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Garfield: A Biography
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2007
I am currently reading a biography of every President in order. For James Garfield the choice is easy (the only competition being the short bio from the American Presidents series) and thankfully Mr. Peskin has left almost no room for another book to take its place as the definitive Garfield biography.

In short, this is among the best "academic" Presidential biographies that I have read. Peskin has clearly done an exhaustive amount of research as well as having a thorough command of the time period in American history. The book is extremely well organized and Peskin's writing style is fluid and engaging. The book is adept at presenting in depth material in a way that is easy to understand and ideas and story threads follow logically through the book. It is possible that some may find the detail level a bit much but it is certainly appropriate for this type of biography and in my opinion Peskin has struck just the right balance of detail and related background information without losing focus on the main subject and important themes. I highly recommend this biography, it will clearly be the definitive Garfield biography for quite some time to come.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2006
I had the pleasure of being a graduate student of Dr. Peskin's in the late 1980's and one of the things he taught us was how to write. Strangely, he never used Garfield as an example of superb historical writing or scholarship, but it is both. It is generally considered the finest biography of Garfield's life in print, and it is.

I picked it up on a lark one weekend and spent the entire weekend reading it. I couldn't put it down!! It is that good and the scholarship is great! A must-read for history buffs!
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37 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 1999
This was an interesting biography about an accomplished General, Congressman and President. Peskin has done a great job of discussing both the military and civilian accomplishments of this great man. The book is usually entertaining and informative; however, at times it becomes a bit dry. Moreover, I wish Peskin would have spent more pages on the academical accomplishments of this one time professor. An interesting read for persons interested in post-reconstructionist United States.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2010
If you are looking strictly for facts about James Garfield, this is a good book on a President in which little is known or written about. This deals with his religious upbringing, Civil War experience, and his political career. As I was reading I always anticipated the author was leading me to the climax of the situation, but I found myself only stumbling into more tedious facts about Garfield. For example, there are a few references to Garfield being a strong backer of our money being linked to the gold standard. I was anticipating the book leading me into insight as to why Garfield felt so strongly about this and commentary he made concerning this. But the author doesn't delve into it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2012
James Garfield's Presidency, like many of his predecessors and successors after Abraham Lincoln, and before Theodore Roosevelt's is shrouded in obscurity. His was brief, and tragic. As the author, Mark Peskin, bemoans at the end of the book, it is difficult to remember that period of history as to who was bearded, and who bewhiskered.

Mark Peskin has undertaken what has to be called the definitive biography of our 20th President. This is a classic biography, tracing Garfield's roots, childhood, political ascension and wartime contributions. He does not fall in love with his subject, and paints a seemingly objective portrait of the man's life.

Garfield was a decent man, yet it is easy to judge him against today's standards, where the treatment of blacks as anything but equals is odious. Society's standards were not the same in the 1870's and 1880's, and even Garfield's pro-Reconstruction stance can be looked at character weakness.

Garfield does not deserve the obscurity he swathed in. He was a central figure in Congress for almost twenty years, a conduit for many of the central issues of the day, and a tireless worker to pass laws and budgets through Congress. His Presidential legacy is slim, because of his brief term in office, but there are indications of both potential greatness, or potential weakness. We will never know.

The book itself is fast moving, despite it's 600 plus pages. Like many biographies of 19th century american figures, it is colored with meloncholy. Life was difficult in those times. Garfield lost two children, and his day to day life, including his brief Presidency was often monotonous. The central characters, or "friends" are often devious, such as James Blaine, or self-serving. His enemies, such as Roscoe Conkling, are worse. Even Chester Arthur, his running mate, is portrayed as being two-faced.

Garfield's death, even at a distance of over 130 years, is horrifying. Such were the times.

Yet, Peskin has done American History a service with this biography. It is a must read for anyone wanting to learn about our Presidents.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 3, 2013
Earlier this year the Washington Post published a Presidents' Day op-ed that sought to make the case for James Abram Garfield as possibly "the best president we never had, or hardly had." Their claims for Garfield as "a president of conviction and conscience" were based on Garfield's inaugural address, as well as his appointment of a few African Americans to positions within his administration. What their claims were most assuredly not based on, though, was a reading of Allan Peskin's biography of Garfield, which offers a thorough understanding of the man based on a comprehensive examination of his life and career.

