classical economics
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Buttoned Under His Coat

"Buttoned Up Under His Coat"

The Life and Death of James A. Garfield

By Wayne Jett © October 11, 2012

I.    Childhood before education

In 1819, Abrahm Garfield and his brother Amos moved from Massachusetts to the Ohio frontier. The brothers met and married two sisters from New Hampshire. In ten years, they worked and saved enough to buy 100 acres of wooded land in Cuyahoga County to homestead.

In 1831, Andrew Jackson was president, the first nominee of the Democratic Party. His primary objective as president was to defeat extension of the federal charter of the central bank called the Second Bank of the U. S.

Congress passed the charter extension. Jackson vetoed the bill and made it stick. He was re-elected by landslide in 1832.
By 1833, Abrahm and his wife Eliza had four children. The youngest was James, age 2. Abrahm died at age 33 that year, from exhaustion and fever after fighting a wildfire all day to save their one-room cabin. Eliza worked the farm with help from her older son to keep her children together. James would become known as the last of the log-cabin presidents.
Eliza valued education. She donated a small parcel of land for a school-house, which James attended.
But James dreamed of sailing the seas. At age 16, he left home to get a job on a canal barge – the closest he could come to an ocean – despite his mother’s higher hopes for him.
A few months into his barge job, James was coiling a rope in the bow at midnight. He lost his balance and fell overboard. He couldn’t swim, and his cries for help went unheard. Thrashing in the water – certain he would drown – James touched the rope he had been coiling on deck. He grabbed the rope and pulled himself back on deck.
Once there, James noticed the rope was not tied to anything. He inspected and found the rope had slipped into a crack at the edge of the deck, knotted itself and wedged hard enough to hold his weight. James thought all night and concluded his own virtues did not warrant the hand of Providence, so he must have been saved by his mother’s prayers.
He left the barge that morning and found his way home after dark. Before entering, he heard his mother inside praying for his safe return. He walked in, but he was not exactly safe. He had malaria. During the next two months, he nearly died.
II.            Education and Advancement
When his fever finally broke, Eliza told James she and his older brother had saved $17 from their work. Both wanted James to take the money for expenses of his education. He did so, and became a highly capable scholar. He enrolled at age 19 in a small Ohio academy, Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. He worked his first year as janitor and handyman, and his second year as teacher, to cover his tuition, room and board.
James transferred to Williams College in New York and graduated in two years with honors. He returned to Western Reserve as professor, and became its president in 1857 at age 26. While in that position, his name was entered as candidate for a state assembly seat. He didn’t campaign, but was elected anyway.
III.       Military
When the War Between the States began in 1861, Garfield was commissioned a Lt. Colonel in the Union Army. After recruiting and marshaling his troops, he was promoted to Colonel. His first assignment was to liberate Kentucky from Confederate forces already there in greater numbers and with artillery.
Garfield had no military schooling or experience. He devised overnight a plan to attack the Southern forces on three sides, thereby tricking the Confederate general into thinking Northern forces had superior strength. The tactic was more successful than he could have hoped. The Confederate forces fled Kentucky and never returned. Garfield was promoted to Brigadier General.
Garfield served in several additional campaigns. While he was so engaged, in 1862, his name was put up for Congress. Again he was elected without campaigning. After heroic deeds in the Battle of Chickamauga, he was called to Washington and promoted to Major General. While there, President Lincoln persuaded him he was needed more for support in Congress than on the battlefield.
IV.        Political
In Congress, Garfield became known for his tall, broad-shouldered stature, a strong, handsome face, his booming, cheerful voice, and persuasive, articulate speeches. On every issue he addressed, he could be counted on to turn heads and change minds – always with the people’s interests foremost, including civil rights for freed slaves.
V. Marriage and Family
Back when James was 19 and in his first year as a student at Western Reserve, he met classmate Lucretia Rudolph. One year younger, Lucretia was beautiful and James’ intellectual equal. James was out-going and joyful. Lucretia was soft-spoken, private and reserved.
Lucretia’s modest nature produced a long courtship, which finally advanced only after she insisted James read her personal diary. They were married in 1858, about when James became president of Western Reserve. But James and Lucretia were together only five months in their first five years of marriage, due to military and legislative duties.
James and Lucretia had children in an affectionate, respectful marriage. James gained more joy from family time, including rollicking play with the children, than anything else in life. But the primarily intellectual bond with his wife led James into sexual indiscretion, and then saved his marriage with Lucretia.
He had an affair with a woman he met in Washington. Finally confronting himself, James traveled home from Washington (where he was still in Congress), confessed to Lucretia and asked forgiveness.
Lucretia did forgive him, and she did more. She made clear to him she understood why he acted as he did, and that his past conduct would not become a barrier between them. Thereafter, their mutual devotion for each other was never in doubt by either.
VI.        Nomination
James and Lucretia attended the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Alexander Graham Bell presented his telephone there. Dr. Joseph Lister of Britain came to inform leading American physicians about his medical breakthrough in germ theory and antiseptic surgery. By adopting Lister’s techniques to prevent infection of wounds, these American men of medicine could have saved Garfield’s life five years later.

