A week ago my knowledge of James A. Garfield was minimal. I knew he was assassinated, and I knew he was President in the 1800’s (that’s not a big range or anything…), and that was about it. However, I saw Kenneth Ackerman’s Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield as part of the Kindle Daily Deals a month back and decided to download it*. My goal is to read a book about each American President one day, so he seemed like a logical choice to check off the list.
Ackerman does a fine job of providing context for the political atmosphere (and the atmosphere of the nation at large) during Garfield’s sudden rise and fall. I remember learning about patronage in high school, but mostly in regards to Boss Tweed and the New York machine. As I learned, you can’t talk about Garfield without talking about the powerful New York bosses, but Ackerman balances the narrative between the Stalwarts, the Half-Breeds, and Garfield himself. Garfield’s presidency wouldn’t be a story without the influence of those around him, and this book clearly recognizes that.
It’s a surprisingly easy read for political non-fiction. Even at nearly 500 pages, the quick pace of events kept it almost breezy. Of course, since Garfield was assassinated, you know how the story ends before it even begins, and Ackerman makes no attempt to “surprise” the reader with the eventual gunshots. Between sections about his campaign and presidency are chapters about Charles Guiteau, his eventual assassin. Having read Devil in the White City earlier this year, it struck me as very similar: both alternate between the assassin’s gradual descent into madness and the path of his victim.
The book doesn’t end with the bullets, though: Garfield survived for more than two months after he was wounded, so there was much more story to tell. And even then, when the rest of the story could easily have devolved into “and he suffered, and then he suffered some more, and then he died”, it doesn’t. How does Chester A. Arthur react? How should he react? How does public opinion change for a president that it has flip-flopped so much on already? Ackerman addresses each of these in turn, and even though you know that Garfield eventually passes away, it almost seems like for a brief moment, he might be okay.
Some of the most interesting sections were about how the government ran in the 1880’s, and how different (and sometimes similar) it is today. The deadlock in Congress for months seemed all too familiar, and I found myself wondering if we’ve really come all that far, and if perhaps we’ve taken some huge steps backwards in recent years. While today the White House doesn’t allow just anyone to walk through its doors, I can imagine that some of the conversations that go on behind closed doors are very similar to those that took place during Garfield’s very brief presidency.
Dark Horse is a mixture of biography and political thriller, a tug-of-war between Congressional giants and those that finally have the courage to defy them. Even if you aren’t trying to conquer a book about every president like I am, it’s a worthwhile read if you’re interested in the 1800’s and the American political landscape of the day.
All those pertinent details:
- Title: Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield
- Author: Kenneth Ackerman
- Length: 498 pages (Kindle, includes endnotes)
- Genre: nonfiction, history, political, drama
- Rating: 4 stars out of 5
*As of publishing this post, the Kindle version is currently $3.99, and you can download it here. Please note that I use Amazon Affiliates and any money generated will be used to maintain Mark It Read.