A Century of Garfield

By Allan Peskin

A hundred years is a long time, and after the passage of a century it should be possible to take stock and establish a man’s place in history once and for all. The passions and controversies of his own day have died away and the calmer perspective of time should permit an unbiased evaluation. Oddly enough, this has not yet happened with Garfield. His historical portrait remains fuzzy and unfocused and is in danger of fading away altogether. Why this should be is a mystery I would like to explore later this evening.

A hundred years is also the official definition of an antique - that is to say, a useless curio of interest only to antiquarians and specialists. Could this be the fate reserved for Garfield - to be embalmed somewhere in a footnote, forgotten except as a curiosity?

Not, I suspect, if this town and this college have anything to say about it. For in Hiram, at least, Garfield lives. His spirit permeates this place. Here is his house, part of which he built with his own hands. Some of his children were born here and two lie buried in the cemetery at the top of the hill. Above all, this is where he studied and, later, where he taught. To a large extent this college is Garfield’s creation and it, in turn, helped create Garfield.

Actually, of course, Garfield never attended Hiram College. In his day it was the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, a pretentious name for a very modest institution - little more, really, than a glorified academy. Garfield, in fact, was strongly against elevating the Institute to the dignity of a college but, for once, his views did not prevail and a college it became in 1867.

One reason that Garfield resisted the creation of Hiram College can be traced to his deep-seated conservative instinct, what he himself called a streak of "old maidishness" in his character - an innate aversion to personal change. An even deeper reason, though, can be traced to Garfield’s awareness of how important the Eclectic Institute was in shaping his own development. For it was at Hiram that the two most important influences on young Garfield’s life - religion and education - came together.

The religious denomination was the Disciples of Christ, which had won Garfield’s soul after a brief struggle at the age of nineteen. He had not been a particularly grievous sinner even before his conversion but afterwards he was transformed. For a time he hovered dangerously close to becoming a pious adolescent prig, whose meditations on eternity, duty, providence and divine will were so effusive that they even embarrassed Garfield himself when he re-read them in later life. Fortunately, this soon wore off, but the deeper impact of his religious experience permanently shaped his life.

Garfield’s early life had been a hard one. Born and raised in a log cabin (an experience easier to romanticize in after-years than it was to endure at the time), left fatherless at an early age, he grew into a shabbily dressed, ungainly adolescent, overgrown and insecure. Conversion gave him a sense of worth and belonging, replacing his earlier self-doubts and misgivings with a calm assurance that some high destiny awaited him. For the rest of his life he would trust that destiny, and (until the very end) it would never fail him.

Garfield’s religious allegiance was not given to some generalized form of Christianity but to a specific denomination - the Campbellites, or Disciples of Christ as they were more formally called. At that time the Disciples were a relatively recent organization, still filled with the conviction that all things could be made fresh and new. In the eyes of more traditional Christians they were a disreputable, somewhat radical band. This is a difficult concept for the twentieth century mentality to grasp, for we are conditioned to associate religious revivalism with political conservatism. But in the nineteenth century American revivalism was often a force for social and political reform. The Disciples vigorously opposed the establishment churches with their hierarchies and dogmatism, offering instead an equalitarian brotherhood which spurned ordained preachers and all "manmade creeds." There was a gnostic strain in the movement which led it to reject not only sin but the sinful world itself and which tempted some Disciples to flirt with pacifism and even anarchism.

Consequently, it was not surprising that Ohio Disciples were uneasy at the prospect of having their children educated at colleges operated by rival denominations. They established a college of their own and deliberately located it as far as possible from the temptations and distractions of the sinful outside world. Hiram seemed ideal for this purpose, and present-day students assure me that the college’s founders succeeded only too well.

Garfield did not complain. To him Hiram was not isolated from the world. It was a world in itself: a cozy world where the students addressed each other as "Brother" and "Sister" and where none would hold his humble origins and shabby clothes against him. To Garfield and his friends education represented an escape route from a life of rural drudgery. Latin and Greek (the heart of the curriculum) were not dead languages nor useless intellectual adornments but served instead as the key to unlock a world of ideas far more stimulating than any encountered in their own drab and provincial home life.

