55 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2003
I bought a copy of Kenneth Ackerman's new book recently while visiting "Lawnfield", the Mentor, Ohio home of our twentieth president, James Abram Garfield. A bit dubious about a 400-plus page offering on a man who was president for only six months or so, I nonetheless sat down to read it and was both surprised and pleased by the terrific way that the author relates the intertwined lives of Garfield, his vice-president, Chester Alan Arthur and the two most powerful senators of their times, James G. Blaine and Roscoe Conkling.
Ackerman, at his best, is a good storyteller. Like a tug-of-war unfolding, he tells of the immense and bitter rivalry between Blaine and Conkling, with Garfield siding with the former and Arthur the latter. The real power in the post-Civil War years lay in the hands of the Congress and while this book is centered around Garfield, it's really more about the "play" that went on among these four men. And always looming in the background was former president, Ulysses S. Grant.
It is amazing to think that so much of a president's time could have been spent dealing with office-seekers, but Garfield's short administration was largely about that (and his trying to please both factions of the Republican party....the Half-Breeds, led by Blaine and the Stalwarts, led by Conkling.) Garfield's assassination was, indeed, about as darkly political as an event can get.
The author occasionally slips into being too enamored of his subject although what I've read about Garfield in other books leads me to believe he was a decent enough man. Unfortunately, because of his short tenure in the White House most historians don't bother rating him with our other presidents.
There are a couple of minor factual errors in the book (Arthur died twenty months after leaving office, not seven) but Ackerman is good at the few conclusions he draws, most notably the passage of the 1883 Civil Service Act. He reminds us that this was not a time of great men in our nation's political history, but rather a time of pettiness, accompanied by large egos. I couldn't help but think that the same thing is occurring in the Washington D.C. of 2003.
One has to wonder what would have happened if Garfield had lived. Visiting the president's enormous memorial and burial site in Cleveland, Garfield's large presence is felt. Kenneth Ackerman's book is an important addition to our presidential history, wonderfully told, and I highly recommend it.
42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
Let me first issue this advisory: To truly enjoy Kenneth D. Ackerman's book, "The Dark Horse" you have to love reading about politics. Ackerman is a Washington type, and his love of the political game and all of its intricaces is very much evident in his writing. Fortunately, he is such a good writer that he can make even the most mundane and obscure political manuevering as compelling as any suspense thriller.
"The Dark Horse," as the subtitle indicates, tells the tragic tale of President James A. Garfield, who was the surprise Republican nominee in 1880 and won a razor thin victory that Novemeber. Garfield had not desired the Presidency, and was only beginning to become comfortable in the office when he was felled by an assasssin's bullet four months into his term. He died a slow, agonizing death, and in the process became a martyred hero to the country.
Ackerman argues that Garflied's killing, remembered (if at all) for being perpetrated by a "disappointed office seeker" was a residual effect of the wars going on within the Republican Party between two competing factions: the Stalwarts and the Half Breeds. Though the Stalwarts, led by irascible New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, were not directly complicit in Garfield's murder, their strident rhetoric helped set the political climate that made it possible.
Ackerman tells his story in great detail (the narrative portion of the book runs to well over 400 pages). The is a decent illustrations section and a number of helpful charts for the reader. Overall, this is an excellently well written book that will appeal most strongly to American History and politics buffs.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Dark Horse: The surprise election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, by Kenneth D. Ackerman, is an extremely well written book about an era frequently bypassed by today's historians.
The Gilded Age has been largely ignored it seems by historians, but this book is a tremendous addition to the literature available on the political history of the era.
Ackerman has provided us with a book that truly chronicles Garfield's rise from semi-obscurity to the Presidency and then his assassination by a deranged man that claimed he was "removing" the President for the good of the Republican party and the country.
Starting with the Republican national convention of 1880, where Garfield was truly the "dark horse" candidate (U.S. Grant, James Blaine, and John Sherman were the leading contenders for the nomination), Ackerman has given us a fantastic political history of what transpired at the convention to earn Garfield the nomination.
He then proceeds to the national campaign against the Democratic nominee (General Winfield Hancock) and Garfield's "front porch" campaign. His description of the national race that ended in Garfield winning the Presidency is unmatched in writing today.
