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Friday, February 19, 2016

President Garfield and the Smithsonian

Inspired by President’s Day, let’s look beyond the presidents who appear on our currency and consider one of our less celebrated presidents and his relationship to the Smithsonian.  President James A. Garfield (1831-1881) held office for just a few short months before his assassination.  Though one of our shortest serving presidents; Garfield had a long career in public service and a long association with the Smithsonian.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the Smithsonian American Art Museum; gift of the International Business Machines Corporation to the Smithsonian Institution, 1962. NPG.65.25
After being selected to serve as a Smithsonian Regent, one of the three regents from the U.S. House of Representatives, Garfield became an active part of the Smithsonian. Garfield was a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents for a total of seven terms over twelve years.  First appointed under Joseph Henry, he left the board for a few years before being reappointed as Spencer Baird entered office as Secretary.  As a regent, Garfield was a conscientious attendee at meetings. From his letters and regular attendance, it is clear that Garfield took his duties seriously and became a correspondent and colleague of both our first Secretary Joseph Henry and our second Secretary Spencer F. Baird.

Garfield corresponded with Henry about a variety of subjects related to Smithsonian business, from natural history expeditions to the Smithsonian’s scientific publications.  While their acquaintance may have begun on Smithsonian business, Baird also corresponded with Garfield on other matters important to him as well. Garfield’s position in the U.S. House of Representatives made him a valuable ally when seeking funding for new scientific expeditions or an alteration in U.S. government policy.

Broadside for "The Grand Fete to Garfield and Arthur at the National Museum Building." Smithsonian Institution Archives. Negative Number 75-11115. 
Garfield’s term as regent only came to an end with his swearing in as President on March 4th, 1881. But his regard for the Smithsonian was reflected in these festivities as well.  Though he was leaving the Board of Regents, his inaugural ball was held in the newly constructed U.S. National Museum building, now called the Arts & Industries building.  The first event in this space, the building was not even fully finished – it would take another eight months to open to the public. Yet, perhaps this signifies the importance of the Smithsonian to Garfield. As a regent, he would have been involved in approving and monitoring the building’s construction. The Board of Regents authorized its use with the condition that no precedent would be set for other uses of the building, making a special exception for the new President. Temporary wooden floors had to be constructed and ten thousand bins were built to accommodate the hats, coats, and wraps of the approximately seven thousand visitors that would stream through the front doors on inauguration day.
The rotunda of the new United States National Museum (USNM), now the Arts and Industries Building (A&I), decorated for President James A. Garfield's and Chester A. Arthur's Inaugural Ball, March 4, 1881. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Negative Number MAH-37715A. 
Sadly, Garfield died just seven months after his inauguration. Shot by Charles Guiteau while waiting to board a train on July 2, 1881, neither of the two bullets that hit their mark were initially fatal. One glanced Garfield’s arm, but the other pierced his back and shattered a rib before embedding itself deep inside Garfield.  In agonizing pain, doctor after doctor tried to help the President, but the bullet that eventually killed him could not be found. Alexander Graham Bell even tried a newly-invented metal detector in an attempt to find the bullet.  Bell and Garfield shared a connection to the Smithsonian.  Joseph Henry was a mentor and close friend of Bell, encouraging his research and experiments. As a member of the Board of Regents and fellow correspondent of Henry, it is possible that Garfield made Bell’s acquaintance through their mutual friend Joseph Henry and the Smithsonian Institution.  And Bell followed in Garfield’s footsteps, serving on the Smithsonian Board of Regents from 1898 to 1922.

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant

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