The First Left-handed President Was Ambidextrous and Multilingual
Many saw this multi-talented president as as a symbol of American promise and potential—but he would only end up serving four months in office.
They may be only 10 percent of the population, but it’s become apparent that left-handers have the edge in at least one prominent area—politics. No fewer than six out of 13 U.S. presidents since World War II have been lefties, helping to fuel speculation that left-handed people may have a greater aptitude for language skills, which helps them communicate better (and win more votes).
Though many people may know James Garfield primarily as the second president to be assassinated—in 1881, just four months after his inauguration—he was also the first known southpaw to occupy the Oval Office. In addition to being ambidextrous, or able to use his left and right hands with equal facility, Garfield also spoke and wrote several different languages. His talents were so celebrated that people said he could write a sentence in Latin with one hand while simultaneously writing the same sentence in Greek with the other.
The last U.S. president to be born in a log cabin, Garfield rose from poverty to become a professor and school president by 26, the Union’s youngest brigadier general during the Civil War and a nine-term U.S. congressman from Ohio. In 1880, he emerged as the dark-horse nominee for president on the 36th ballot at the bitterly divided Republican National Convention after making a rousing nominating speech—for another candidate.
Back then, presidential candidates didn’t go on the campaign trail, but Garfield did address the crowds of people who came to see him on his family’s farm in Mentor, Ohio. As Candice Millard writes in her book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, some 5,000 people converged on Garfield’s home on a single day in October 1880. The crowd included a group of Germans, whom Garfield addressed in their native tongue, becoming the first American presidential candidate to deliver a campaign speech in a language other than English.
In his brief tenure in office, President Garfield struggled with the demands of the “spoils system” of politics, which awarded government jobs to people based not on merit but political patronage. On July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot in the back in a Washington train station by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled and mentally imbalanced office seeker who said he supported the “Stalwarts,” the Republican faction that championed the spoils system. He lived for nearly three more months, while doctors tried to find the bullet inside him with unsterilized instruments—and even an early metal detector, designed by Alexander Graham Bell—before dying of infection and internal hemorrhage.
Garfield’s death had an enormous impact on the American public, which had followed his health closely through newspaper reports. More than 100,000 people traveled to Washington to view his body, many of whom had seen Garfield as a symbol of American promise and potential. His shooting also inspired the passage of civil service reform legislation that would put an end to the spoils system.
Seven other left-handers have occupied the Oval Office since Garfield, including Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Though Reagan wrote with his right hand, he is believed to be a natural lefty who was trained to write with his right hand early in life, as was common in schools before the last 60 years.
Reagan’s ambidexterity doesn’t quite compare with Garfield’s, however—or does it? According to Garfield biographer Allan Peskin, historical evidence doesn’t support the popular legend that Garfield could write simultaneous sentences in Greek and Latin.
Peskin, who died in 2018, told C-SPAN in 1999 that “Shortly after Garfield’s death, one of his sons tried to track that legend down. Because he had heard it, but he had never seen it happen. He wrote to lots and lots of people—relatives, friends, family. And none of them supported it. It’s true that Garfield was ambidextrous, but he just wasn’t that ambidextrous.”