It hardly mattered that the curriculum at Hiram was unenterprising or that the instruction was routine. Nineteenth-century American colleges were not designed to produce scholars or even train students to fill useful jobs. By our standards these colleges were remarkably primitive: they had no admissions office, no full-time administration, no organized athletics, no parking problems, no tenure, and virtually no library. Classroom instruction, by and large, was conducted by the recitation method - that is, the teacher would ask a question and each student in the room would stand up to give his answer, after which the instructor would ask another question and go around the room again. Attendance at morning chapel was, of course, mandatory, and students could be expelled for the slightest infraction of a bewildering array of rules and regulations.

Yet to the students, college was a liberating experience. For all its seeming inadequacies, the system worked. Even though they were subjected to an education which violates all our notions of proper pedagogy, boys (and at Hiram girls as well) emerged from these colleges with a lifelong love of learning. They continued to read books, they remained open to fresh ideas, and one has only to read their correspondence in later life to be struck by the literacy and clarity of expression they somehow acquired.

Garfield profited even more than most from his Hiram experience. For one thing, he was remarkably intelligent. His powers of deduction were so prodigious that even as a student he was able to devise a new method of demonstrating the Pythagorean Theorem. His memory was phenomenal. He could recite the Aeneid by heart twenty years after he had studied it and could reel off a speech from memory more easily than I am reading this one. To this native ability Garfield added an intellectuality which would have made him a scholar in another age. His idea of relaxation was to translate Horace or Goethe, and to the end of his life his correspondence was filled with literary and philosophical discussions, often on a quite rarified level.

In addition, Garfield possessed a fanatical capacity for sustained, disciplined intellectual effort. "I can express my creed of life in one word," he once explained, "I believe in work!" As a student, he would not allow himself to rest until all the other lights in the dormitory windows had gone out. As a college teacher, his daily schedule puts me and my colleagues to shame: he rose before dawn to meet his five o’clock Virgil class; after breakfast he graded papers until nine. The rest of the morning was spent in teaching grammar, Greek and algebra; after lunch it was algebra, geometry and Greek again; after supper, penmanship and glee club supervision, more papers to grade and to bed by eleven.

This combination of energy and ability enabled Garfield to cram into his fifty years of life enough different careers to keep a half-dozen men busy. He was an educator who began as Professor of Ancient Languages at the Eclectic Institute and who became president of the school while he was still in his mid-twenties. He was also a minister of the gospel - not a "lay preacher", as he is often described, but a fully-ordained minister of the Disciples of Christ, qualified to perform marriages and baptisms. He was also a soldier who, despite his lack of formal military training, raised a regiment, led it into battle, rose to general at the age of thirty and then became William Rosecrans’ chief of staff and indispensable right-hand man, all but running the vast Army of the Cumberland. He was a lawyer whose career had the most spectacular beginning of any member of the American bar. Unlike most lawyers, who begin humbly and toil their way slowly upward, Garfield began at the top. His first appearance in any courtroom was before the United States Supreme Court in the landmark case Ex Parte Milligan, and he won the case. He was, finally, a politician who never actively sought an office in his life and who never lost an election. He represented his district for seventeen years in the House of Representatives, and during that time he had a hand in virtually every issue of national importance while, as a party leader he, along with his friend, James G. Blaine, forged the Republican party into the instrument that would lead the United States into the twentieth century.

A remarkable career, and one which would have been noteworthy even had Garfield not become President of the United States. Why then has he been so neglected and under-valued?

