James A. Garfield (1881): The 20th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
James Garfield won the Republican nomination and the presidenct in 1881. He was the first former college president and only preacher to hold the office. He was the last person to move directly from the House of Representatives to the presidency.
He was large, outgoing, well read, and somewhat of a policy wonk. He was an indecisive politician who did not want to ruffle feathers. He tried to make everyone happy, and subsequently made no one happy.
Slavery and Civil Rights
Todd Arrington gives us insight into why Garfield could have been one of our greatest Presidents and certainly the best up to date at this time on slavery and civil rights. On April 14, 1861—two days after the rebels fired on Fort Sumter—a young James A. Garfield wrote a letter in which he predicted that:
The war will soon assume the shape of Slavery and Freedom. The world will so understand it, and I believe the final outcome will redound to the good of humanity.
As a Massachusetts college student he reversed his stance on staying out of politics and soon became obsessed with doing his part to rid the country of the evils of slavery. “‘No more Slave Extension’ should be the motto bound to every freeman’s breast,” he told his diary on November 2, 1855. “At such hours as this I feel like throwing the whole current of my life into the work of opposing this giant evil. I don’t know but the religion of Christ demands some such action.”
Four years after Hayes abandoned southern African Americans, Garfield ran for president as a Lincoln Republican, insisting on equal rights for black Americans. He won election in November 1880, but by a razor-thin margin in the popular vote, defeating Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock by somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 votes of several million cast. While his Electoral College victory was far more decisive—214 to 155 for Hancock—Garfield was certainly not entering office with anything close to a popular mandate from the American public. Just as troubling, a look at the 1880 electoral map could lead one to believe it was 1861, not two decades later. The North had gone solid for the Republican Garfield; the South was just as solid for Hancock. In fact, Hancock’s southern sweep represented the first instance of what would later be called the “solid South.”
Garfield boldly and directly addressed civil rights in his inaugural address. “The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to full rights of citizenship,” he stated, “is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people.” Many southern whites surely recoiled at this statement, and Garfield was already creating an uphill battle for himself to win any southern states in his presumed 1884 run for reelection. “There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States,” he continued. “Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessings so long as the law or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous citizen.”
Garfield reiterated his own and the government’s commitments to civil rights and equality in his inaugural address. Though many in the Republican Party had moved on from the racial issues of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras and were looking for new alliances with financiers and industrialists, James A. Garfield continued to believe that the government had not only the means, but also the responsibility, to promote equality and opportunity for all Americans.
“We stand today upon an eminence which overlooks a hundred years of national life,” he told the crowd, “a century crowded with perils, but crowned with the triumphs of liberty and law.” And he would, he promised, help liberty and law prevail again during his administration. With such a leader at the nation’s helm, the next four (or perhaps even eight) years had the potential to be good ones.
Garfield Challenges Patronage
The first job of the President was to dole out political appointments, a notoriously corrupt process. The administration of President Grant led to civil service reforms and merit based appointments. It would also lead Garfield directly to challenge the powerful Roscoe Conkling over the appointment of the Chief Collector of Port of NY. Conkling normally fulfilled these types of civil service posts with own cronies. Today, it’d be akin to a Senator from Virginia pointing to the Pentagon’s location in Virginia as giving him the right to appoint the Secretary of Defense and their staff.
Garfield Defeats Conkling
A politician from New York who served both as a member of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, Roscoe Conkling was the leader of the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party, the first Republican senator from New York to be elected for three terms, and the last person to refuse a U.S. Supreme Court appointment after he had already been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
As leader of the Stalwarts, Conkling controlled patronage at the New York Customs House. Although Senator Conkling was supported by President Ulysses S. Grant, Conkling did not support Grant’s Civil Service Commission reform initiative. Conkling also refused to accept Grant’s nomination of him as Chief Justice of the United States, believing his talents belonged in the Senate. The control over patronage led to a bitter conflict between Senator Conkling and President Rutherford B. Hayes. Conkling publicly led opposition to President Hayes’ attempt to administer Civil Service Reform at the New York Customs House. Conkling’s conflict with President Garfield over New York Customs House patronage led to his resignation from the Senate in May 1881 effectively ending the old spoils system.
An American writer, preacher, and lawyer, he was convicted of the assassination of Garfield. A frustrated office-seeker, Guiteau shot Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1881; Garfield died two months later, on September 19. After being convicted, Guiteau was sentenced to death and hanged for the crime. He identified with the stalwarts in the GOP which included Conkling and Garfield’s Vice President Chester A. Arthur.
When Garfield moved into the White House, he was barraged by patronage requests. At this time, the White House was open. There was no secret service protection. Garfield would sit with office seekers though he only tried to appoint heads of departments.
Charles Guiteau felt he was owed a diplomatic appointment by the Garfield administration. He also opposed Garfield’s civil service reforms. Along with a calling from God, he stalked President Garfield and shot him twice in the arm and torso. As he surrendered to authorities, Guiteau said: “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. … [Chester A.] Arthur is president now!”
Garfield didn’t die right away. Changes in his conditions were telegraphed across the country, and the nation rallied to support the President. He was far more popular after the shooting than before. Foreign instruments and fingers in the wound highlighted the atrocious medical care of the time as doctors may have been more responsible for his death than the gunshot wounds.
Garfield battled and beat the powerful political machine in New York by taking a stand against the spoils system. Congress was out of session when Garfield was shot; nonetheless, the country ran smoothly. Garfield is proof that you can’t please everyone even within your own political party.
- Civil rights in James Garfield’s era. (2016, May 3). We’re History. https://werehistory.org/garfield-2/
- Garfield and lying: The Conkling problem. (n.d.). WETA. https://weta.org/watch/shows/american-experience/american-experience-garfield-and-lying-conkling-problem
- Linder, D. O. (n.d.). The trial of Charles Guiteau: An account. School of Law | University of Missouri – Kansas City. https://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/guiteau/guiteauaccount.html
- President James A. Garfield assassination. (2020, June 29). Crime Museum. https://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/assassinations/president-james-garfield/
Chester A. Arthur (1881 – 1885) would follow James Garfield
Rutherford B. Hayes (1881 – 1885) preceded James Garfield
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War.
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.