As President Garfield lay dying, his vice-president Chester Arthur tried to avoid being seen in public. Arthur was initially blamed for Garfield’s death. Of course it didn’t help that Garfield’s killer wrote to congratulate him on becoming president!
In addition, Arthur and Garfield had a strained relationship. As vice-president he opposed Garfield’s defiance of Roscoe Conkling. Conkling had helped Arthur get a post as New York’s Customs Collector during the Grant administration. While Arthur was never charged with corruption, he cheerfully allowed it. When he was fired from his post by the reform minded President Hayes, Arthur became the president of New York’s Republican committee.
Official Presidential Portrait of Chester A. Arthur, 1885
Despite the rumors Arthur didn’t want to become president. He genuinely wept when Garfield died. The job bored him so much that he lived for fishing and vacations.
Yet Arthur was determined to clean up his image. He decided to break with his old cronies and actually expanded civil service reform. He also took an interest in preserving the country’s natural resources and was especially concerned with deforestation in the West.
One of the few things Garfield enjoyed about being president was entertaining. He sold almost anything in the White House in order to pay for redecorating projects and hired Tiffany’s to help. Once he thought the place was presentable, the president held black tie dinners every week. The dinners included up to 14 courses and various wines. He had no hostess, though. His wife died before he became president.
Arthur could not run for re-election because he had contracted Bright’s disease. He died soon after leaving office.
James Garfield was raised by a single mother in Ohio (his father died when he was two years old). He managed to save enough money to get through school. After college Garfield had various jobs as a preacher, professor, and college president. Garfield was never satisfied with any of these occupations or with having just one girlfriend. He courted his future wife Lucretia for so long that she was ready to give him up, but he finally grew into a devoted family man.
When the Civil War began Garfield served as the country’s youngest major general. President Lincoln convinced him to resign his commission, however, when his home state elected him to Congress. Garfield never lost an election and served for nearly two decades.
Official presidential portrait of James Garfield
During the 1880 Republican convention Garfield’s name was put forward, though he tried to object. In a crowded field that included former President Grant, Garfield won the nomination. With the help of powerful Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling he narrowly won the presidency, too.
Ironically, Garfield and Conkling were soon pitted against each other in an argument over federal appointments. Though Garfield had nominated some of Conkling’s friends for other positions, he appointed one of Conkling’s rivals to the New York Customs House.
Garfield surprised Conkling and almost everyone else when he refused to back down. “This…will settle the question whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States,” he said. It seemed that the country had finally found a strong chief executive.
Only a few month into his presidency, a young man who had unsuccessfully sought a position in the government shot Garfield. Garfield lingered for months. An early air conditioning unit was installed in the White House to keep Garfield cool in the summer. Alexander Graham Bell even tried to find the location of the bullet, which remained inside the president, with a new electrical invention. After being moved to the Jersey shore, however, Garfield died.