James Abram Garfield became the 20th president of the United States in March 1881 at the age of 49. Garfield had already pursued a long career in politics, stretching back to his 1859 election to the Ohio State Senate, and he’d also seen active service in the Civil War. Unfortunately, Garfield was to serve only 199 days in office, the second-shortest term on record.
Garfield was born in 1831 in Orange Township (now called Moreland Hills), Ohio, the last of the five children that Abram and Eliza Garfield had. He was born in humble circumstances, and the family home was a log cabin. In fact, Garfield was only one of seven U.S. presidents who were born in this type of humble dwelling.
Garfield’s early life was all the more poverty stricken because his father died not long after his birth, leaving Eliza to raise her five children single-handedly. Although she did remarry in 1842, the couple parted not long after the wedding. Garfield left home at 16 and found work as a muleteer, looking after animals that hauled a canal boat.
But looking after mules seems not to have agreed with the young Garfield, and he left this job after only six weeks. Returning home, he was persuaded to continue his education at Geauga Seminary in Chester, Ohio. The mules’ loss, it seems, was education’s gain as Garfield turned out to be an outstanding student.
It was while Garfield was at Geauga that he met Lucretia Garfield, the woman who was to become his wife in 1858, with the two having five children. By now, Garfield had graduated from prestigious Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and he entered politics as a Republican in 1857, before taking up his seat in the Ohio Senate in 1859.
By 1861, after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, 11 states had seceded from the United States to form the Confederacy, which was dedicated to preserving slavery. Garfield was in no doubt where he stood on slavery – he was completely opposed to it. War broke out after the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April 1861.
After the Civil War erupted, having taken a speaking tour around Ohio to encourage citizens to enlist in the Union Army, he joined the 42nd Ohio Infantry regiment with the rank of colonel. Garfield’s first task was to bring his unit, which had barely any soldiers, up to strength. He energetically, and successfully, recruited among his neighbors and old student colleagues.
In 1862, Garfield was given the command of a brigade comprising his own regiment, three other infantry units and two cavalry regiments. The brigade soon saw action at the Battle of Middle Creek, and after a hard-fought engagement, the Confederates withdrew. This battle affirmed Union control of eastern Kentucky, and Garfield, still only 30, was rewarded with the rank of brigadier general. Garfield went on to see action at the battles of Shiloh (1862) and Chickamauga (1863).
In 1862, Garfield was elected to Congress to represent Ohio’s 19th district, although he was able to continue his involvement on the battlefields for a time since Congress didn’t actually meet until 1863. When he did recommence his political career, it was as a radical Republican. These radicals were in favor of treating the Confederate rebels harshly and felt that Lincoln was too soft in his attitude towards them.
Finally, America’s incredibly destructive Civil War came to an end in 1865, with the Union undisputed victors. The union victory spelled the end of slavery, and some four million slaves were freed at a stroke. Now came the period of Reconstruction, and Garfield gradually softened his hard-line attitude towards the defeated secessionist states.
Through the 1870s, Garfield’s political career continued with the usual ups and downs that politicians face. In the highly controversial Crédit Mobilier of America corruption scandal in 1872, involving Union Pacific Railroad finances, Garfield was tainted like many of his contemporaries but not fatally so.
Then the peak of Garfield’s career in U.S. politics beckoned in 1880. By now a senator-elect, Garfield went to the 1880 Republican National Convention, where the Republican nomination for the next presidential candidate was to be decided. He fully intended to be nothing more than John Sherman’s campaign manager.
But none of the three candidates for the nomination, Sherman, James G. Blaine and Ulysses S. Grant was able, after dozens of ballots, to garner enough votes from the delegates to win the nomination. Garfield was now put forward as a compromise candidate, and, at the 36th ballot, he won the nomination for presidential candidate on the Republican ticket.
Then in the 1880 election, Garfield defeated his Democratic opponent, Winfield Scott Hancock, to take the presidency. In a scenario that may be resonant for contemporary American voters, with 9.2 million votes cast, Garfield scraped the popular vote by a margin of less than 2,000. But his victory in the electoral college was a resounding 214 to 155.
