James Garfield vs. William Henry Harrison:
Pairing Presidents XVI
Forty-three individuals have been POTUS (forty-four if you count Grover Cleveland twice). Scholars often rate just forty-one of them, though, as two–William Henry Harrison (March 4-April 4, 1841) and James Garfield (March 4-Spetember 19, 1881)–were in office too briefly to consider.
This makes good sense to me, so I too will refrain from ranking them.
William Henry Harrison:
The grandfather of the future 23rd POTUS, Benjamin Harrison, has the dubious distinctions of being the first Whig to be elected, of being the oldest person to take the Oval Office before Ronald Reagan, of being the first to die in office, and of serving the shortest term.
Harrison, who hailed from Indiana, walked to his inauguration on March 4, 1841. It was a rainy, raw day and he wore neither hat nor overcoat, but he harangued spectators for over two hours with what remains the longest inaugural address in history. Legend holds he contracted pneumonia from his ordeal–a folk tale, as either bacteria or (more rarely) a virus causes pneumonia. Harrison did acquire a bad cold that was probably complicated by pleurisy, an ailment from which the 68-year-old might have already been suffering. He died just one month into his term.
Two ironies come into play. First, Harrison, a war hero in both the War of 1812 and in Tecumseh's War (1810-11), would have been elected over Martin Van Buren four years earlier had not the Whig Party nominated four separate regional candidates that divided the vote and confused the electorate. Second, his election in 1840 was truly bizarre. The so-called Log Cabin campaign featured very few substantive issues, but sported a lot of pageantry and prodigious amounts of mudslinging. If you think the latter doesn't work, you're wrong—80.2% of eligible voters cast ballots.
What kind of president would he have been? In his inaugural speech Harrison pledged to restore the Bank of the United States, adopt a Henry Clay public works system known as the American Plan, and abandon the spoils system. He was probably serious about the last of these, having rebuffed a series of office seekers–including Clay!
There are those who assert he would have put the brakes on expansion of slavery into U.S. territories. This is probably wishful thinking as he lobbied for slavery in 1803, when he was governor of Indiana Territory, and argued against restrictions when he served in the U.S. House and Senate. Those arguing he changed his views base assumptions on a friendship he struck with African American George DeBaptiste, a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Harrison hired DeBaptiste as his personal valet and another legend (for which evidence is ambiguous) holds that DeBaptiste was with Harrison when he died. Most historians doubt Harrison altered his views on slavery.
Mainly the Harrison presidency reminds us that the vice presidency does matter. Maybe you recall your grammar school lesson on Harrison's campaign slogan: "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." Harrison's nickname, "Old Tippecanoe," came after winning a 1811 battle against Native Americans along Tippecanoe Creek. You should think more about the "Tyler Too" part. John Tyler was a Whig in name only and his racist presidency was not a shining moment in American history.
James Garfield was the second president (after Lincoln) to be assassinated. He was the victim of Charles Guiteau, a man rebuffed in seeking a State Department job by Secretary of State James Blaine.
Garfield wasn't even supposed to be president. As the 1880 campaign approached, Garfield wasn't on any Republican list of preferred candidates. The Ohioan served in Congress from 1863 to 1880 and had served during the Civil War, but he had baggage. He angered party moderates by supporting the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and was also on the fringes of the Credit Mobilier scandal during the Grant administration. Although never directly implicated, those in the know felt Garfield's fingers were in the corruption pie. In 1880, though, Garfield supported GOP frontrunner, fellow Ohioan John Sherman, one of the most powerful politicians of his era. Sherman was done in by ongoing battles over patronage mentioned in earlier columns. In brief, Sherman alienated the pro-spoils system Stalwarts led by Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, who made sure Sherman was not nominated.
Garfield also opposed patronage, but exhausted Republicans finally chose the mild-mannered Garfield on the 36th ballot—probably because Conkling hoped to muscle him around to his way of thinking, as he did in forcing Garfield to accept Stalwart Chester Arthur as his running mate. The fall election was uneventful, with little difference between Garfield and Democratic candidate Winfield Scott Hancock. Garfield won the popular vote by a mere 6,000 votes, but easily won the Electoral College.
Garfield's troubles began when he took office. As it transpired, Garfield was more serious about civil service reform than Conkling had bargained. The appointment of reformer Thomas L. James as Postmaster General and Conkling's mortal enemy James Blaine as Secretary of State so infuriated Conkling and fellow New Yorker Thomas Platt that they resigned from the Senate. But this didn't end matters as office seekers badgered Garfield at every turn. One, alas, was Charles Guiteau, who was convinced Blaine rebuffed him on Garfield's command.
Garfield's effective time in office was two days short of four months; Guiteau shot him twice on July 2, 1881, surrendered, and bragged that Arthur would soon be president and restore order (by which he meant the spoils system). Garfield underwent a series of rallies and setbacks before expiring on September 19. Arthur took the Oval Office, but it was he who signed into law the Pendleton Act that began reformation of the civil service. After a failed attempt to use an insanity defense, Guiteau's days ended on the gallows 363 days after he shot Garfield.
What would a Garfield administration have portended? The only thing scholars can point to with some certainty is that he was also serious about supporting African American voting rights.
As in the case of Harrison, Garfield's time in office was too brief to rank him fairly. His death did inspire the tune "President Garfield's Hornpipe," a repertoire staple for fiddlers and devotees of the banjo and mandolin.