The 1880 Republican National Convention was held on the same Philadelphia site as the ’76 Centennial Exhibition.
Before arriving at the 1880 convention, James committed himself to support the nomination of John Sherman for president. In fact, Garfield was to make the speech nominating Sherman. Sherman formerly was Ohio’s senior senator. Currently he was Secretary of the Treasury.

This presented two problems. The most powerful man in the Senate, New York’s senior senator Roscoe Conkling, would be nominating former president U. S. Grant for a third term. The second problem: more Americans wanted Garfield for president than Sherman.

Conkling nominated Grant while standing on a table. Speaking in dynamic, confident style, he built energy until the convention came to its feet in frenzied anticipation of another election victory.

Garfield’s nomination of Sherman followed immediately. He composed his remarks as he spoke them, responding to Conkling’s arguments. In calm, thoughtful analysis, Garfield addressed the needs of the nation in a respectful tone which kept the convention quiet and focused upon where Garfield was leading them. Then he arrived at the point of asking “What do we want?”

At that moment, a delegate shouted “We want Garfield!” This was unsettling, but Garfield recovered and finished his speech in such fashion that the convention’s applause reached even higher crescendos than after the Grant nomination.

There were other nominees, but none of consequence.

After 35 ballots, the convention deadlocked. Grant and Sherman were still in the running, but neither was gaining support. On the 36th ballot, Sherman sent a telegram to the Ohio delegation asking them to withdraw his name and to give their support to Garfield. By then, Garfield’s name was already on the ballot, even though he stated on the floor his objection to being nominated.

This seems an appropriate time to gauge Garfield’s nature. Here is a quotation which, to me, captures his regard for human society:

“I never meet a ragged boy in the street without feeling that I may owe him a salute, for I know not what possibilities may be buttoned up under his coat.” 

He was clearly a product and champion of the great middle class – neither ruler nor servant, and respectful of all.

Garfield won majority support in the first vote taken with his name on the ballot. Senator Conkling rose and moved that the nomination be unanimous. The convention was elated with their up-from-poverty, man-of-the-people candidate.

VII.    Election and Inauguration

At 3:00 am on November 3, 1880, James A. Garfield was awakened and told the people had elected him president of the United States. He was calm on hearing the news, but saddened, no doubt by prospects of confrontation with powerful forces in his own Republican Party.

Garfield was a speaker with revered talents, but he labored until the last hours on his inaugural address. He wrote at least six drafts, then trashed them all three days before he took the oath. He was still writing at 2:30 a.m. the morning of his inauguration.

Garfield believed, upon its delivery, he was bidding “good-bye …to a long series of happy years.” What could have been so troubling about this speech?

For one thing, about the time Garfield trashed previous drafts of his speech, he received a threatening letter from New York’s senior senator Roscoe Conkling. Among other things, Conkling told Garfield: your presidency “cannot be more successful than I wish it to be.”

Garfield was not one to shrink from a fight. As a man, he was tall, broad-shouldered, sturdy and fit, with steady, honest eyes. He wrote in his diary regarding Conkling’s threats “… if [war] is brought to my door, the bringer will find me at home.”

In this context, what did Garfield say in his re-written inaugural speech which would be important to Conkling’s New York sponsors? Here are items I’ve identified:

•       He said all dollars – greenbacks, silver and gold coins – should have equal value.
•       He said greenbacks should be convertible into silver or gold.
•       He questioned the constitutionality of paper money.
•       He insisted Congress should control monetary policy.
•       He supported bi-metallism (i.e., both silver and gold as basis for currency) as it already existed.
•       He said the national debt should be refinanced at lower rates of interest.

