President James Garfield was shot four months into office and died two months later. After Lincoln, Garfield was the second president cut down by an assassin. His murderer was a deranged office seeker. Charles Guiteau believed Garfield owed him a federal job. When that job did not materialize, he assassinated the president. The Garfield Assassination led to changes in the old spoils system, but failed to lead to successful reforms in presidential security.
Andrew Jackson’s 1828 election ushered in the spoils system. He replaced a large portion of the federal workforce with his cronies. The former general felt that “to the victors go the spoils.” He set a precedent followed by the major parties for the next fifty years. As a result, new presidents were often inundated by office seekers.
Charles Guiteau did some campaigning for James Garfield in the 1880 presidential election. His role was fairly small. He printed copies of an essay he wrote and distributed them. That was about it. Garfield won a narrow victory and Guiteau believed he played a vital role. As a result, he wanted a plum patronage post in the Garfield Administration. In reality, Garfield and his handlers did not know who he was until Guiteau began harassing them for a job. Guiteau failed at several ventures and was flat broke. He was definitely unstable. The assassin began hanging around Washington harassing public officials for a job. At this time, the general public could wander into the White House with little trouble. Guiteau drove the Republican officials crazy and was banned from the White House.
After being banned, Charles Guiteau bought a gun. He began target practice and wrote a threatening letter to the president. By this time, the White House ignored anything from Guiteau because they did not take his threat seriously. The assassin began stalking Garfield around Washington. Despite Lincoln’s assassination sixteen years earlier, presidential security was nonexistent.
On July 2, 1881, President Garfield ventured to the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad terminal to leave on his summer retreat. His sons, James and Harry, Secretary of State James Blaine, and Secretary of War Robert Lincoln accompanied the president. Robert Lincoln was the son of Abraham Lincoln. Despite Lincoln’s murder in 1865, Garfield had no security. Charles Guiteau stalked his prey and fired two shots into Garfield. No one saw it coming.
Guiteau left the terminal, but was quickly arrested. The police were able to protect the assassin from a lynch mob and took him to the station. Proudly, Charles Guiteau admitted to the shooting and proclaimed Chester Arthur president. Guiteau may have believed he was uniting the two Republican wings by eliminating Garfield. One wing was reformist and the other was not. However, the assassination was really precipitated by the spoils system. Guiteau did not get his job, got angry, and shot the president.
President Garfield survived until September 19. One shot grazed his arm, but the second shot hit his spine. Worse, the doctors could not find the bullet. The president stabilized and doctors remained hopeful. However, his situation fluctuated for two months. In early September, Garfield was taken to New Jersey to escape the summer heat. Doctors hoped fresh ocean air would help his recovery. Unfortunately, infections set in and he suffered a massive heart attack brought on by blood poisoning, shock, and pneumonia. The president died in agony. During his two month convalescence, Garfield did almost no work.
Many historians now believe Garfield would have survived had this occurred today. The doctors stuck their dirty hands into the wound searching for the bullet. One doctor punctured the president’s liver in the search. There were no antibiotics. Their efforts probably brought on the infections which dramatically weakened Garfield. In a sense, primitive medicine, and not Guiteau killed the president.
Charles Guiteau went on trial for the murder. He recited poems and sang in court. In lieu of Guiteau’s behavior, his lawyers considered the insanity defense. However, Guiteau quibbled with his lawyers over defense strategy which undercut his chances in court. He was found guilty on January 25, 1882 and hanged six months later. Instead of a federal job, Guiteau got a federal execution.
The Garfield Assassination ended the spoils system. Chester Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883. After Pendleton, federal jobs went to people based on merit with some jobs requiring exams. The Jacksonian spoils system was dead. Despite civil service reform, presidential security was not revamped. Twenty years later, William McKinley would be assassinated. Additionally, Congress did not address presidential incapacitation. Garfield was an invalid for two and a half months and did almost nothing.
The Assassination of James Garfield proved a bizarre episode in U.S. history. Charles Guiteau wanted a federal job, did not get one, and decided to shoot the president. After the shooting, Garfield’s doctors probably killed him. Essentially, the country had no president for nearly 12 weeks. During the trial, Guiteau broke into song and received a death sentence. In the aftermath, Congress did reform the spoils system, but failed to tackle presidential security or incapacitation.