Last night Aleta and I enjoyed a fantastic documentary produced by PBS’s “Frontline” docu-series. It’s a two-hour documentary on the life and assassination of President James Garfield. I encourage you to watch “Death of A President” which tells the story of this great, and very under-appreciated man. I don’t know about you, but for me James Garfield has been nothing more than a sad footnote in American history. He’s become a Jeopardy question along the lines of, “Assassinated president other than Abraham Lincoln, and JFK.” Answer- “Who is James Garfield?” When I watched the documentary I realized how truly sad this is. James Garfield was a very effective and deeply appreciated President during his term of service – possibly more than Abraham Lincoln and JFK were during their presidencies. Garfield stood for the integrity of government, and had the courage to break up the corrupt puppet-masters pulling the strings during the Grant presidency. He staunchly believed in the equality of all people, very much including newly freed black slaves, and he was in the process of pushing America toward a more equal democracy when he was shot and died a horrible death from infection due to his wounds. He was so loved, that when he made a last request to “see the Ocean” before he died, military men carried his death-bed to the train, Americans surrounded the tracks as his train passed by, and as the train got close to his Jersey shore cottage that had no rail access, rail-road workers and military men laid fresh railroad track right up to his cottage just to make sure he could see the ocean before he died. One of the historians said, “As strange as it is for us to hear, there actually were more people at Garfield’s funeral than there was at Lincoln’s funeral.” This man was deeply loved by our country.
Here’s what strikes me about his story. Garfield probably deserves to be far more honored by history, and yet he became a footnote. In the real-time of his life, he was adored and respected by many, and yet history hasn’t been as kind to his legacy as it has been far kinder to the legacy of other presidents for a variety of other reasons. It’s a great reminder to me that I’m not in control of the mark I leave on history. If great men like Garfield become footnotes, then I guess I can relax and not stress about my own legacy – a legacy I really cannot control. All I can control is being an honorable man, as Garfield became. History and legacy will simply be what it will be.