty-year-old “go to” biography and this appears to be the standard text for Garfield. As beloved as it once may have been, however, it is seldom read these days and has a reputation for being a bit dusty and dry. But it also seems to be comprehensive, thorough and well-researched…so count me as hopeful.
My last biography of Garfield is the exceedingly popular “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard. Published in 2011, this biography is currently more popular than all but a few of the presidential biographies on my Master List. And, yes, I did double-check…this really is a book about James Garfield.
I must have missed the four minutes that my American History teacher spent on the Garfield presidency and never learned about his exciting personality or dynamic presidency. Or else, as a writer, Millard really is that good.
Consider me curious!
John Gaines said:
Your blog helped inspire me a few months ago to undertake a “bucket list” item of reading at least one biography of each president. I am now on Monroe but have not been as disciplined as you are about staying on track chronologically.
I’ve long been interested in Garfield because of a church connection we share in the American Restoration Movement. Garfield is the USA’s only preacher-president. As a union general commanding occupation forces in Alabama during the Civil War, he preached in pulpits of local churches. I’m not sure whether it is more remarkable that he was invited to preach by churches in the heart of the Confederacy or that he accepted the invitations. Among my church brethren, Garfield is often quoted as having said that he “stepped down from the pulpit into the presidency.” I have not been able to verify that he made that statement and, in fact, he was not a full-time minister during much of his adult life. He was an educator and served for nine terms in Congress before he was elected president.
All that to say that I have read Millard and am in the process of reading Ackerman. Millard’s focus is largely on his shooting and the aftermath, so it is not a true life story. It is highly entertaining reading but leaves the reader very frustrated at the bungling way Garfield’s doctors cared for him. She documents that there was no reason that Garfield should have died from that injury … which leaves open the question of what kind of president he would have been if he had lived to serve his term. I am looking forward to your review of Ackerman as well as Millard. If I read Peshkin, it will be well into the future when I finally arrive at 1880 working my way through the presidents.
Again, thanks for the encouragement your reviews have given me on my similar project.
Thanks for the note and congratulations on beginning to climb that very tall mountain of reading a biography of every president!
You have certainly enlightened me on some of the interesting facets of Garfield’s life. Ackerman’s book, which I’m halfway through now, seems to be like Millard’s – more a focused drama rather than full-length bio…so I haven’t learned much about his pre-presidential life yet.
If neither Ackerman nor Millard study Garfield’s entire life, at least it seems Peskin will. But it would be nice to get a full, accurate historical treatment of the man in a biography that is also enormously captivating. That seems the biggest challenge of presidential biographies in my experience so far.
Nevertheless, I’m excited that Garfield is far more interesting than expected. I had assumed that everything from Hayes through McKinley would be a slog…!