That Garfield has been neglected is evidenced by the fact that until the recent flurry of scholarly activity only one full-scale biography had ever been published, and that in 1925. That book, a massive two-volume study by Theodore Clarke Smith, dominated the field for over fifty years, despite its glaring flaws. For one thing, it is pervasively and deadly dull. For another, it is inaccurate: Smith seemed incapable of copying a citation correctly; virtually all of the many quotations which litter these pages are garbled. Furthermore, Smith’s work was done under the supervision of the Garfield family. Although they did not censor his work, there was no need to; Smith was so flattered by their attention that he was careful to give no cause for offense. If he encountered in the Garfield papers clues which pointed at less than spotless behavior on the part of his hero, he chivalrously refused to pursue them. There are, for instance, broad hints in the correspondence that sometime during the Civil War Garfield engaged in a brief but passionate affair with a New York widow. It is perhaps understandable that Smith, living and working under the eyes of Garfield’s own widow and children, would choose to suppress the whole indelicate business, but the omission diminishes our understanding of the man.

Another scandal of sorts was suppressed by Smith even though the only person it could have directly offended was Garfield’s mother, who had long since died. Not only Smith, but all of Garfield’s biographers ignored it, and had it not been for an unguarded allusion which Garfield dropped into his diary in 1881 all traces of it would, very likely, have been lost. That diary reference was to the death of a certain Warren Belden, whom Garfield described as "the man [with] whom mother made an unfortunate marriage 36 years ago."

This roused my curiosity. Had Garfield’s mother really remarried after the death of his father? How could a life as thoroughly documented as Garfield’s contain such an unexpected surprise? And how could I resolve the puzzle in view of Garfield’s evident attempt to bury the matter? The conscientious habits of our Western Reserve civil servants came to my rescue. I went to the marriage license bureau at the Cuyahoga County court house. Sure enough, all of the license applications were still there, out in the open, dating back to the earliest days of the county. I thumbed through them for the better part of a morning, much to the puzzlement of the couples who wandered in (or, in some cases, staggered in) on more romantic business. Finally, the files for 1842 contained the marriage record I was looking for. In the dusty basement of that same building are stored the archives of the Court of Common Pleas. There I was able to trace the stormy history of that marriage. Within two years Belden was suing his bride for having deserted his bed and board. After repeated efforts he was granted a divorce and the marriage was dissolved.

Divorce in those days was a rare and scandalous event which could permanently blight a woman’s reputation. It was understandable that Eliza Garfield, and even her son, would prefer to hide its traces.

But a historian ought not to be so squeamish, for the scandal had a major impact in shaping Garfield’s character. It helps explain his hesitation towards marriage. Furthermore, because of it Garfield found himself, at a particularly sensitive time in his adolescence, the target of ridicule and scandal. From these boyhood humiliations may have come his burning ambition to excel as well as his sense of personal inadequacy - traits which would mark Garfield’s character for the rest of his life and which a biographer is obliged to explain by using all the evidence available to him.

To make matters worse, Smith also submitted each chapter to his own aged mother, who removed any passage which struck her as indelicate. To take one innocent example, Smith quotes Garfield’s description of the baggage he packs for a political campaign but omits, without ellipses, the last portion of the passage in which Garfield adds that he is also packing his rectal ointment. "For," Garfield asks, "are we not commanded to prepare for our latter end?" Admittedly, it’s not much of a joke, but apparently neither Smith nor his mother thought that presidents should have "latter ends," and by removing this they presented a sanitized, saintly Garfield quite different from the real man, and much less interesting from the modern viewpoint.

This version of Garfield prevailed for over half a century and may be one reason why so few biographers were drawn to attempt a fresh appraisal. Another may have been the immense labor involved. Garfield was one of the most assiduous hoarders of paper in our nation’s history; he threw almost nothing away. For many years he kept a diary, preserved much of his correspondence, saved banquet menus, overdue library notices and, for a time in the mid-1870's, he even kept a daily account of the state of his bowels. Furthermore, these papers were scattered at various out-of-the-way locations around the country. Today the work would be much simpler: the bulk of Garfield’s papers have been consolidated at the Library of Congress and are even available for the stay-at-homes on 177 reels of microfilm, but until recently tracking them down was a time-consuming paper chase.

