Tuesday, March 31, 2015

President James A. Garfield


Garfield's mansion highlights life of short-lived president


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President James A. Garfield’s death could have been a financial disaster for his wife and family, but because he was popular the public organized a fundraising drive that made his wife financially secure enough that she could add more rooms to the house, making it a 31-room mansion.


            James A. Garfield, who was assassinated shortly after his election in 1881 as our 20th president, might have had one of the best preparations to hold that office.

            The presidential museum in the visitor center at Mentor, Ohio, is small but has a select collection of personal items and several audio descriptions and life-size models related to the important events of his life. Before taking a guided tour of his home, we watched a movie with most of the narration taken from the diaries that he kept all of his life.

            Born in a log cabin, Garfield was 2 when his father died, leaving the family with a tough road ahead. Hating farm work, Garfield took a job leading mules that pulled boats on the Erie Canal. After he returned home with an illness, his mother, who believed he was destined for greatness, insisted that he take all the money available to her at the time — $17 — and enroll in college, where he did well.

            Garfield had a philosophy of not planning for a specific goal for his future but believed in working hard and watching for opportunities. He taught school, he preached, he became principal of a college and he was elected to the Ohio Senate. When the Civil War started, he volunteered to lead a company of Union troops that he had raised. With no formal training as a soldier, he managed to lead well enough to become a general.

            He would have continued, but Lincoln personally asked him to run for office in the U.S. House of Representatives because he felt Garfield would be more valuable to the nation in that role. He won and held that position for 17 years, part of the time as chairman as the appropriations committee from 1871 to 1875.

            During that time he established a permanent home for his family in Mentor, where he bought a farm with a house with nine rooms, to which he added 11 more.

            In 1880, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Before he could be active in that role, the Republican Party, in the face of a deadlocked nomination convention, chose him as its presidential candidate. He was the first candidate to actively campaign for that office; he did it from the front porch of his home in Mentor just outside of Cleveland. The visitors who wanted to hear him orate were brought to Mentor on special trains.

            Garfield was inaugurated in March of 1881, and on July 2 was shot in the back by Charles Guiteau, a fanatic who had been turned down for an appointed position for which he was not qualified. Garfield died after 80 miserable days. Our guide pointed out that one of the problems was poor medical practices; such was the custom then that his doctors probed for the bullet with unwashed fingers. Chester A. Arthur then became president.

            Garfield’s death could have been a financial disaster for his wife and family, but because he was popular the public organized a fundraising drive that made his wife financially secure enough that she could add more rooms to the house, making it a 31-room mansion.

            Additionally, she added special features such as a tower that furnished water pressure, a gas line and a special room for a presidential library — the first in the country. She also was able to support Garfield’s mother until her death as well as her own father.

            The mansion is now a National Historic Site.

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Garfield's wife sits by his side after he was shot in the back by a fanatic.

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