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Northeast Ohio's James Garfield Changed the Course of Presidential Campaigning

Tim Garfield  in his great, great grandfather's memorial library at the president's historic site in Mentor

by David C. Barnett

As GOP leaders make plans for this summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, a PBS documentary Tuesday night focuses on the abbreviated presidency of an earlier Republican whose term in the White House was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1881.  “Murder of a President” examines the life and death of James A. Garfield.  ideastream’s David C. Barnett reports on the Northeast Ohio roots of the president that America barely got a chance to know.

Bob Hook is a tour guide at Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery, and he likes to walk visitors through history, starting with the front steps of the Garfield monument.

“Here we go: One... two... three …"

He counts each one, as he scales his way up the dark, gothic mausoleum that rises from one of the highest points on the cemetery grounds.  This landscape is the final resting place for many famous names, including oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller, the first African American big-city mayor, Carl Stokes, prohibition lawman, Eliot Ness, comic book scribe Harvey Pekar, and… an American president.

Bob Hook reaches the landing on a triumpal note, “…18, 19, 20! James Garfield was the 20 th president of the United States.”  

The memorial has a number of symbolic architectural flourishes.  Some --- like the number of steps --- are subtle, and some are more overt, like a series of sculpted scenes depicting the 20 th president’s life.  Garfield is shown as a teacher, a civil war general, and as a spell-binding public speaker.

"Orators were very important, back then," says historian Ellen Connally, "even though they didn’t have microphones and radio."  

Connally adds, the Ohio congressman’s rhetorical skills brought him into the national spotlight at the 1880 Republican national convention. The meeting was deadlocked.  After 35 votes, no clear choice emerged. James Garfield gave a speech intended to endorse one of the contenders, but the delegates’ attention shifted to the guy at the lectern.  Connally compares it to the way that a young Barack Obama electrified Democrats with a keynote address in 2004.  

"So, the convention’s going on," she says, "and it’s Vote #36, and they say, Garfield’s a neutral guy, he can win, so let’s throw our support to him."  

The unintended candidate got the delegates’ endorsement.  But, rather than hit the campaign trail, the party bosses sent Garfield back to his farmhouse in Mentor, a half hour east of Cleveland.  The politicos wanted to handle the GOP hopeful’s publicity.  And that included the incumbent president.  Todd Arrington is head of Education at the James A. Garfield Historic Site in Mentor, and he says, "Rutherford B. Hayes told him: Stay home, don’t say anything, and just look wise."

But, Arrington says, the candidate didn’t take that advice.  As curious people started gathering outside the house to take a peek at him, Garfield came out to talk with them.  Arrington says, those conversations became an event.

"We estimate, based on records, that somewhere around 17 – to – 20,000 people showed up here on this property, during the presidential campaign of 1880.  Keep in mind, they couldn’t look at his Facebook page, they couldn’t follow him on Twitter, they couldn’t see him on MSNBC or CNN every night."

Arrington says, Garfield’s popular front porch style became a model for future presidential races, bringing candidates closer to the public.  But, great-great grandson Tim Garfield wonders if modern presidential campaigning is any better.

"In those days," he says, "we elected citizens to be president.  But, through the past 30 years, we’ve had Bushes, we’re trying to have Clintons --- we seem to have nominated families to presidencies."

In July of 1881, 49-year-old James A. Garfield was shot in the back by a deranged gunman, upset over not receiving a political appointment. For historian Ellen Connally, Garfield’s potential was outlined in his inaugural address, four months earlier.   The new president had made a powerful call for the full civil rights of black citizens.

"It’s very sad," she says,  "that we lost someone who could have changed history.  I think he would have made some very, very positive changes in favor of African Americans --- so we lost all that."

The Garfield memorial rises 180 feet above Lake View Cemetery.  The interior is laid out like a chapel, filled with intricate mosaics, colored marble, and stained glass. A curving stairway leads down to a family crypt and the flag-draped coffin of America’s 20 th president.  It’s a space to reflect on what the country lost, 135 years ago.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.