To make matters worse, from time to time well-meaning people kept bringing to my attention freshly-discovered Garfield material. One of these finds had some curious and embarrassing consequences. The Garfield family (who were unfailingly cooperative and helpful) showed me, among other miscellany, a little notebook kept by their distinguished ancestor. The binding of that notebook had a little pocket or flap into which I naturally stuck my finger, since all biographers are born snoops. I pulled out, not a plum, but a memorandum Garfield had made one morning describing a particularly vivid dream he had just had.

I have always been a little sensitive to the accusation made by some of my colleagues that I am an old-fashioned historian unacquainted with the latest methodologies. Here was my chance to refute them by exploring Garfield’s subconscious through the techniques of psychohistory. I needed expert advice, and learning that there was a psychoanalyst in Cleveland with an interest in history, I called his office, explained the situation, and was told to drop in.

When I did, I found that the receptionist I had talked to had been replaced by a large, formidable attendant who grimly asked me, "What is your problem?" Taken off guard, I replied that I didn’t have any problem but that I was there about President Garfield. "Of course," she answered soothingly. Flustered, I tried to explain that there was a dream of Garfield’s, all about canal boats and Chester Alan Arthur and violent storms. To which she responded: "I understand. Tell me all about it." I could see that she looked even more nervous than I felt and that while we were talking she was edging towards a funny-looking button on the desk. Losing my taste for psychohistory, I dashed out of the office before she could press it and to this day am still uncertain what, if anything, that dream meant.

In addition to those reasons I have already touched on, there is, I believe, an even deeper cultural factor which helps explain the neglect of Garfield, and I would like to explore its implications in my remaining time. As I read (avidly) the reviews of my biography of Garfield, I noticed something strange. Some reviewers liked the book, which was gratifying; some did not, which had to be endured with pretended indifference. Others, however, expressed a mixed view: they claimed to admire my effort but seemed puzzled that I would bother with such an unworthy subject. One seemed upset at having to read a 700-page book about a man who was president for only seven months. Would he, I wonder, bother with the biography of someone who was never president at all? That would certainly limit his choice of reading matter.

 

That sort of petty carping could easily be ignored, but some other reviewers betrayed not merely a hostility to Garfield personally but a contempt for his entire generation. They seemed offended that I would write a book about the post-Civil War decades without explicitly condemning them as corrupt, hypocritical and tawdry. Now this is very odd. A historian is not usually required to express his disapproval of the period he studies. He can write about Attila the Hun without having to take a public stand against pillage and rapine. In fact, an attitude of detached neutrality is generally considered praise-worthy. Yet when dealing with Garfield’s generation, a historian is expected to establish his liberal credentials by striking an attitude of contemptuous superiority.

The last thirty years of the nineteenth century seem to be an embarrassment to American historians - like a disreputable relative one would prefer not to mention. These are the lost years of American historiography. Even the name generally given this era is a term of reproach. Vernon Parrington labeled it "The Great Barbecue," and Richard Hoffstadter described it as "An Age of Cynicism." Nowadays it is usually called The Gilded Age, after a satirical novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner - the implication being that this was a time of pretense and false values: gilt rather than true gold. Textbooks invariably quote with approval the devastating judgment of Henry Adams that "No period so thoroughly ordinary has been known in American politics since Christopher Columbus.... One might search the whole list of Congress, Judiciary and Executive during the twenty-five years from 1870 to 1895 and find little but damaged reputation."

The presidents who presided over this era come in for particularly severe criticism. From Grant to McKinley, all of them, including Garfield, are condemned as mediocrities: "it is not apparent that American history would have been in any essential way different had none of them ever lived," concludes one text author. Oddly enough, the same people who decry the so-called "imperial presidency" of today often mock the "do nothing" presidents of the Gilded Age.

Corruption, vulgarity, hypocrisy and social injustice seem to be regarded as the keynotes of this era by these textbook authors. "There is no drearier chapter in American political history," says one, ". . . at no other time in American history was the moral and intellectual tone of political life so uniformly low," claims another.

