Today marks the 129th anniversary of President James A. Garfield’s assassination, which set in motion a series of events that did away with the spoils system for federal employment and laid the groundwork for the modern civil service we know today. And it all started with a certifiable whackjob and loser named Charles Guiteau.
Guiteau had utterly failed as a student, lawyer, husband, newspaperman, free-love cult member, revival preacher, and extortionist before he decided he would become a Republican Party political kingmaker. But as with all those who suffer from delusions of grandeur, his triumphs were all in his head.
In 1880, he wrote a speech extolling the virtues of Ulysses S. Grant, who Republicans were considering for a third term as president. But after Garfield won the nomination, Guiteau simply tacked references to him on to his incoherent tract, which remained largely about how awesome Grant was. Despite the fact that his rhetorically incompetent speech was delivered only once or twice, the egomaniacal Guiteau convinced himself it was pivotal to getting Garfield elected, and decided he was due a plum government job as a reward.
At the time, the so-called spoils system was still going strong and crippling the civil service with corruption and ineptitude. Under this patronage system, lucrative government positions such as postmaster and customs inspector went to the supporters of the political party in charge, and the losing party’s people were thrown out. It was seriously ramped up during President Andrew Jackson’s administration (during Old Hickory’s inauguration, job seekers literally busted in the White House windows to get their posts) and some halfhearted attempts at reform over the following 50 years did nothing to rein it in. And once Garfield was in the White House, it was his turn to reward his friends — or so Guiteau thought.
Guiteau pestered Garfield and Secretary of State James Blaine incessantly — in letters and in person — to be named ambassador to Paris. He sank into a depression and rage after the post went to somebody else and decided God wanted him to kill Garfield. “Ingratitude is the basest of crimes,” Guiteau wrote in a letter as he planned the assassination. “This is not murder. It is a political necessity. It will make my friend [Chester A.] Arthur President and save the Republic.”
Guiteau stalked Garfield for weeks, and almost killed him one day in New Jersey. However, Mrs. Garfield was there and since Guiteau didn’t want to upset her, he waited for another day. (What a gentleman.) On July 2, 1881, Guiteau shot Garfield twice with a revolver at a train station in Washington.
Continuing Guiteau’s long string of failures, he wasn’t even a very effective assassin — Garfield took 11 weeks to die after he was shot. (And if the medical treatment of the day hadn’t been so dire — doctors stuck their dirty fingers and unsterilized tools in his wound to try to dig the bullet out, puncturing his liver and causing sepsis — he probably would have survived. Guiteau claimed at his trial that the doctors were to blame for killing Garfield — “I just shot him” — and for once in his life, he wasn’t far off.)
Guiteau reveled in the media circus surrounding his trial, which was one of the first times the insanity defense was used in this country. He publicly cursed the judge and his defense team, delivered his testimony in the form of epic poems and performances of “John Brown’s Body,” and was convinced he would launch a lecture tour and run for president after his acquittal. But it wasn’t to be, and Guiteau was convicted and sentenced to die. Grandiose until the end, he waved to the crowd that gathered to see his execution on June 30, 1882, and recited a tedious and repetitive poem he wrote that began, “I am going to the Lordy.” (It could have been worse. His request for orchestral accompaniment was mercifully denied.)
Public outrage at Guiteau’s crime gave reformers the political momentum necessary to pass the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which established the Civil Service Commission (predecessor to the Office of Personnel Management and Merit Systems Protection Board) and started to bury the spoils system. At first, only 10 percent of the government’s 132,000 employees were covered, but under the leadership of aggressive commissioners like Teddy Roosevelt, more and more of the civil service was placed under the new merit principles.
Old “Charles Gitout” (as the irritated ladies at the aforementioned free-love commune called him) did end up changing the course of the U.S. government, though not in the way he hoped. Thankfully, these days we have good government groups like the Partnership for Public Service to point out the flaws in our civil service before it comes to assassination.