This last item was one most likely to ring alarm bells in Manhattan.

VIII.           Antagonist

Who was Roscoe Conkling? As are other senior senators of New York, he was fountainhead of political money from the U. S. financial sector. This money flowed in proportions necessary to select leadership of both parties in Congress.

As dispenser of the financial sector's political money, Conkling also was champion of the “spoils system” of the time, by which politicians appointed many federal officials. Under President Grant’s administration, Grant gave Conkling full appointive power over the Customs Office of New York Harbor, which provided 70% of all federal revenues at the time.

Conkling was so powerful during Grant’s presidency he turned down Grant’s offer to appoint him to the U. S. Supreme Court.

Garfield’s nomination blocked Conkling’s chance for another run as czar of the Customs House. The Republican leadership tried to placate Conkling by putting one of his operatives, Chester A. Arthur, on the ticket as nominee for vice president. Arthur’s only public office was as Conkling’s appointee to head the Customs Office in New York Harbor, from which Arthur was removed by President Rutherford B. Hayes – another Ohio reformer.

Before the election, Conkling demanded that Garfield agree to the same arrangement as Grant, giving him appointive power over the New York Harbor Customs Office. On the urging of Republican leaders, Garfield traveled to New York to make peace. Conkling refused to meet with Garfield, but through intermediaries demanded both control of the Customs Office and sole discretion to appoint the Secretary of the Treasury. Garfield refused.

After Garfield’s election, Conkling re-doubled his confrontation by sabotaging Garfield’s appointment of cabinet officers. Under Conkling’s pressure, nominees for secretary of treasury and navy withdrew their names. When Garfield nominated others, Conkling blocked confirmation in the Senate. Garfield met the challenge by withdrawing all other political appointments until his cabinet was confirmed. The Senate yielded and abandoned Conkling.

With Arthur as Vice President, he and Conkling were closer than ever. They actually lived together. Arthur attacked the president’s veracity in the press, saying Garfield had not been honest with Conkling. They plotted Conkling’s next move. Conkling got an idea from the junior senator from New York, Tom Platt, who had just been elected with Garfield’s help.

On May 14, 1881, little more than two months after Garfield took office, Conkling and Platt resigned their Senate offices to protest Garfield’s refusal of Conkling’s demands. Their bravado caused an initial stir in the Senate. But supporters gave only lip service to their complaints. Opponents of the spoils system were elated to be rid of Conkling.

Conkling and Platt promptly left for New York to secure re-appointment. However, the legislature in Albany sensed Garfield’s growing popularity among the people, and balked. On May 31, Conkling got only half as many votes as those cast against his re-appointment, and Platt fared even worse.

All during May, while Conkling’s power play unwound, Garfield had a personal issue in the White House which worried him much more. The First Lady, Lucretia, had fallen ill with high fever and was near death most of the month. On May 31, the same day Conkling’s political career ended, the First Lady’s doctor pronounced her well. Garfield and their children could smile for the first time in a month.

IX.        Assailant

On the morning of July 2, President Garfield rode in a one-horse carriage driven by his Secretary of State James Blaine, with no security escort, to the Baltimore & Potomac train station. Garfield was eagerly traveling to a country home where Lucretia was regaining strength away from Washington’s summer heat.

Numerous policemen were in the vicinity of the train station. One recognized and greeted the president when he arrived with Blaine. Blaine and Garfield walked into the waiting room of the station. As they stood talking, a man named Charles Guiteau pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired two shots at Garfield from close range.

The first shot passed through Garfield’s right arm without hitting anything vital. The second shot hit the president in the back, four inches to the right of his spine. The bullet broke two ribs, but missed the spine and all vital organs.
The assailant, Guiteau, is described in the White House account of Garfield’s assassination as “an attorney.” A recent biography of Garfield called Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard gives Guiteau more attention.

Guiteau’s mother died when he was seven. His father was a religious zealot attracted by utopian ideas. At age 18, Guiteau was a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But he dropped out to join a religious sect called the Oneida Community. His father knew the founder, who was socialist utopian and favored communal sex. This latter practice seemed the main attraction to Guiteau. When the women rejected him, nick-naming him “Get-Out,” he left.

For the rest of his life, Guiteau was itinerant, supporting himself as a preacher, as a mail-order attorney, and as a two-bit con-man. He regularly talked his way into room and board arrangements, over-stayed, and then skipped out on the bill. He conned acquaintances into giving him small loans he never repaid. He conducted himself in this manner right up to the time he shot the president.

