Friday, October 20, 2017

Famous Masons: James Garfield

James Abram Garfield was an idealistic boy, a hard-working youth and an impressive college student. Before becoming president, he was a war hero and an impactful leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. His presidency was cut woefully short by an assassin’s bullet, but he most likely would have made his mark as a dynamic reformer and diplomat. Many of the ideals that he staunchly supported, such as religious tolerance and equal rights, were no doubt influenced by his personal faith and Freemasonry.


Historians believe that the 20th president grew up in greater poverty than any other. Garfield was born in a log cabin near Cleveland, Ohio, on Nov. 19, 1831. His father, an accomplished wrestler, died when he was just a toddler. He cared deeply for his mother, Eliza, and worked long days alongside his siblings to help her maintain their small farm. During his brief months in the White House, the president personally carried his elderly mother up and down the stairs.


Growing up, Garfield read one adventure novel after another and dreamed of being a sailor. It’s probably fortunate that this dreams never came to fruition; during the six weeks that he worked on canal boats, he fell overboard 14 times.

Still, Garfield soldiered on as a carpenter, janitor and part-time teacher to support himself and pay for his education. When he wasn’t burning the midnight oil, he liked to fish, hunt and shoot pool. He was known to drink alcohol in moderation, and he declined to take the temperance pledge.

At age 18, he was baptized into the Protestant denomination Disciples of Christ. He was later ordained as a minister. Although it never became a full-time job, he served and preached now and then through the years leading up to his presidency.


Garfield was a strong student and charismatic public speaker at Williams College in Massachusetts. After graduating in 1856, he taught Latin and Greek at what is now Hiram College in Ohio. Just one year later, he was made president of the school.

It was there that he met his future wife, Lucretia “Crete” Rudolph. They had a happy marriage that resulted in seven children. All grew up to be successful adults with notable careers. During White House renovations, Crete contracted malaria in the swamp behind the property. Happily, she made a full recovery.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Garfield enlisted to fight for the Union. Even without prior military experience, the 30-year-old’s leadership skills impressed his higher-ups. He soon became the youngest officer to hold the rank of major general. He distinguished himself in several battles and once made a courageous dash on horseback under enemy fire.


It is during this time that Garfield was initiated into Freemasonry. He became a Master Mason in 1864 and served as chaplain of his lodge. Interestingly, Garfield would later support the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, one of his Masonic brothers.

Garfield was still a soldier in 1862 when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He had never even campaigned for the seat. Since qualified congressmen were scarcer than qualified soldiers, President Abraham Lincoln persuaded Garfield to resign his military post and focus on government. Garfield would go on to serve eight terms.

The congressman from Ohio was one of the Republican party’s most outspoken members. He faulted Lincoln for not vigorously prosecuting the war, called for the exile of Confederate leaders and supported seizure of Confederate property in the North. Garfield had campaigned for Lincoln, but he once referred to the president as a “second-rate Illinois lawyer.”


However, the two did agree on one thing: abolition. Garfield strongly identified with the anti-slavery views of the Republican Party, which was founded during his years at college. He supported African-American suffrage and education, and he was in favor of ending military occupation in the South.

Garfield opposed labor unions, the eight-hour workday and cooperative farm programs, which he called “communism in disguise.”

Much of Garfield’s congressional career was spent trying to appease both sides of the Republican party. The Stalwarts were ultraconservative while the Half-Breeds were progressive. He was praised and reviled in equal measure for his diplomacy and willingness to work with both sides.

He also became an expert on financial matters and served on several key committees.

Few legacies are untouched by scandal, and Garfield's is no exception. Garfield and other representatives were accused of approving federal subsidies for railroad construction and accepting stock shares in exchange for lax oversight. Garfield denied the charges and was never censured, but many had their doubts about his innocence.

Garfield’s presidency came about quite by accident. He was actually campaigning for his longtime friend John Sherman in the 1880 election. Because of an ugly split between the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds, choosing a nominee required 36 ballots. In the end, Garfield became the surprise, dark-horse nominee. In the closest election on record, he defeated his Democratic opponent by fewer than 10,000 votes.

Garfield was shot at a train station just 100 days after taking office. He was on his way to a Williams College reunion.

The shooter was Charles Julius Guiteau, an attorney with a long history of emotional problems. Guiteau was embittered about being denied an appointment in Garfield’s cabinet.

Garfield clung to life for about three months. Doctors were unable to locate the bullet in his back, so Alexander Graham Bell volunteered to find it using his latest invention, a metal detector. The device went haywire, so Bell's efforts failed as well. He was dismayed when he later learned that there were coil springs in Garfield’s mattress rather than feathers, which were more common. The coils probably interfered with the metal detector.

Garfield seemed to improve during a visit to the New Jersey seashore, but he took a turn for the worse and died there on Sept. 19, 1881. Vice President Chester A. Arthur assumed the highest office.

Garfield and 13 other U.S. presidents have embraced the principles of Freemasonry. Their belief in charity, tolerance, thinking for oneself and defending human rights have had immeasurable impact on American history.

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