“Dark Horse: the Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield” by Kenneth Ackerman was published in 2003. Ackerman practices law in the Washington D.C. area and has written four books including biographies of J. Edgar Hoover and New York political boss William Tweed. Ackerman is a graduate of my alma mater, Brown University.
Based on its title, no one should be surprised to learn that this book is far less a biography than it is a political thriller. Ackerman focuses almost exclusively on Garfield’s unexpected presidential nomination, his two-hundred-day presidency and his assassination (including his lingering death). This relatively narrow focus is the book’s key strength as well as its most notable weakness.
Although this book contains a relatively hefty 453 pages of text, it does not provide a comprehensive survey of Garfield’s life. The book begins at full pace during the 1880 Republican presidential nominating convention (when Garfield was already forty-eight years old) and follows him to his death just sixteen months later. The story Ackerman reveals is fast-paced and consistently engaging, but there is too much about Garfield’s life that remains untold.
In a manner reminiscent of Doris Goodwin’s later-published “Team of Rivals” Ackerman’s book is more a multiple biography of four politicians (and their relationships with each other) than it is a historical account focused principally on one person. In Ackerman’s case the attention is directed toward Garfield, Chester Arthur (Garfield’s vice president and successor), New York Republican party boss Roscoe Conkling and presidential aspirant James Blaine. The intertwined stories of these four colorful characters are extremely well-told.
“Dark Horse” is occasionally faulted for providing too much detail- particularly relating to the Chicago nominating convention. But while Ackerman does provide a great deal of scene-setting throughout the book this is usually part of an effort to create context and to more fully animate the narrative. Rarely does his style involve tedious or extraneous detail. Instead, he draws in the reader and finds a way to never let go.
The author also excels at uncovering interesting facets of political life in the late nineteenth century (such as the origin of filibusters and the timing of modern-day presidential elections) and reveals interesting nuances of everyday life in the Gilded Age. At times it almost seems the author conducted more research on these lesser-known elements of the era’s daily grind than on Garfield himself.
Overall, Kenneth Ackerman’s “Dark Horse” is a fascinating narrative that follows James Garfield (and his key political contemporaries) for the most consequential year-and-a-half of his life. But as engrossing as it proves to be, it fails to cover the vast majority of Garfield’s life. And while it is long on captivating political drama, it is comparatively short on penetrating historical analysis. Nevertheless, this book is certain to delight most readers while frustrating only those who are hard-core historians.
Overall Rating: 4 stars