Born in Ohio, Garfield attained success almost in spite of himself. Drawn to the sea, a period of illness cut short an early career as a canal driver, as he was drawn to more academic pursuits. A member of the Disciples of Christ, he made the most of the educational opportunities they provided, returning after college to teach at the school he attended as a youth. A gifted public speaker, Garfield began a career in politics that was cut short by his decision to serve in the Union Army, where he rose to the rank of major general. While still serving he won election to Congress, where he eventually emerged as the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Peskin sees Garfield as a capable figure, yet one whose ambition was tempered by a degree of fatalism about the outcome. Thus while serving as John Sherman's floor lieutenant at the 1880 Republican convention, he did nothing to discourage consideration of him as a "dark-horse" candidate. A narrow election won him the presidency, and he had only just resolved the party struggle over patronage when he was shot by a deranged assassin and suffered a slow descent towards death.

Peskin's book is easily the best biography of Garfield, thanks to its combination of judicious analysis and enjoyable writing. He is blunt in his assessment of Garfield, going past the superficial explanations to provide a convincing cataloging of his strengths and weaknesses. The result is an excellent biography, one of the best ever written about a president and one that likely will stand the test of time for decades to follow.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2012
Book is a bit daunting and dry in some areas. However, it can not be more thorough, well written, and informative. All 600 some pages are packed with information on this interesting lad from a small corner in Ohio. Garfield is a dynamic influence before he war, during the war, and reconstruction. Despite some mishandling at the beginning of his presidency he might have turned out to be one of the better ones. Its a shame we know Lincoln's and JFK's assassins but not Garfield's and Garfield's killer may be more interesting as outlined in Peskin's book. Truly is a must have to any presidential library and civil war libraries. I'm reading a book on every president and this one is in the top 10 at least.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2012
I found this Presidential biography to be very honestly written...meaning that it did not overly praise the former Chief-Executive and it really opened his life up and showed his mistakes and his poor character traits as equally as it showed his good qualities and his political abilities. I do recommend it since it really explains the importance of Garfield's political life and short Presidency and it covers the assassination fairly well. I did read an additional book on the assassination that delved more into Guiteau, the assassin. I recommend doing that to get better insight into Guiteau's madness because this biography does not strongly focus on Guiteau so much.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2014
I really wanted to love this biography, but I was left somewhat disappointed. Garfield was a fascinating subject, and the book appeared to be thoroughly researched and was fairly well-written. Why only 3 stars?

The author had an annoying habit of inserting fairly broad, sweeping assertions about Garfield without providing any documentation or analysis supporting them. For example, a number of times the author asserted or implied that Garfield abandoned or at least de-emphasized his religious faith over the course of his career, but we were given no basis for those rather sweeping statements. I have no problem with authors editorializing, but I want to know the bases of their editorial comments so I can evaluate for myself whether or not I agree. Peskins made a number of sweeping statements or assertions without any footnotes or other bases for such assertions being offered. I found that very frustrating.

Along those same lines, although I came into the book with a strong bias in favor of Garfield, Peskins seemed to present evidence of some very duplicitous behavior on Garfield's part, but would then explain it away as not being duplicitous at all--again without providing any basis for that assertion.

One example that comes to mind is the controversy surrounding Garfield's letters to Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase that were critical of William Rosencrans, Garfield's commanding officer. Based on the contents of the letter as presented by Peskins, I see no rational conclusion other than that Garfield was highly critical of his commanding officer and thereby somewhat disloyal (whether or not the criticisms were true). Peskins, on the other hand, went out of his way to try to paint Garfield as a loyal subordinate of Rosencrans, whose letters were taken out of context in order to damage Garfields' reputation. The facts, as presented by Peskins himself, simply did not support that conclusion.

These baseless conclusions or defenses of Garfield that were unsupported or even contrary to the facts presented by Peskins left me frustrated and somewhat disappointed with this otherwise well-written and comprehensive biography of a fascinating individual.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2014
Peskin's biography of President Garfield is full and well researched. Each period of the president's life receives balanced treatment: his childhood, education, congressional career and presidency. Peskin goes to great lengths to examine (explain) Garfield's emotional and psychological makeup, his complex mix of confidence, doubt and sense of destiny.

A fuller accounting of Garfield's assassin's trial would have been welcomed,but, all in all, Peskin's work is complete and satisfying.
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