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James A. Garfield: Impact and Legacy

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Murdered within months of his inauguration, Garfield served as President too briefly for him to have left much of an impact. Still, his legacy is far more ambiguous than most people realize. His replacement of Merritt shows him not only lacking judgment but acting as a spoilsman himself. His secretary of state, James G. Blaine, conducted foreign policy in, at best, an offhand manner, adding to the burdens of his successor, Chester A. Arthur. Nevertheless, Garfield appeared to be increasingly dependent upon Blaine as his short-lived presidency emerged. Since Garfield was passionately devoted to hard money and a laissez-faire economy, it is doubtful whether he could have really coped with the recession that began in 1881. He might have advanced the cause of civil rights, but without again stationing federal troops in the South, his options were limited.

For his reputation, it might have been just as well that he died when he did. He died in the prime of his life, still politically untested. The times did not demand a President in the heroic mold, and Garfield could therefore be remembered as a martyr above all else, as one who truly gave his life for his nation.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Justus Doenecke

Professor Doenecke is a professor emeritus of history at the New College of Florida. His writings include:

The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (University Press of Kansas, 1981)

Debating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Foreign Policies, 1933–1945 (With Mark S. Stoler, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005)