Part of Guiteau’s schtick was to present himself as a man of importance. He frequented the lobby of the hotel where Conkling and Arthur lived. After Garfield’s election, he went daily to the State Department and the White House seeking appointment as an ambassador. His chance of such an appointment was essentially zero, so maybe he was delusional, as some think. Another possibility is that his success in conning others led him to think he could do it on a grander scale.

When Guiteau surrendered to police after shooting the president, he shouted “I am a Stalwart. Chester Arthur will be president.” Stalwarts were supporters of the spoils system. Two days after the shooting, with his own attorney present, Guiteau told the district attorney that Chester Arthur “is a particular friend of mine.” Through much of his imprisonment, Guiteau was confident he would be released, pardoned, even treated as a hero.

Rumors abounded in Washington, New York and across the country that Conkling and Arthur were complicit in the assassination attempt on Garfield. Conkling’s hotel received a note threatening that the ex-senator would be hanged before daybreak. While reading news to the president, Lucretia happened across a newspaper report mentioning Conkling’s possible involvement in the shooting. Garfield said he didn’t believe it.

X.            Medical Treatment and Death

Medical experts later assessed Garfield’s wound in the back as non-lethal. Garfield might have proceeded safely in his travel to see Lucretia if the wound had simply been cleaned and bandaged. But that was not to be the case.

Ten physicians gathered at the train station to attend the president. Taking turns, they proceeded to probe with unclean fingers and instruments for the bullet which entered Garfield’s back. Despite the probing, the bullet was not found. Garfield was taken back to the White House.

Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln summoned Dr. D. Willard Bliss, who had attended Lincoln’s father after his assassination, to take charge of Garfield’s care. From the moment Bliss entered the picture, he controlled completely all medical attention given to Garfield. Though he knew of Lister’s practices regarding sterile conditions to prevent infection of wounds, he did not abide by them.

James Garfield died September 6 after suffering medical care as horrendous as the mind can imagine. Dr. Bliss imposed a steady diet of heavy foods which Garfield’s stomach could not keep down in his feverish condition. Nausea and vomiting left him weak and dehydrated. His body weight dropped so drastically he was skeletal when he died.

Alexander Graham Bell admired Garfield greatly. As soon as he learned the president had been shot and the bullet inside him could not be located, Bell began work to invent an electro-magnetic, non-invasive device to find the bullet. He devised an “induction balance” machine which would emit a sound when a wand was passed over the body within inches of a bullet.

Bell persuaded Dr. Bliss to allow him to try the device on Garfield on July 26. But the confusion of dealing with the doctors caused Bell to make an elementary error in assembling the device in the White House, and it didn’t work. Bell detected the error after returning to his lab, and he further improved the design so it was more reliable. Bliss allowed him another try on August 1.

By that date, Bell was confident the improved device would detect a bullet within three inches of the body’s surface. However, he had a problem. Dr. Bliss would not permit him to search the left side of Garfield’s back – only the right side. The right front lower abdomen was where Bliss had publicly predicted the bullet would be found.

Bell’s device did not detect the bullet in Garfield’s right side. But in the lower right front abdomen, the place Bliss predicted the bullet would be, Bell thought he detected a slight sound which led him to think it might be caused by the bullet. Bliss was elated, and trumpeted the news to the public that he was right.

The next day, Bell returned to the White House to question the physicians team closely about whether all metal had been removed from the vicinity of Garfield’s bed, as instructed. To the contrary, Bell learned that a sub-mattress made of wire coils was under the mattress on which Garfield lay. This condition had caused Bell’s device to mal-function. One month after Garfield’s death, Bell’s device successfully found a bullet in a patient of Dr. Hamilton, who was on Bliss’ team of aides.

The post-mortem autopsy found the bullet on Garfield’s lower left back, behind the pancreas, where it had ricocheted from the broken ribs. This was an area Bliss would not permit Bell’s unobtrusive wand to pass over during his effort to locate the bullet.

Bliss and his assisting doctors had probed Garfield’s wound multiple times daily with unsterilized fingers and probes. This produced extensive infection throughout the president’s torso, which the autopsy determined to be the cause of death.
XI.        The Aftermath
As Garfield suffered those two-plus months, the nation worried and grieved through the summer of 1881. Dr. Bliss repeatedly assured them the president was recovering nicely. But Garfield did not reappear. Then Bliss reported the president was dead, and nothing could have been done to save him.

