Shapell Manuscript Foundation Looks at History Between the Lines

A new project of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Collection will take a look at primary source documents corresponding to a particular day on the calendar in order to get a new insight into a large variety of events in history. The ‘Between the Lines’ project will emphasize one document from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Collection to help focus attention on one event which occurred on a particular day to gain a deeper insight into that event.

July 2nd, 1881 was a momentous moment in American history. On that day, an assassin, Charles Guiteau, shot two bullets into the back of President James A. Garfield as the president was making his way across the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Depot to catch a train. It took an additional two months for the president to succumb to his wounds, making him the second US president to be murdered while in office, after Abraham Lincoln had been killed a mere 16 years before.

This event is well-known, but what is not so famous is the fact that Garfield had been warned that his life was in danger, and was advised to keep bodyguards around him at all times. So why didn’t Garfield take this advice and take precautions to protect himself from the assassins bullet?

That question is answered by an extraordinary document from the Shapell’s Manuscript Foundation Collection: A letter written by the then president-elect Garfield to the Treasury Secretary John Sherman, dated November 16, 1880. In this letter Garfield explains why he did not feel a need to heed the warning letter he received, telling him he was in serious danger, not even allowing himself to be worried.

As Garfield wrote:

The letter of Mr. Hudson of Detroit… came duly to hand. I do not think there is any serious danger in the direction to which he refers. Though I am receiving, what I suppose to be the usual number of threatening letters on that subject. Assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightning and it is not best to worry about either…

In addition, Garfield believed that the leader of a free republic “ought to be able to walk freely among his fellow citizens.”

Thanks to ‘Between the Lines’ a new insight has been gained into the way a US president viewed his role 130 years ago compared to the way this role is viewed today.


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