In the pantheon of assassinated American presidents, James A. Garfield falls far below Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy in recognition and public veneration. But his death brought on a significant change in Anglo-American relations. Why was that?
On July 2, 1881, less than a year after James Garfield was elected the 20th president of the United States, he was shot by a disgruntled office seeker named Charles Guiteau. It took the wounded president more than two months to succumb to his wounds; he died on September 19th, 1881.
Garfield’s murder was a mega-event for its time, with Americans and much of the rest of the world fixated on the drama of a president nursing his wounds, fighting to recover. He eventually died from an infection, due to what most historians now describe as incompetent medical care.
Garfield’s death spawned changes in how the Constitution deals with presidential succession and reforms in the civil service dispensing of federal positions. What is perhaps even more relevant, however, is that Garfield’s death had a significant impact in solidifying what became known as the special relationship between the United States and Great Britain.
Before Garfield’s death, the Anglo-American relationship was a strained one. The United States was emerging as an economic world power, creating competition and inspiring some resentment across the Empire. And in the United States, British ambivalence regarding the American Civil War created suspicions about British motives on the world stage.
While news of Lincoln’s death sixteen years earlier had not made a huge impact in Great Britain, the British response to Garfield’s death was “spontaneous and powerful,” notes historian Mike Sewell. British newspaper readers voraciously gobbled up months of bulletins on the ailing president’s condition, complete with reports on his weight, diet, and his grieving wife. The story became one of intense human interest, going beyond concerns about international statecraft. Upon news of Garfield’s death, the Prime Minister and Queen Victoria offered condolences, businesses closed, church bells rang, government buildings were draped in black, and the North Sea fishing fleet lowered its banners in the dead American’s honor. The City of London closed its offices. “All the English-speaking race is in mourning,” the Times of London stated.
Americans were preparing the centennial of the victory over British forces at Yorktown that ended the American Revolution. After Great Britain’s response to Garfield’s death, that event took on a more subdued tone, avoiding U.S. triumphalism. This was a symptom of increased good feelings and the burying of old resentments between the two great English-speaking powers.
Why did Great Britain respond so emotionally to Garfield’s death? Garfield himself, while honored for his Civil War military leadership, was known in his day as a muddling politician, not generating much enthusiasm. He captured the Republican nomination for president in 1880 on the 36th ballot as a compromise choice. Still, Garfield’s assassination resonated with the British public far more than Lincoln’s had.
The reason may have been surprisingly simple: improved communications. It took weeks for the assassination of Lincoln to be publicized in Britain; the mourning for Lincoln was largely completed before the British public even knew the president had died. The shooting of Garfield, on the other hand, was an instant event, generating widespread sympathy across the ocean, thanks to improved telegraph communication making worldwide distribution of instantaneous news possible.