Americans had grown to love their elected president, and the circumstances of his gruesome death troubled them greatly.

Charles Guiteau was tried and convicted of the president’s murder, and was promptly executed by hanging on June 30, 1882.

Chester Arthur conducted himself as chastised and humbled in assuming duties as president. Rather than advance the “spoils system” agenda as Conkling’s man, Arthur promoted and signed civil service reform into law as Garfield had proposed.

The federal debt, however, was not re-financed at lower rates of interest.
XII.   George’s Progress & Poverty, Ruling Elite
In the decade before James A. Garfield was elected president, the U. S. experienced its longest economic contraction in history between 1873 and 1879. In 1879, the best selling book on economic policy ever written was self-published by a California author, Henry George.

Progress & Poverty explained how elitist interests gather power in population centers and impose public policies to enrich themselves and impoverish others. The book sold more than two million copies between 1880 and 1900, and George became one of three most admired men in America.

Here is George’s conclusion:

“[I]n every country …, a vast and dominant pecuniary interest [exerts] active, energetic power [to] write laws and mold thought….”

XIII.           Wells’ Elitist Manifesto

In 1901, the British author H. G. Wells produced an elitist manifesto, his first non-fiction book, called Anticipations.The manifesto prescribed that society must return to two classes, the rulers and their servants, which would require destroying the middle class and republican democracy. Instruments to do this would include a global network of privately owned central banks, taxes on earned income at progressively higher rates, and death taxes. National governments would be pulled down from within by using secret infiltration. Unnecessary populations ("people of the abyss") would be "poisoned."

Anticipations gained entry for Wells into the seats of power world-wide, including the White Houses of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, and the Kremlin of Joseph Stalin. Would James Garfield have invited him? I don’t think so.

XIV.            FDR’s Letter to House

In November, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote a personal letter to Edward M. House. House served for years as the ruling elite’s go-between with the White House, especially during Wilson’s two terms in the White House. As you recall, Wilson signed into law the Federal Reserve Act, creating a private central bank, and the federal income tax.

In his letter to E. M. House, Roosevelt said this:

“The real truth … is, as you and I know, that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson….”

Jackson was the first Democrat elected U. S. president. Jackson’s two terms were devoted to fighting the central bank of his time, called the Bank of the U. S.

So Roosevelt confesses, in 1933, every U. S. government since 1836 has been “owned” by financiers in “the larger centers.” The "larger centers” of the time included New York, London, Paris and Amsterdam.

Roosevelt must have disregarded Garfield’s term. After all, it lasted only four months. Was Garfield's presidency cut short precisely because he was not owned by “a financial element in the larger centers?”

The very next sentence in Roosevelt’s 1933 letter to House was equally revealing.

Remember, in 1933, the U. S. had 25% unemployment and millions were starving. Here is how Roosevelt described those times in his letter to E. M. House:

“The country is going through a repetition of Jackson’s fight with the Bank of the United States—only on a far bigger and broader scale.”

The Great Depression, FDR said, was a repetition of President Jackson’s fight with those who own the central bank. Except the Great Depression was on a far bigger and broader scale.

Describing the fight in 1933 as on a “far bigger and broader scale” tells us the central banking interests were waging a war directly against the American people themselves, rather than against the president. Roosevelt confided this statement to a trusted intermediary of central banking interests.

By these indications and other evidence presented in The Fruits of Graft, Franklin Roosevelt waged economic war against the American people as a principal operative of the ruling elite. The globally destructive military war which flared during this economic assault was another element of the elitist agenda advanced by Roosevelt.

XV.          Confronting Reality

From time to time, Americans are able to raise to the presidency a person who does not serve the elitist agenda set to paper by H. G. Wells in 1901. James A. Garfield was such a person, instilled with virtues which would not permit treating others as predatory targets. Yet, popular victory in placing such a president in the White House was reversed with ease in 1881, so effectively that orthodox historians report it as merely an unfortunate incident with a disgruntled or crazed office-seeker.

What rarely enters discussion is the progress missed by humanity's champions (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy - and nearly Reagan) being struck down by gunshot. Our system of justice as presently designed seems entirely incapable of holding the ruling elite to account. Are there lessons in this, and something to be done for it? ~