Ackerman intermixes Charles Guiteau into the history in appropriate places, and finally brings Guiteau to the forefront when he shoots Garfield in the railway station as Garfield was preparing for vacation. The subsequent trial and execution of Guiteau are also covered in the book.
I must commend Ackerman for ending with the elevation of Chester Arthur to the Presidency - other books might go into detail on how Arthur's Presidency was similar to and different than Garfield's, but Ackerman holds true to his title and stops with the ascendancy of Chester Arthur.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone that has an interest in 19th century American politics, the Garfield administration (as short as it may have been), or to better understand the reasons Guiteau assassinated the President. It's an easy read, very well researched, and an oustanding addition to the available books on the subject.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2006
I have for some time been interested in James A. Garfield, one of the most intelligent people to have held the office of President of the United States. He was a distinguished academic (who created an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, though that gets no mention in this book), a successful Civil War General, and an equally successful politician. But although this book only covers a period of less than two years, from Garfield's nomination by a Republican convention deadlocked between supporters of Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine to his assassination by a mentally-deranged office-seeker, Charles Guiteau, it told me a lot that I did not know about Garfield and about 1880s-era politics.
The book is rather thick, given the short chronological span that it covers. But it's all fascinating reading; I couldn't put the book down at night when it was time to go to bed. The author does some things that I am very happy about: when he describes something, whether the geography of Washington, D. C. or the inner workings of the U. S. Senate, that was very different in 1880 from now, he gives a good description of the differences, helping the reader understand the context in which things are happening in the book.
His description of the feud between the two factions of the Republican Party -- the U. S. Grant/Roscoe Conkling "Stalwarts" and the Blaine "Half-Breeds," provides a major explanation of the political happenings of that era. And following the political maneuverings between Garfield, once elected President, and Roscoe Conkling (the powerful Senator from New York and leader of New York's Republican Party) gives me a great appreciation for how politically savvy Garfield must have been. He could have been a great President, I believe, if he'd been allowed to live.
Ackerman makes a good case for the thesis that medical malpractice, not Guiteau's gun, was the cause of Garfield's death. His claim that, even with the rudimentary state of medicine in 1881, Garfield would have survived if the doctors had treated him differently, is hard to dispute. This is enough to give one some reason to think.
This is a very good book, and I echo the other reviewers' recommendations.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2003
I cannot give enough praise to Kenneth Ackerman for this volume. Though billed as a look inside the presidency of James A. Garfield, Ackerman stretches out the text into a large and engrossing narrative of the entire Gilded Age era. Ackerman tells us not of millionaire politics with crooked and boring men who argue over nothing. Rather, Ackerman brings to light the passion that these men had, the sense of honor that had been one of the last remaining culutural elements of the antebellum era to surivive the Civil War, and the truly important issues that we still feel today. Ackerman sheds light on a president, a fued, and a madman.
Ackerman's take on James Garfield should put to rest any doubt of who this man was. He was a religious man, a Half-Breed who was not afraid to dable in patronage. He was a man that found his voice days before falling to an assasians bullet. Most interestingly, Ackerman wonders aloud how the country might have changed if Garfield lived. In six months he had tamed the Senate, purged the Stalwarts, and cemented his reputation. Could Garfield be the greatest president we never had?
The true joy to me was learning about Roscoe Conkling and James G. Blaine. A man with lavender coats against the man dubbed the Plumed Knight. These men and their fued could have a movie made about them. Ackerman shows us a brilliant yet flawed Conkling who was driven more by his hates rather than his loves. And a brilliant Blaine who saw the only way to achieve grand and noble plans was through devious means. Ackerman is wonderful to paint a full picture of these men without judging them.
And finally, his details on Charles Giuetau are remarkable to read. He shows us not an angry office-seeker but a madman who thought god made him kill Garfeild to save the Stalwarts, the Party, and the Nation. Shunned by men who had no reason not to, we slowly see him plunge into mania.