Garfield, of course, saw his age in a much different light. Early in 1875 he attended a dinner party where the conversation turned to the prevailing level of morality. The consensus of the guests, Garfield reported in his diary, was "that there was a higher tone of public and private morals in public men now, than at any former period." I imagine that if most historians were asked to comment on this assertion, they would dismiss it as just another example of Gilded Age hypocrisy.

The stereotype of the corrupt Gilded Age has become so firmly established that contrary views scarcely receive a respectful hearing. Even though Wayne Morgan, Ari Hoogenboom, Vincent De Santis and a host of other revisionists have attempted to chip away at this conventional view of Gilded Age politics, their labors have been in vain: leading textbooks persist in retelling the same old stories. Recently a historian who has spent his career trying to modify what he calls "this sham image," sent me a discouraging letter which concluded: ". . . of course, historians are never going to revise the Gilded Age - not a bit of it."

Why should this be? As a rule historians are iconoclastic. Usually they delight in overturning accepted interpretations, and they eagerly embrace novel approaches. One has only to look at the zigs and zags of Reconstruction historiography over the past fifty years to realize how flexible and daring historians can be. Why should this one era of American history escape re-interpretation and remain locked in the same pattern year after year?

I suspect that there are certain characteristics common to most members of the historical profession which have inhibited the long-overdue reassessment of the Gilded Age. For one thing, historians are story tellers. Despite the recent efforts of quantifiers and cliometricians to convert the discipline into a science, most historians remain unabashed dramatists. The essence of drama, of course, is conflict, preferably with recognizable villains to hiss and heroes to cheer. Throughout most of American history suitably dramatic conflict can be readily found. The Revolution, the Jacksonian era and, above all, Civil War and Reconstruction easily lend themselves to this sort of morality pageant, but the years after Reconstruction lack the elements of clear-cut struggle.

That does not mean that the era was intrinsically dull. Quite the contrary. For sheer "busyness," Americans of Garfield’s generation were unsurpassed in our history. In their youth, they fought America’s bloodiest war. Later, while rebuilding from the devastation of that destructive conflict, they simultaneously settled the vast west, linked its empty spaces by rail, laid the foundations for an unmatched industrial base, brought freedom of sorts to four million slaves while absorbing an equivalent number of immigrants, built and equipped cities to house them in and, in their spare time, developed inventions, universities and such distinctive American art forms as skyscrapers and jazz. During all this time America was at peace with the world and content with itself.

There’s no story here. As you recite these accomplishments to a class you can see the students’ eyes start to glaze over and their heads begin to nod. It’s an act of mercy to bring them back to life by telling about a few spicy scandals, such as Credit Mobilier, or by cracking a few cheap jokes at the expense of the earnest, bearded politicians of the era. I’ve succumbed to the temptation myself, even though I was aware that the dramatic instinct played false with the historical truth.

Historians also tend, with rare exceptions, to be political liberals (and I do not exempt myself). An age dominated by unabashed capitalists is not likely to engage our sympathies. Instead, we tend to cheer the underdogs and root for the victims of oppression. Consequently, when we write about economic aspects of the Gilded Age, we stress the ruthlessness and corruption of the Robber Barons, drawing a harsh contrast to the wasted, blighted lives of the toiling masses.

Yet this picture says more about our current capacity for compassion than it does about the economic development of the Gilded Age. Every human society that has undergone the transition to an industrialized economy has paid the price in terms of ugliness, waste, corruption and inequality. What makes the American experience instructive is that here the price was cheaper than anywhere else. The toiling masses evidently agreed, for they came here by the millions, fully aware of what conditions would be like when they arrived. The nineteenth-century mill town may not be our idea of gracious living but it was attractive enough to lure vast numbers of European workers from their ancestral homes. In fact, the greatest complaint of American socialists was not the oppression of the masses but the blindness of the workers who refused to join the struggle against the system.

At the risk of appearing to be a Pollyanna, I would suggest that it is these unique aspects of American economic growth which cry out for explanation. Yet historians seem more concerned with documenting those rare instances of labor unrest than with celebrating what was, by and large, a remarkably smooth and successful transition into the modern world.

