President Garfield (1831-1881) was of a very different temperament from his wife, Lucretia. He was “big-hearted and cheerful…nearly impossible to resist,” and she was “soft-spoken and very private,” at times even fearing that others viewed her as “cold” and “heartless.”
In the endlessly fascinating Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor, 2012), Candice Millard tells their love story: one of emotional frustration, great heartbreak, and enduring love, passion, and devotion.
They had a bumpy start, with a courtship that was “long, awkward, and far more analytical than passionate.” Though Lucretia loved Garfield, she hardly showed it, struggling to give physical affection and frustrating him emotionally. He was not in love with her when they married – he didn’t feel toward her as most of us expect someone to feel when they marry – and she knew it. This pained her terribly, and combined with long periods of distance because of his participation in the Civil War and his work in Congress, it made made their first years of marriage “nearly unbearable.”
Then James had an affair with a young reporter from New York with whom he fell in love with “the kind of love he had for so long yearned to feel for Lucretia” (118). He soon confessed his sin to Lucretia, and though she was indignant and heartbroken, she quickly “forgave him, demanding only that he end the relationship immediately.”
This he did, but he now feared losing completely Lucretia’s heart.
It was here that “his own feelings began to change. As he watched her bravely endure the pain and heartbreak that he had caused, Garfield suddenly saw Lucretia in a new light. She was not cold and unreachable but strong, steady, and resilient. Slowly, he began to fall in love with his wife.”
“As the years passed, Garfield’s love for Lucretia grew until it eclipsed any doubts he ever had. His letters…were now filled with passionate declarations of love. Lucretia was finally the object of James’s ‘gushing affection.’ (118)”
These brief excerpts from Garfield’s letters give us a glimpse of this passionate love:
“I here record the most deliberate conviction of my soul. Were every tie that binds me to the men and women of the world severed, and I free to choose out of all the world the sharer of my heart and home and life, I would fly to you and ask you to be mine as you are” (119).
“You can never know how much I need you during these days of storm. Every hour I want to go and state some case to your quick intuition. But I feel the presence of your spirit” (119).
“It is almost painful for me to feel that so much of my life and happiness have come to depend upon another than myself. I want to hear from you so often, and I shall wait and watch with a hungry heart until your dear words reach me” (119).
When she became sick, Garfield bordered on desperation. To him she was “the continent, the solid land on which I build all my happiness. When you are sick, I am like the inhabitants of countries visited by earthquakes. They lose all faith in the eternal order and fixedness of things” (119).