The Garfield Crisis
The First Unquestionable Presidential Incapacity
On July 2, 1881, Charles Julius Guiteau shot President James Garfield on a train station platform in Baltimore. But unlike Abraham Lincoln sixteen years before, Garfield's death did not come quickly. He lingered, with his health rallying and falling throughout that summer until he would succumb, 79 days later.
The Garfield assassination presented the United States with its first clear-cut case of presidential disability. Unlike prior situations, in this one Vice President Chester Arthur was encouraged by many Congressional leaders and Garfield's own cabinet to take the reins as Acting President. But Arthur demurred. Why?
Lack of a Mechanism
While those who believed Arthur should act as President had understandable reason to do so, Arthur understood that despite the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, there was no real mechanism in place - and no precedent - for him to act as President. The questions which had gone unaddressed in the past were once again raised: Who determines that a President is incapacitated? How would a recovered President return to service?
While conventional wisdom believed Arthur could act as President by means of a Joint Resolution of Congress approved by a two-thirds vote of both houses, that wisdom wasn't universally accepted as constitutional. Arthur didn't know where he stood legally, and rather than potentially violate the Constitution, he did little but wring his hands. But the legal aspects of Arthur acting as President was just one consideration.
The P.R. Factor
The second, and perhaps more compelling reason Vice President Arthur declined to act as President was the shooting itself. Garfield's assassin was known to Garfield, Arthur, and by Secretary of State James Blaine, to whom Guiteau had repeatedly entreated in search of a political patronage appointment.
Upon shooting Garfield, Guiteau proudly proclaimed, "I am a stalwart (a faction of Republicans that believed strongly in the spoils system and fought civil service reform - and a faction to which Arthur belonged) and Arthur is President now!"
Under those circumstances, Arthur's ascent to the presidency was seen as suspicious enough. Acting as President with Garfield still alive, even under a Congressional sanction, would've been viewed harshly to say the least.
Ironically, the man who shot the President because he couldn't get a government job would cause thousands of government offices and positions going unfilled for most of 1881, grinding the work of the national government to a halt until Arthur took office. And upon doing so, now-President Arthur would make civil service reform the first item on his presidential agenda - fulfilling Garfield's plans to do so, and doing the exact opposite of what Guiteau and his stalwart faction of Republicans wanted.