I am not suggesting anything so lurid as a sinister liberal conspiracy to defame our fair country, but there undoubtedly is a subconscious reluctance on the part of academic historians to celebrate American success for fear of being labeled naive or chauvinistic. Historians, moreover, are intellectuals; that is, they live by words, and they are uncomfortable when dealing with men of action. For at least the last hundred and fifty years intellectuals have conducted a running feud with the bourgeoisie, deploring its alleged smug shallowness and its unheroic pursuit of comfort. The late Victorian era was the bourgeoisie’s golden age. Garfield’s generation had its fill of heroism in its youth and felt no guilt at enjoying its hard-won comforts. Little wonder they draw contempt from today’s academics.

Rather than seek to understand what made the Gilded Age tick, some historians have preferred to deliver impatient reprimands. Workers, they say, should have been more dissatisfied; women should have been more militant; voters should have been more discriminating; political leaders (such as Garfield) should have addressed the "real" issues (whatever that might mean). In short, why didn’t nineteenth-century Americans have the good sense to be just like us?

Edmund Burke once said that he did not know how to draw up an indictment against a whole nation but some historians seem to be able to indict an entire generation. Embarrassing facts to the contrary are simply brushed aside with snide invective. How, for example, to reconcile the charge that politics was shallow and unresponsive with the unassailable statistical evidence that political participation (as measured by voting percentages) reached an all-time high during these years? One way is to sneer at the gullibility of the deluded voters who in their simplicity followed leaders like Garfield.

This is the path followed, for example, by one of the less sympathetic reviewers of my biography. "The nub of the matter," he concludes, ". . .is that Garfield was a mediocrity. But the fact does not render his life uninstructive. Certainly there is something to be learned when such a man becomes president of the United States." The moral to be learned, apparently, is that a mediocre age gets the mediocre leadership it deserves. Serves them right!

What if, on the other hand, we tried the novel experiment of looking at that era without moral or ideological preconceptions, not to praise or condemn, but simply to find out what happened? A striking fact would leap to our attention: the America of Garfield’s presidency was very different from the country of his youth. When he was a boy America was hardly a nation at all. The federal government scarcely touched his life. Except for the mailman (who delivered letter to the post office rather than to his door), he seldom saw an official of that government. The money in his pocket was printed by state-chartered banks, not by the U.S. Treasury Department. His commission as a colonel in the Union Army was signed by the governor of Ohio, not by the President of the United States. Although he was willing to fight and die for the Union, he had seen very little of it, even though his travels were far more enterprising than most of his neighbors’, few of whom seldom ventured beyond their home county despite America’s vaunted restless mobility. Garfield’s opinions were molded by his local newspapers, neighbors’ and the bulk of his wants were supplied by local merchants and craftsmen.

Politics also flourished mainly at the local level; the great political parties operated on a national basis only during presidential campaigns. The entire Whig National Convention of 1839, for example, was easily accommodated in an unused Lutheran church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Contrast that modest gathering with the 1880 Republican convention which nominated Garfield. That meeting assembled in a specially-constructed auditorium in Chicago designed to seat the fifteen thousand delegates, spectators and reporters who found it necessary to be on hand.

The difference was not merely one of size but of scope. In Garfield’s youth America was less a nation than a loosely-knit bundle of local and regional interests. European states, on the other hand, were divided by barriers based on social and economic interests. An Englishman, for example, can be placed socially by his accent but in America speech variations tend to be regional. By the same token, European revolutions tend to be fought along class lines, while the great American Civil War was a sectional conflict. Out of that Civil War emerged a new sense of national identity which inspired men of Garfield’s generation to create national institutions.

