President James A. Garfield doesn’t get much attention in the annals of presidential history. Considering he only served in the office for six and a half months, this seems to make sense. His assassination was a tragedy because he was a truly remarkable man who had the capacity and will to affect tremendous positive change. But we can discern some important lessons from his story, more so from his time and the failures of his contemporaries than from him. Garfield serves as a fascinating focal point for the examination of human failure through ignorance. His story highlights the highly relevant importance of seeking truth in an increasingly chaotic world. Factual evidence, quotes, and some ideas for this post can be found in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic.
Garfield’s story of ascendance to the presidency is remarkable. He was “born into extreme poverty in a log cabin” and rose to prominence through “a passionate love of learning that would define his life.” He did not even own a pair of shoes until he was four years old. Beginning as a janitor at his college, the Eclectic Institute, he worked his way up to an assistant professorship and “was given a full roster of classes to teach, including literature, mathematics, and ancient languages.” Two years after graduation “Garfield returned to the Eclectic Institute to teach. By the time he was twenty-six, he was the school’s president.” Garfield also embodied the ethos of the warrior scholar. As a colonel in the Civil War he won an astounding, pivotal battle in Kentucky against overwhelming Confederacy forces. “Garfield’s regiment [seemingly] did not have a hope of succeeding.” Despite being outnumbered roughly 500 to 2000, Garfield’s tactical expertise forced a Confederate retreat. These are just a few of the examples of the brilliance of James A. Garfield, a man of remarkable intellect and many talents.
Garfield also bears the notable distinction of having never sought the presidency. He did not initiate his own nomination nor did he actively campaign for himself. He actually felt dread at the prospect of being placed in such a demanding position. But once fate and the American people decided to place him there, he accepted his duty and began executing his charge with zeal. Among his administration’s priorities would be the “national debt, challenges facing farmers, and…civil service reform.” He also made the post-Civil War vow to increase the equal protection and rights of African Americans (Garfield had been a lifelong abolitionist.)
On July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot by a deranged assassin named Charles Guiteau. “The injury he had sustained…was not fatal.” President Garfield did not die until two months after being shot, after succumbing to a painful and widespread infection caused by his doctors. They probed his wounds repeatedly with unsterilized fingers and instruments, took no care to place him in clean surroundings, and through this extensive exposure to germs, turned him into a rotting husk. “Had Garfield simply been left alone, he almost certainly would have survived.” This was doubly tragic because the rest of the international community had already accepted Dr. Joseph’s Lister’s extraordinary discovery of “the critical importance of antisepsis-preventing infection by destroying germs.” The United States remained stubbornly resistant, and even the most elite doctors ridiculed Lister and rejected 16 years of proven medical science, relying on outdated methods.
The world learned with shock and disgust that, in searching for the assassin’s bullet, Garfield’s doctor’s had been probing and meddling in a hole in the president’s body on the wrong side of his torso. These repeated, useless probes as well as his germ-filled environment caused his death. Severe malpractice and ignorance killed the president. But why does this case of tragic medical history matter to us? What can we learn from this president’s story, whose name most of us haven’t even heard of, and whose deeds we little note?
The story of ignorance from people of prominence that flew in the face of scientific evidence is highly relevant to us today. Falsehoods now spread faster than ever before, and we see the very idea of truth under constant assault in numerous forms such as the denial of climate change, false associations of various disorders relating to routine vaccinations, and even attacks upon our basic foundations of the rule of law and democracy. We owe it to each other to seek truth and reject ignorance through legitimate inquiry, not just blindly accepting what we hear or see from others or on social media. Garfield himself rightly proclaimed education to be “the foundation of freedom.” His tragic death reminds us that to do good in our communities, to do our jobs ethically, and to hold our republic together, we must seek truth and combat ignorance.