19 November 2009

Culture Spot : On This Day . . . 19 November – Happy Birthday James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States

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On this day in 1831, James Abram Garfield was born in Moreland Hills, Ohio. He would become the 20th President of the United States and would have the second shortest presidency in the history of the country with only 199 days in office.

James A. Garfield was a major general in the US Army during the Civil War and later became a member of the US House of Representatives. In fact, Garfield is the only sitting member of the House to have been elected President of the United States.

Garfield’s life was changed at the Republican National Convention of 1880. Just before, in January of that year, Garfield had been elected by the Ohio legislature to become US Senator for the state of Ohio starting in March of 1881. Senator-elect Garfield went to the convention supporting Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman for the Republican nomination. In all, there were 14 nominations for the party’s nomination (this predates the modern primary system). The top three candidates  were former President Ulysses S. Grant, James G. Blaine and John Sherman. Grant, who was president from 1869 to 1877 was seeking a third term in office.

After 35 ballots, none of the candidates obtained the required number of votes to capture the party’s nomination.  Sherman and Blaine along with their delegates decided to look elsewhere and threw their support to a ‘dark horse,’ James A. Garfield. In political terms, a dark horse is someone who is little known and rises to prominence, much like current President Barack Obama. On the 36 ballot, Garfield, who didn’t even go the Republican Convention seeking the nomination, was elected with 93 more votes than Grant. Finally, the convention chose Chester A. Arthur as Garfield’s vice presidential running mate ending the longest Republican Convention in history. Ironically, Sherman, whom Garfield went to the convention to support, was chosen to be the senator for Ohio in the place of Garfield.

In the general election of 1880, the Republican Garfield-Arthur ticket won 214 votes in the Electoral College against the Democratic Hancock-English ticket’s 155 votes. In the popular vote, Garfield and Arthur received only 1,898 more votes. The smallest popular vote majority in the history of US presidential elections. President Garfield and Vice President Arthur were sworn into office on March 4, 1881.

On July 2, 1881 Garfield was on his way to deliver a speech and was shot twice while walking through a train station in Washington D.C. by Charles J. Guiteau who was disgruntled for not being able to obtain a federal post. One bullet only grazed the President’s arm and the other was believed to have lodged itself in the spine. Garfield survived but was bedridden in the White House as he became increasingly ill from infection. The doctors were unable to locate the bullet and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, devised a metal detector to locate the bullet. Unfortunately the metal-framed bed in which the President lay caused the detector to not function correctly. Such beds were so rare, they had no idea that it was the cause of the metal detector’s deviation.

President Garfield’s infection worsened which weakened his heart. He had constant fevers and severe pains. On September 9, he was moved to the New Jersey shore hoping that the fresh air would help aid the President in his recovery. Unfortunately, on September 19, President Garfield suffered either a massive heart attack or an aneurysm due to blood poisoning and pneumonia from infection. Garfield became the second American president to have been assassinated after President Lincoln. On the same day, Vice President Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States.

Other interesting facts about the 20th President of the United States (taken from Wikipedia) :

    • Garfield was a minister and an elder for the Church of Christ (Christian Church), making him the first—and to date, only—member of the clergy to serve as President. He is also claimed as a member of the Disciples of Christ, as the different branches did not split until the 20th century. Garfield preached his first sermon in Poestenkill, New York.
    • Garfield is the only person in U.S. history to be a Representative, Senator-elect, and President-elect at the same time. To date, he is the only Representative to be directly elected President of the United States.
    • In 1876, Garfield discovered a novel proof of the Pythagorean Theorem using a trapezoid while serving as a member of the House of Representatives.
    • Garfield was the first ambidextrous president. It was said that one could ask him a question in English and he could simultaneously write the answer in Latin with one hand, and Ancient Greek with the other.
    • Garfield was a descendant of Mayflower passenger John Billington through his son Francis, another Mayflower passenger. John Billington was convicted of murder at Plymouth Mass. 1630.

Read more about President James A. Garfield at:





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