Friday, November 19, 2021

Feeling greatly dissatisfied

‘I am feeling greatly dissatisfied with my lack of opportunity for study. My day is frittered away by the personal seeking of people, when it ought to be given to the great problems which concern the whole country. Four years of this kind of intellectual dissipation may cripple me for the remainder of my life. What might not a vigorous thinker do, if he could be allowed to use the opportunities of a Presidential term in vital, useful activity?’ This is US president James A. Garfield, born 190 years ago today, writing in his diary just three months after becoming president. Sadly, a few weeks later he was shot by an assassin and died shortly after. His lifelong diaries were first published in four volumes but have since been made freely available online by the Library of Congress.

Garfield, the youngest of five children, was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on 19 November 1831 to an impoverished farmer and his wife. His father died when he was two, but his mother struggled on with the farm. His mother remarried, but soon left her second husband. Poor and fatherless, young Garfield took refuge in books, and left home at 16. However he caught malaria working on the canals, returned home to recuperate, and then was found a place at the local school. Subsequently, he attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) and graduated from Williams College. He returned to the Eclectic Institute as a professor of ancient languages, and in 1857, aged 25, he became the school’s president. A year later he married Lucretia Rudolph and the couple would have five children that survived infancy. Garfield also studied law. He was ordained as a minister in the Disciples of Christ church, but by then he was turning to politics.

Garfield became a supporter of the newly organised Republican Party and in 1859 was elected to the Ohio legislature. During the Civil War he helped recruit an Ohio Volunteer Infantry becoming its colonel; and he commanded a brigade at the Battle of Shiloh. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and, while waiting for Congress to begin its session, he served as chief of staff in the Army of the Cumberland, winning promotion to major general. For nine terms, until 1880, Garfield represented Ohio’s 19th congressional district, becoming an expert on fiscal matters and advocating a high protective tariffs. In 1880, the Ohio legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate, and later the same year, he emerged as a ‘dark horse’ Republican nominee for president. He won the election against the Democratic nominee, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, by a very small margin, thus becoming the 20th president of the US.

Four months into his Presidency, Garfield was shot - on 2 July 1881 - by an assassin, Charles Julius Guiteau, an emotionally disturbed man who had failed to gain an appointment in Garfield’s administration. Garfield was immediately hospitalised, but died from infections on 19 September. Historians speculate, the Miller Centre says, that had Garfield served his term, ‘he would have been determined to move toward civil service reform and carry on in the clean government tradition of President Hayes’. He also supported the Centre adds, education for black southerners and called for African American suffrage. Unfortunately, it concludes, he is best remembered for being assassinated. Further information is also available at Wikipedia, The White House, Encyclopaedia Britannica and

Garfield kept a personal diaries throughout his life, all 21 of which are held by the Library of Congress (LOC). (More about how the diaries came to be gifted to the LOC can be read here.) They were edited and published in four volumes - The Diary of James A. Garfield - by Michigan State University Press between 1967 and 1981. These volumes can be digitally borrowed at Internet Archive (volume 4 for example). However, recently the LOC has not only made images of every page of the original manuscripts freely available online, but it has overseen a crowd-sourced project to transcribe those pages which are now also all available online.

The following extracts - from the very earliest diaries to the very last entry in the last diary - have been taken from volumes 1 and 4 of the published diaries.

1 January 1848
‘Hunting with O. H. Judd in a.m. went to Davis school in the p.m. quite rainy.

11 February 1848
‘at school good sleighing now.’

26 April 1848
‘sawed for Barns work by the day. 50 cents per day.

31 May 1848
‘went to Cleveland came back on a canal boat it was about eleven o’clock at night stopped and helped Wm. Weed bail his boat till about one o’clock then went to bed in the cabin alone. Mr. Weed bailed a short time then came into the cabin and got the lamp. I was asleep and I suppose he took my pocket book from my pocket at any rate it was gone next day’

2 September 1879
‘Slept until nine A.M. a troubled dreamful sleep, and was awakened by Clarence Hale, feeling still miserably bad in the head and throat. Spent the day in reading, writing, visiting and moping - thinking much of Crete and the boys who are on their way to New Hampshire.

Read with the surprise which ought not to be felt at anything said by the unveracious press that “Gen. Garfield made a very able and eloquent speech at Biddeford last evening.” I know better. Made some careful preparations to redeem my reputation here tonight. Received no letters nor dispatches, and felt not a little isolation and homesickness.

I think the Maine Election is to be very close. It seems to me more likely to go against us than for us. At eight P.M. met a very large audience in the city hall, and spoke an hour and a half. Did much better than I expected considering the state of my head and throat. After the meeting went to Clarence Hale’s room, and played whist with him, and Mr. Clark and Mr. Cushing. Worked off the heat and weariness of the meeting and retired at midnight, with some hopes of a better day tomorrow.’

4 March 1881
‘At 8.30 A.M. Allison broke down on my hands and absolutely declined the Treasury, partly for family reasons, but mainly from unwillingness to face the opposition of certain forces. Though this disconcerts me, the break had better come now than later. The day opened with snow and sleet, but towards noon the sky began to clear. At 10.30 President Hayes called at my room, and [at] the Riggs, and we drove to the Executive Mansion, and then with the Committee, Senators Bayard and Anthony, along the Avenue to the Capitol. The crowd of people was very great. Reached President’s chamber in the Senate wing at 11.30; at 11.55 went to the Senate, and witnessed the inauguration of the Vice President. Thence to the east portico of the rotunda, and read my inaugural - slowly and fairly well - though I grew somewhat hoarse towards the close. Returning to the Executive Mansion, lunched with the family and then two and a half hours on the reviewing stand.

Inauguration reception at Museum building in the evening. Home at eleven. Met Windom by appointment, and after a full hour’s talk, offered him the Treasury. Retired at 12.30. Very weary. On the day of his inauguration Polk was 49 y[r]s. and 4 mos., Garfield, 49 yrs., 4 mos. and 15 days. Pierce was 48, 2 mos. and 15 days. Grant was 47,10 mos. and 23 days. The latter 1 year and 22 d. old[er] than Pierce and 1 yr., 4 mos., 22 days older than [?] Grant.’ 

13 June 1881
‘I am feeling greatly dissatisfied with my lack of opportunity for study. My day is frittered away by the personal seeking of people, when it ought to be given to the great problems which concern the whole country. Four years of this kind of intellectual dissipation may cripple me for the remainder of my life. What might not a vigorous thinker do, if he could be allowed to use the opportunities of a Presidential term in vital, useful activity? Some civil service reform will come by necessity, after the wearisome years of wasted Presidents have paved the way for it. In the evening took Crete out on the south porch to see the sun set. Blaine came and read draft of instructions to our Minister to Chili. Retired at 12.’

1 July 1881
‘This opening of the Fiscal Year, and day before my trip to New England, has been very full of work. Appointed very nearly 25 ministers and consuls. Dismissed French, the R. R. Commissioner, in consequence of his sending an official letter to the President of the Pacific R.R. instead of his superior officer. Also called for the resignation of the Register of Wills. Appointed Walker Blaine 3rd Ass’t Sec’y of State. He is a bright and able young man and I wanted to compliment both him and his father. Brown returned today, greatly refreshed by his European trip. Cousin Cordelia died today, of the R.R. injuries rec’d when Uncle Thomas was killed. Retired at 12.’

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