An absolutly breathtaking work that deserves ten stars. A few technical errors here and there (Senator Ambrose Burnside was from Rhode Island, not Deleware) take nothing from this. The lives of Garfield, Conkling, Blaine, Giuetau, Chester Arthur, and many more come alive in a political drama modern Americans could not fathom today. Wonderfull.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2006
At the Republican convention in Chicago in 1880, it looked to everybody that the nomination would fall to either Ulysses S. Grant or James G. Blaine. Former President Grant (1869-77), bucking the custom that two terms as President was all that should be allowed, was the front-runner, supported mainly by the bosses of three powerful states (NY, PA, and IL), known as the "stalwarts." Blaine, long-time powerful Speaker of the House, was a Republican candidate at the nominating convention in Cincinnati in 1876, but lost to Rutherford Hayes, who went on to become President. A third candidate, John Sherman of Ohio, a Senator for a number of terms before being appointed Secreatary of the Treasury by Hayes, ironically was brought into nomination by none other than James Garfield. Blaine and Sherman supporters were known as the "Half-Breeds." When the balloting began, votes were first split between the three, but by the 20th or so ballot, Sherman had fallen to a distant third place. But neither Grant nor Blaine could rack up the required 379 votes needed to win. For 33 ballots the deadlock continued. Then on the 34th ballot, led by a change in votes by Wisconsin from Grant to Garfield, a swift change in tide occurred: by the 36th ballot Garfield had garnered 399 votes and the nomination. He was probably the most surprised man in the convention hall. (Collusion of some kind between the Ohio and Wisconsin delegates, even with Garfield himself, was bandied about, but never held much weight; it was more just dumb (but good) luck that he won.).
Garfield went on to win the election, beating out Democrat Winfield S. Hancock, in a campaign filled with personal abuse. Both held pretty much the same views on most of the issues (civil service reform, trust-busting, pro-labor, anti-immigration of Chinese) and only disagreed on the tariff question (Garfield wanted strong tariff protection, Hancock weaker). Hancock, however, a career military man since 1844, gave the impression to many voters that he knew nothing more than the military and was not suited to be President.
What Garfield failed to do as President was to mend the broken political fences that resulted from the divisive nominating process in Chicago. But before Garfield had much time to do anything, he was shot in the back twice by a deranged office-seeker named Charles J. Guiteau. It's possible that Guiteau was influenced by the invective levelled against Garfield during the campaign (he often cited that his deed was "an act of God," implying some moral motivation), though he pleaded insanity during his trial. The jury found him guilty after deliberating for only an hour, and he was hanged six months later. As for Garfield, it's true that the doctors who attended him probably killed him, with their probing into the open wounds with unsanitized equipment and unwashed hands.
Ackerman's account of all this is told in great detail. He quotes often and freely from original sources, including personal letters, memoirs, and newspaper accounts. The sections regarding the nomination and the aftermath of the shooting (Garfield lingered for two-and-a-half months before succumbing to death) are the best. I get the feeling at times that there was a great urge to sensationalize events, but it's to Ackerman's credit that he doesn't yield to that temptation. Recommended.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
I first encountered the slow death of James Garfield while doing research on unrelated events taking place in the summer of 1881. Reading through the microfilmed copies of several small-town Kansas newspapers, I kept seeing the weekly updates of the stricken president, and even though it wasn't part of the focus of my research at the time, I found myself drawn to the prolongued agony of a nation, as it watched its president slowly slip away.
The cruel irony of Garfield's death was that it was against all odds that he should have been dying in the White House in the first place, and of course that is what makes the whole story so interesting. Ackerman does an excellent job setting the stage for the 1880 Republican convention (yes, once upon a time, party conventions really did matter), which was largely a struggle between several power blocs.
First and foremost was the struggle between Senators Roscoe Conkling & James Blaine, who had a mutual dislike rivalled by few other politicians (LBJ & Bobby Kennedy come to mind). Blaine was seeking the presidency in his own right, and Conkling, having spent the last 4 years jousting with outgoing President Hayes, was angling to regain the White House (for a third term) for former president Grant. Ackerman skillfully weaves a picture filled with wheeling & dealing --- the classic picture of a smoke-filled back room really has historical basis --- and shows how the forces of history sometimes take on a momentum of their own, and slip loose from the hands of even the most adroit political managers.
