looking back

Looking Back – James Garfield

By Kinen Carvala

Entering Golden Gate Park from Stanyan Street heading west, visitors might notice a huge monument that sits atop a large stone pedestal on the right side of JFK Drive, just before the Conservatory of Flowers. While it is a popular spot for people to relax on the grass or toss a Frisbee – or sit on the stone base of the monument itself – chances are that few people know the history of the massive Garfield Monument. 


Statue honoring President James Garfield is just east of the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Photos by Michael Durand.

James Garfield was inaugurated on March 4, 1881 as the 20th president of the United States. “Garfield is not one of the best-known presidents,” according` government broadcaster Voice of America. Even less well known is why there is a statue of a woman holding a sword in the front of his monument.

While James Garfield did serve in the Ohio state senate before the Civil War, military service is what launched his national political career. Garfield’s memoirs of his experience as a Union general at the Battle of Chickamauga brought him national attention. 

Meanwhile, after the Civil War ended in 1865, the Reconstruction Era’s constitutional amendments and federal civil rights policies gave former (male) slaves the right to vote, much to the chagrin of Democratic Southern state governments and the newly formed Ku Klux Klan.

Garfield only

James Garfield, 20th president of the United States.

Garfield was elected as a representative to Congress from Ohio after the war. Reconstruction ended with the 1876 election, which had disputed electoral votes. Garfield, as a member of an Electoral Commission, awarded the disputed electoral votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as part of a political bargain with the Democrat-controlled Congress to withdraw federal troops from the South.

Political bargaining both began and ended Garfield’s presidency. When the Republican Party held its convention to nominate its candidate for the 1880 presidential election, Garfield emerged as a compromise candidate between two Republican factions: Stalwarts supported the existing system of political patronage and backed Ulysses S. Grant for a third term (the 22nd Amendment for term limits did not exist then) while Half-Breeds (“half-Republicans”) wanted civil service reform more than just political connections to determine who got federal jobs. Stalwart and senior New York Sen. Roscoe Conkling led the political machine instrumental in delivering New York’s vital votes for Garfield.

Garfield wide w floridians

Toni Gemayel (left), who moved to San Francisco from Florida four years ago, sits with Taylor Mak, another Floridian who moved to the City 18 months ago, soaking up some sun while relaxing on the base of the Garfield Monument in Golden Gate Park.

As information in the National Archives indicated, Garfield’s perceived failure to hold up another political bargain would be significant. Before the Republican convention, Charles Guiteau of his own accord wrote a pamphlet supporting Grant. After Garfield was nominated instead, Guiteau spent time trying to network with Republicans near their offices and meetings. After Guiteau was finally allowed to give a pro-Garfield speech in New York and after Garfield’s victory, he became convinced that his efforts were worthy of a diplomatic post. After Guiteau approached Secretary of State James Blaine several times about the post, Blaine told Guiteau on May 14, 1881 to never speak to him again. On July 2, 1881, Blaine and Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, went to a Washington, D.C., train station to see Garfield off to his class reunion. Guiteau, who had been stalking Garfield for an opportune moment, shot him (Congress would ask the Secret Service to protect the president after President McKinley’s assassination in 1901). Garfield, president for about six months, died on Sept. 19, 1881 at age 49 due to infection. At Guiteau’s trial, medical experts testified as to whether or not Guiteau was insane. Guiteau was found guilty; he was executed on June 30, 1882.

The San Francisco Examiner reported on Feb. 12, 1882 that the committee that arranged for a San Francisco memorial procession for Garfield in September 1881 also voted to receive donations for a monument to him. Wells Fargo agreed to have its agents collect donations designated for the Garfield Monument Association of the Pacific Coast. The Examiner described San Francisco as “woefully behind” in monuments compared to cities like New York, Paris and Cincinnati. San Francisco had been a city for barely 30 years. 

The committee eventually came to a consensus to have the monument placed in Golden Gate Park rather than downtown. The committee agreed to a contract with California sculptor Frank Happersberger in December 1882 to produce the monument proposed in his designs. Aug. 24, 1883, was proclaimed a legal holiday by the California governor, and was when Freemasons with Knights Templar laid the monument cornerstone; Garfield had been affiliated with both fraternal organizations. 

The monument, 25 feet tall from the base, was unveiled on July 4, 1885, with a bronze statue of Garfield on a base and pedestal made of granite from Penryn, a town in Placer County in the Sierra Foothills. A statue of Lady Liberty sits on the pedestal, holding a broken sword and wreath, referencing the assassination.

Garfield Liberty with sword

The tribute to the 20th president of the United States features a statue of Lady Liberty holding a broken sword, a symbol representing Garfield’s assassination in 1881. Photos by Michael Durand.

The monument east of the Conservatory of Flowers, near the intersection of JFK and Nancy Pelosi drives.

Kinen Carvala, author of the “Looking Back” column, is a San Francisco writer who explores the history of the monuments in Golden Gate Park. To read past installments of the column, visit http://www.RichmondSunsetNews.com and search for “Looking Back.”


Toni Gemayel (left) sits with Taylor Mak on the pedestal of the Garfield memorial in Golden Gate Park.

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