Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Memories Fade: Washington’s most memorialized (and least known) President

Memories Fade: Washington’s most memorialized (and least known) President

 By Matthew B. Gilmore*

The story might be ripped from today’s headlines: a presidential memorial, delayed for years, caught up in Congressional infighting; legislation pending to displace the memorial and replace it with another. A powerful lobby behind the memorial had chosen the site and chosen the design (criticized in the press), and the designer without competition. The site is very close to the Capitol, on Maryland Avenue.

Yet the year was 1887, not 2017, and the memorial was for President Garfield, not Eisenhower. Garfield’s death in 1881 was a national shock.

He was struck down less than six months into his term. He had been a compromise candidate for the presidency and had won the closest election in American history. His had been a difficult life, but his rise epitomized the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story — a prototypical self-made man. This was reflected in a passage from one of his favorite poems, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”: “. . . Moving from high to higher, / Becomes on Fortune’s crowning slope / The pillar of people’s hope…” [1]

He was a pillar of hope, a refuge from caustic divisions in the Republican Party. A tragic figure of unrealized potential, his term was mired in controversy from the start and his personal life overwrought with the long illness and near-death of his wife, First Lady Lucretia Garfield.


Death and Memorialization

Garfield was shot in the Baltimore and Potomac train station by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881; then returned to the White House for medical care. Guiteau was not a “disappointed office-seeker” but was rather a delusional character with dreams of glorious public service. The long, agonizing death of Garfield captivated public attention during the summer of 1881.

The end came on September on 19th in Elberon, New Jersey, after a wretched summer of suffering in the White House. He’d been moved, at his insistence, when it was clear he could never recover. His body was brought back to the capital for lying-in-state. Garfield was Capitol only the sixth man to lie in state in the rotunda. This, the second presidential assassination, was in some ways more shocking than the first – Guiteau, seemingly merely motivated by office-seeking but actually delusional, unlike Booth who was seeking revenge for the South’s loss in the Civil War.

Calls to create a memorial were immediate.
Complete article here: http://intowner.com/2017/10/21/memories-fade-washingtons-most-memorialized-and-least-known-president/  





“No more of those hideous monuments! Let us have a memorial of General Grant that will be worth of a Great Nation.” This cartoon, published in Puck magazine Puck sometime in the 1880s, shows the hostile reaction of some to the memorials of the day, including that of Garfield.

One comment on “Memories Fade: Washington’s most memorialized (and least known) President

  1. Pingback: Remembering President James Garfield | Washington DC History Resources

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