Monday, May 12, 2014

Who the hell is Charles J. Guiteau?

Cleveland Heights police are searching for a shirtless, chain smoking, whiskey drinking vandal who recently broke into the tomb of President James A. Garfield and stole approximately twenty commemorative spoons of very little value.

That in itself says something about America’s lack of interest in our 20th President, a man who has never been a hot topic at cocktail parties.  This lack of interest is rather sad, because he was a fascinating fellow whose death brought about one of the most important changes in the history of the federal government.

It is said that Garfield was our first left-handed President and the last to be born on the frontier in a log cabin.  An Ohio native, he served in the Union Army during the Civil War, rising to major general and fighting at Shiloh and Chickamauga, two of the bloodiest battles of the war.

A Republican, he served in Congress before being elected President in 1880.  Then on July 2, 1881, just 200 days after taking office, Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office seeker. The assassin,  Charles J. Guiteau, had supported Garfield during the campaign and was angry because he was not given a federal appointment.  At the time, all federal employees were political appointees. 

The President did not die immediately.  He lingered for more than two months before he finally died from complications associated with the gunshot wound.

As a result of Garfield’s murder, Congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, the  law establishing the U.S. Civil Service and requiring that government jobs be awarded on the basis of merit.

Today there are approximately 2 million federal civil service employees, often referred to as the federal bureaucracy.  So if you are one of those people who likes to complain about the federal bureaucracy, don’t blame the current President.  Blame Charles J. Guiteau, he’s the guy that started it all.

© 2014 by David Lee McMullen, All Rights Reserved.

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