To surprise of all, Garfield got the nomination, and then had to face an election that turned out to be extremely close. Through the campaign, more wheeling & dealing occurs, and Ackerman vividly illustrates the uncertain nominee attempting to reach agreement with various truculent party bosses. During this stage of the game, Garfield comes off looking very much like a politically clumsy neophyte, not equal to the challenges of the office.
What Garfield might have ultimately done as President we will never know, and thankfully Ackerman spares of the "what-if" brand of history at this point. Garfield's only real victory of consequence during his brief term was the outmaneuvering of Roscoe Conkling regarding office nominations in New York. Garfield's behavior during this episode can be interpreted as either standing firm on principle or mule-headed stubborness, and one can draw any number of conclusions on how this behavior might have played over 4 years. His victory over Conkling was thought to be only the first of several battles for the control of the Republican Party.
Of course, the whole situation abruptly was thrown into chaos as Garfield is shot down, and not only fails to die quickly but actually for a time improves in health. Truly this is the most sickening part of the whole book, as Ackerman describes in gory detail Garfield's eventual succumbing to infection, starvation & blood poisoning. In a perverse way, Charles Guiteau was actually correct when he said he didn't actually kill Garfield. The doctors with their germ-covered hands were ultimately more responsible for Garfield's demise than was Guiteau.
Ackerman's book is not just the story of Garfield; it is the story with several equally important characters --- Grant, Conkling, and Blaine. Lurking in the shadows are two characters that suddenly assume great importance --- Chester Arthur & the strange little man, Charles Guiteau. When Garfield is suddenly removed from the scene, the story does not simply end with him. The other main characters are left behind to try and pick up the pieces and move on without him. One is left with a much greater respect for Arthur after reading this book, as he is suddenly thrust, unprepared and under a cloud of suspicion & distrust, into the presidency. Ackerman does not emphasize this, but Arthur actually knew for the last 3 years of his term that he was slowly dying from Bright's Disease, but managed to conceal his ill health and still function effectively as president.
Overall, this is a lively account of a story that has more than its fair share of peaks and valleys. Read in conjunction with Roy Morris' "Fraud of the Century," this book presents a very good picture of partisan politics and their sometimes unexpected consequences.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2005
As a social science education major, I am a student of history, and will someday be a teacher of it. There are many areas of American history that have recieved an abundance of research in recent years; most notably the Founders and the Revolutionary War. I have felt that the post Civil War era and presidents have been sadly ignored. After reading this book, I feel the tide may be turning.
Kenneth D. Ackerman has written what I deem a historical masterpiece. "Dark Horse" is not only full of historical facts and intrigue, it is also engaging. Who knew that a story about two squabling senators and the president that came between them could make for compelling reading? This book read like a nonfiction novel, if there is such a thing. I was so enthralled with this story. It has villians, heros, and a little clown that would change the course of a nation.I felt a deep sorrow within myself reading of Garfield's last minutes. This surprised me because I knew the outcome of the assasination attempt.
I would say that this book should be required reading for anyone who considers themself a student or teacher of American history.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2006
Kenneth Ackerman has definately made me appriciate James Garfield as a man who could have been a great president had he survived. The Big Feud between Roscoe Conkling and James Blaine is examined as the backdrop for the long deadlock of the 1880 Republican Convention. Finally, Garfield was chosen as a compromise candidate, the ultimate "dark horse", because he did not set out to get the presidency, but once thrust into the nomination, he went at it full speed. It captures the drama of it all, the Third Termers(Of Grant) hubris and fall; the endless pestering and fighting for sinecures and patronage; the inspired madness of Guiteau; and the tragic death of Garfield, which Guiteau severly wounded him, but the imcompentent doctors killed him by trying eveything to remove the bullet. A very fine work
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2003
This is a wonderful book. It is a compelling story of James Garfield who was an accidental president. Garfield was only in office in 6 months and most of that was spent battling to have offices filled.
The background of life in the White House. The lack of security and the open atmosphere of the White House is so interesting when compared with what we know have.
Also the story of the Nominating Convention is compelling. The studies of Chester Arthur, Blaine and Senator Conklin are wonderful. Meeting these individuals is a bonus in this story.
This is a wonderful book.