But President Garfield’s residency at the Whitehouse was to be all too brief. On July 2, 1881, just four months after his inauguration, Garfield was at Washington’s Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station when one Charles J. Guiteau shot him twice. One bullet merely grazed his arm but the other hit him in the back, giving him a deep wound.
Even today, Guiteau’s mental state continues to be controversial. Back in 1881, one doctor believed him to be sane. An autopsy at the time suggested that he might have had syphilis, which could have affected his mind. A modern neurologist has suggested that he was a classic psychopath. In any case, Guiteau was found guilty of murder and hanged, having danced his way to the gallows according to contemporary reports.
President Garfield, it was thought, would die shortly after this severe gunshot wound. But he clung on to life. And in fact, the wound was not nearly as bad as must have appeared from an external examination. Miraculously, the bullet had missed all vital organs, passed through a lumbar vertebra, missing the spinal cord, and ended up in fatty tissue. It was not a fatal wound.
But the doctors who tended Garfield at the Whitehouse probed the wound with unsterilized instruments, trying to determine what damage had been done. This was not a straightforward task at a time before X-rays were available. And the crucial role of sterilization of medical equipment was not yet widely accepted in the United States.
On top of that, Garfield’s doctors denied him solid foods on the grounds that the bullet might have caused damage to his intestines. They fed him by rectum with a variety of items including opium tincture, whiskey and milk, and he lost 100 pounds in three months. In 2006, Dr. Ira Rutkow, a professor of surgery, told the New York Times, “They basically starved him to death.”
And Garfield did indeed die, on September 19, 1881, some three months after he was shot. Dr. Rutkow commented, “Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In today’s world, he would have gone home in a matter or two or three days.” Even Garfield’s assassin, Guiteau, said, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”
Fortunately, however, not every U.S. president has met such a grisly fate. In fact, one of the country’s great statesmen, John Tyler, was blessed with such a long life that two of his grandsons are alive today – despite the fact that he sat in the Oval Office in the mid-1800s. So, how exactly have he and his progeny managed such a feat?
Even keen history buffs may not immediately recognize Tyler’s name. In fact, though, Tyler was the tenth president of America, serving as he did from 1841 to 1845. And as we shall see, his presidential term included some notable firsts. Not only that, but this president from the past also has an astonishing connection with two people who are alive today.
Tyler was born in 1790, on the Greenway Plantation in Charles City County, Virginia. His family were wealthy, and they trace their roots back to colonial times in 17th century Williamsburg. In fact, his father, John Tyler Senior, was a friend of Thomas Jefferson and was, moreover, a prosperous planter. Tyler Sr. was also a judge and a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and in 1808 he became the Governor of Virginia – a position that he held until his death in 1811. Tyler’s mother, Mary, meanwhile, died suddenly when he was just seven years old.
But what of the young Tyler? Well, he was a slim and somewhat sickly youth prone to diarrhea – a malady that apparently plagued him for the rest of his life. Tyler was, though, very gifted academically. Indeed, at the age of 17 he graduated from the prestigious College of William and Mary, and two years later he joined the Virginia bar.
Tyler subsequently started a law practice in the Virginian capital, Richmond, before he subsequently launched his political career. In 1811, then, Tyler won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, Charles City County. The young politician was just 21 at the time of his election success, and his early career was defined by two main political positions: a robust belief in the independent rights of states and hostility to any notion of a national bank.
In 1816 Tyler then achieved election to the U.S. Congress. However, he found his time in office somewhat dissatisfactory, and he left Congress in 1820. You see, the most contentious political issues of the day included slavery, and Tyler had inherited 13 slaves when his father died in 1813. Hence, Tyler voted against any bills that sought to control slavery – but the movement towards the abolition of the practice was on the rise, and the Virginian politician felt powerless to stop it.
Tyler’s next move, then, was to return to Virginia state politics. In 1823 he once again represented Charles City County in Virginia’s House of Delegates, before he then became the state’s Governor in 1825. This position was largely ceremonial, though, and Tyler’s governorship is most remembered for his funeral address for Thomas Jefferson, who died in 1826.
