At the 1880 convention in Chicago, Garfield delivered a stirring nomination speech on behalf of John Sherman, a Hayes cabinet member longing to be president. Instead of catapulting Sherman to the head of the GOP ticket, the speech inspired a successful push to make Garfield the party standard-bearer.
Despite his resistance to the idea (“My name must not be used,” he said), Garfield eventually capitulated and went on to defeat Winfield Scott Hancock in the general election.
“This honor comes to me unsought,” Garfield said upon becoming president. “I have never had the Presidential fever; not even for a day.”
He quickly became a beloved figure. Blacks embraced him for taking strong stands on racial equality, while Northerners and Southerners alike appreciated his pragmatic approach and rags-to-riches rise.
But it was the new president’s refusal to honor the spoils system of patronage that led an itinerant, deluded man named Charles Guiteau to assassinate him.
Millard’s account shows how vulnerable presidents were in the 19th Century. Despite Lincoln’s assassination less than two decades earlier, Garfield had no bodyguards or security detail of significance. Like his predecessors, Garfield was expected to — and did — meet with importunate citizens in the White House on a regular basis. On average, 100 callers per day sought presidential favors.
It was in this spirit that Guiteau arrived in Washington, where he wandered through hotels and inns, promising payments for his stays before being chased away. At the White House, he sought a consulship in Paris and other sinecures.