CAPE MAY, New Jersey — “Thank God, it is good to be here,” sighed President James A. Garfield in the summer of 1881 after arriving in the tony seaside resort town of Elberon on the New Jersey shore and gazing out at the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Weeks earlier, he had brought First Lady Lucretia Garfield to Elberon, on the outskirts of Long Branch in Monmouth County, as she recovered from malaria; doctors advised that the salty air would do her good. The town was one of the couple’s favorite vacation spots.
But now it was the president who was the patient. While awaiting a train to take him back to the Jersey shore from Washington, D.C., Garfield had been shot twice – once in the arm and once in the back – by a partisan bitterly disappointed that he had not been offered a patronage appointment as the American consul in Paris. The assassin, who couldn’t speak French, managed to fire a bullet through one of Garfield’s vertebra without striking his spinal cord or any major organs.
Today, Garfield would probably have recovered from these injuries. But in 1881 his team of doctors jammed unwashed fingers and probes into the bullet wound and put their patient on a liquid diet, delivered rectally. Immiserated by rapid weight loss and a festering infection about to turn septic, Garfield longed to return to New Jersey, where he hoped he might recover. Townspeople in Elberon built a short rail spur to a rented cottage where the president was rolled in aboard a special train car, and it was there that James Abram Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, died 12 days later. A sea breeze can only do so much.
Presidential vacations to New Jersey to escape the Washington swamp (the actual swamp, with mosquitos carrying yellow fever and malaria) in the summertime were not at all novel in Garfield’s day. Chief executives came to vacation in Elberon so often that the church on Ocean Avenue that hosted Garfield’s funeral is called the “Church of the Presidents” and is not far from Seven Presidents Park. Ulysses Grant, Garfield, Chester Arthur (Garfield’s successor), Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford Hayes, William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson all traveled here, mingling with celebrated actors and Gilded Age titans.
Further south in Cape May at the tip of South Jersey, the 201-year-old Congress Hall Hotel boasts a similar history. Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Grant, and Harrison all vacationed here. Harrison stayed for so long during a renovation of the White House that the first floor of the hotel became his Summer White House. John Philip Sousa and the Marine Corps Band played a week of concerts on the lawn in 1882, and in tribute Sousa wrote the “Congress Hall March.” Henry Clay, the great Kentucky senator, and Abraham Lincoln stayed elsewhere in town, where trains delivered 3,000 daily visitors to grand hotels with long colonnades, marbled verandas and sweeping lawns. An 1878 fire destroyed 10 of these buildings and much of the city – including Congress Hall – just in time for rebuilding to reflect the Victorian architecture you can find there today. Like Long Branch, Cape May was a rival destination to Newport, Rhode Island, and Saratoga Springs, New York, just as the concept of vacations and leisure time began to come into view for the upper and striving middle classes of American society in the 19th century, and before train lines were built to deliver travelers to Atlantic City and the Hamptons or people trekked out to see the Provincetown Players on Cape Cod in the early 20th century.
I know something about this history because I’m a history professor at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey founded in 1766 before the United States was created. As a scholar and student of New Jersey politics and history, I recognized Matt Viser and Annie Linskey’s snarky takedown of the Garden State in Friday’s edition of the Boston Globe for its obnoxious contribution to the tired genre of Jersey-bashing. Yes, the president of the United States is taking a 17-day-long vacation in New Jersey at his Bedminister, N.J. golf club. Yes, the president is breaking all kinds of norms left and right and deliberately undermining faith in institutions in a way that makes me, as a professional historian, more than a little anxious about the long-term prospects of the republic and the current constitutional order. And no, he probably doesn’t really deserve a vacation based on how little he’s accomplished so far, let alone his habit of golfing every weekend.
But the idea that a president vacationing in New Jersey is itself a sign of national decline? Please spare me. The headline of Viser and Linskey’s article is “Forget scenic traditions – Trump vacations in the land of spray tans” and it goes on … and on … and on, suggesting that vacationing in New Jersey is Trump’s way of “thumbing his nose at the country’s cosmopolitan class” and that the state is “no Martha’s Vineyard or Kennebunkport.” Instead, they write, New Jersey is one of the “unlikeliest vacation spots” in the country, even less romantically evocative than George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch.
I can drop knowledge and turn on the erudition I need when I’m on the job as an honors college dean at Rutgers University-Newark, but I’m from New Jersey, too. I was born in Paterson, raised in Clifton, now live in Allendale and grew up going to the New Jersey shore. I’m so Jersey that I’m filing this piece from the shore and having cocktails tonight at Congress Hall in Cape May once our kids run themselves ragged on the rides at the Wildwood boardwalk.
Look, the MTV show “Jersey Shore” did us no favors, and I think Viacom should have been fined by the Federal Trade Commission for misleading their viewers into thinking that the original ‘cast’ was populated by people from the Garden State. Snooki? New York. Pauly D? Rhode Island. ‘The Situation’? Staten Island.
Oh, and Donald Trump? He’s from Queens.
But the rest of the Jersey stereotypes Viser and Linskey mention – “spray tans…muscle shirts, ‘The Sopranos,’ traffic slowdowns, toll plazas” – I can live with. Will Trump be putting at a golf club near an interstate highway? Yes, Bedminster is near a highway. It’s also beautiful and not at all like the clogged 10-mile-stretch of the N.J. Turnpike that the authors suggest is representative of the state as a whole. (Also, if I recall from the hours I once spent trying to get to a wedding in Wellfleet, it seems to always be time for some traffic problems on Cape Cod.)
The real point Viser and Linskey are making isn’t really a historical one about presidential travel. Instead it’s about how exclusive some of these past retreats have been. Kennebunkport is shorthand for the Bush’s family compound in Maine, as Hyannis was for the Kennedys. It’s fine to quote a local politician from Martha’s Vineyard about how Presidents Clinton and Obama vacationed there, far from the riff-raff, but let’s be honest about why that’s the case: Martha’s Vineyard is an island reachable only by plane or ferry, with rental rates and property values defended by a Night’s Watch of inheritances and Boston Brahmin trust funds.
New Jersey, by contrast, has beautiful state parks for people who can’t afford – or don’t want – a membership at Bedminster. We have long, public, open access beaches for people who just want to take a train or a ferry for a daytrip to Point Pleasant. Yes, you’ll see people with spray tans and muscle shirts – widely popular things in American culture that should no longer be scandalizing. So go ahead and blend ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture however you want: Grab a cheesesteak or a crab cake, go from being on a sailboat to throwing a round of skee ball, and break out “The Sopranos” box set if it rains to watch one of the best television shows ever made.
Summer here is fun! If you don’t believe me, take it from N.J. Gov. Chris Christie – vacationing here is so nice you’ll want the whole place to yourself.