Tyler subsequently revived his interest in national politics in 1827 when he took a seat in the U.S. Senate. He then went on to serve in the Senate until 1836, when he announced his retirement, saying, “By the surrender of the high station to which I was called by the voice of the people of Virginia, I shall set an example to my children which shall teach them to regard as nothing place and office, when either is to be attained or held at the sacrifice of honor.”
But Tyler’s retirement was to be but a short-lived affair. You see, later on in 1836 Tyler stood as a candidate for Vice President on the Virginia Whigs ticket. The presidential candidate was Willie Person Mangum. In the event, however, Martin Van Buren claimed the presidency, with Richard Mentor Johnson alongside as Vice President.
Undeterred, however, Tyler stood as a Whig for the vice presidency again in the 1840 election. This time Tyler campaigned alongside his running partner for presidency, William Henry Harrison, and together the pair duly won the election. At the age of 50, then, Tyler had reached what could well otherwise have been the crowning moment of his political career. A mere month after taking the oath of office, though, President Harrison passed away.
The U.S. government was now in uncharted waters. Harrison had been the ninth U.S. president, and up until then, none of them had died while in office. Hence, some – including Harrison’s Cabinet members – believed that it was unclear whether Tyler would become the full president, or if he would merely be an acting president.
But Tyler himself had no such doubts. Without delay, then, officials summoned Judge William Cranch to a hotel room, where Tyler then took the presidential oath. Furthermore, this act set a precedent that has held sway ever since. The most recent example of this rule in action was Gerald Ford’s succession to the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Tyler, though, had become the first American president to hold the office without having been elected to it. And he made no bones about the fact that he intended to exercise his presidential powers to the full. In fact, when Harrison’s Cabinet suggested that decisions should be taken by majority vote, Tyler replied, “I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice. But I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall or shall not do.”
Tyler was soon to achieve another presidential first, too. In 1842, members of the House of Representatives, angered by Tyler’s veto of various bills, moved to impeach the president. Among Tyler’s opponents was former president John Quincy Adams, who was a strong supporter of the abolition of slavery. Ultimately, however, the impeachment attempt came to nothing.
Away from the squabbles of domestic politics, though, Tyler did have some success in foreign affairs; and perhaps his most notable achievement was the annexation of Texas. The Lone Star State had become an independent republic after seceding from Mexico in 1836. But in February 1844 Texas signed a treaty to become part of the U.S. before officially joining the Union in 1845.
Yet after his efforts to bring Texas into the U.S., Tyler did not stand for a second term as president, instead retiring to his plantation in Virginia. He lived there with his second wife, Julia Gardiner, whom he had married in 1844. Some 30 years his junior, Gardiner gave Tyler seven children, meaning the president now had 15 children across his two marriages. And thanks in part to one of those children, Tyler has recently been brought into the public eye. You see, remarkably, the former president still has grandchildren alive and well to this day.
So just how is this possible? Well, Tyler was 63 when his son Lyon Gardiner Tyler was born on August 24, 1853. And like his father before him, Lyon married twice and had children late in life. In fact, Lyon even fathered a child when he was at the ripe old age of 75.
Yes, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. and Harrison Ruffin Tyler were born, respectively, in 1924 and 1928 and are still with us today. So just three generations of this family span an astonishing 237 years, from President Tyler’s birth, in 1790, until 2017. Moreover, it’s a span that covers the incumbency, at least in part, of all 45 presidents to date.
Today, then, while Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. resides in Tennessee, Harrison continues to live at the Tylers’ Sherwood Forest Plantation in Virginia. Furthermore, Harrison even occasionally still hosts tours of the Tylers’ historic home.
And Harrison still likes to emphasize the positive aspects of his grandfather’s presidency. “He’s been maligned in some ways, because he was elected to the Confederate Congress, so people say he’s a traitor,” Harrison told the New York magazine in 2012. “But actually, he should be known for his efforts as the organizer of the Peace Conference in Washington in 1861. He tried to get the uncommitted states to all agree on a program, and then get the other states to join in, and get everybody back together.”
Regardless of political creed, though, how many people can say that their grandfather was born in the 18th century? Still, while this is something that many people might brag about, Harrison is the epitome of modesty. When the New York magazine asked Harrison what people have said when he tells them that he is President Tyler’s grandson, he simply replied, “I don’t know; I don’t bring it up.”