The transformation was not lost on Garfield’s contemporaries. One of the shrewdest observers of the Gilded Age singled out this forging of a national consciousness as the most striking development of his lifetime. "Prior to the rebellion," he said, "the great mass of the people were satisfied to remain near the scenes of their birth . . . So much was the country divided into small communities that localized idioms had grown up, so that you could almost tell what section a person was from by hearing him speak. That is all changed now. The war begot a spirit of independence and enterprise. The feeling now is, that a youth must cut loose from his old surroundings to enable him to get up in the world. There is now such a commingling of the people that particular idioms and pronunciations are no longer localized to any great extent. . ."

This perceptive observer, by the way, was Ulysses S. Grant, whom the textbooks persist in describing as "a fool and a failure." "Utterly untutored in politics," sneers one authority, "his political sense was as that of a Sioux Indian. He was curiously ignorant of the law and even of the Constitution . . . ." The pendulum is beginning to swing back: David Donald has recently discovered that Grant was an exceedingly skillful politician. Possibly, with the passage of a century, Garfield too might be treated with new respect.

A good starting place might be with terminology. Rather than the invidious label, "The Gilded Age," perhaps Garfield’s era could be called something like the Age of National Consolidation. It is not a very exciting label, but it does describe with accuracy the dominant trend of the times. A national currency, national banks, and nationally endowed universities all emerged from the Civil War. The 14th Amendment created, for the first time, the legal category of United States citizen and extended the power of the national courts to protect his civil rights.

With the cities and coasts linked by railroads (constructed with the aid of national subsidies), a national economy emerged. The abuses of this new economic system have been so often stressed that one might think the Gilded Age invented sin or that a golden era of free enterprise had been crushed by a band of greedy monopolists. Human nature, however, did not suddenly change after 1865; it merely had a larger stage on which to exhibit its follies. Local monopolies were now replaced by more visible national ones, and corruption on a national scale could not be hidden as easily as the small-time crookedness that flourished before the Civil War.

National professional associations, national labor organizations and national journals of opinion all bore witness to the fresh energy unleashed by the spirit of national consolidation. Garfield enthusiastically shared that spirit. He took part in this transformation and, indeed, much of his career was devoted to furthering it. As he grew older, the religious enthusiasm of his youth lost much of its force. "Are all religions, past and present, false, except that of Christ?" he now wondered. "If so, what shall we think of the Goodness and Mercy of God in leaving mankind so many generations without the truth?" His spiritual void was filled, to a degree, by faith in the nation.

Alexander Stephens once said that to Abraham Lincoln "the Union rose to the sublimity of religious mysticism." Garfield, in his measured, more moderate way, did not go quite that far, but he did share in Lincoln’s secular faith. I have seen it said that Garfield lacked any ideology. This simply misses the point. Nationalism was his ideology. It animated all his public actions and provides a consistent thread which binds together the varied careers of his adult life.

Nationalism, rather than anti-slavery sentiment, brought him into the Union army; it explains his postwar partisanship, for to him the Republicans were the instrument of nationalization while the Democrats were forever tainted by their association with the forces of rebellion and localism. It accounts for his economic views which led him to advocate a national currency that could uphold the national honor. He was even, at one point, in favor of nationalizing the railroads and the telegraph lines if private ownership threatened to rival national supremacy.

Viewed in this light, the great event of Garfield’s brief presidency - his struggle with New York’s senator Roscoe Conkling - can be seen as something more significant than the patronage squabble which it is usually portrayed. In striking at Conkling and at the practice of "senatorial courtesy," Garfield was really asserting the authority of the national executive over those local party chieftains who threatened to feudalize the Republican party and fragment the sovereignty of the nation.

Garfield’s own life paralleled the development of the nation. Born in a remote log cabin, educated in a college whose chief attraction was its isolation, he steadily enlarged his sphere of activity until he was called upon to lead an entire nation. In both his life and his values he faithfully reflected the spirit of his times. Not surprisingly, his reputation has fluctuated along with that of his age. When America was satisfied with itself and when the middle-class values of peace, order, individualism, patriotism and property rights were held in esteem, then the Gilded Age was regarded as a golden era and Garfield could be hailed as a flower of that age. But when the Gilded Age was held up to scorn as a symbol of all that is deemed wrong with industrial America, then Garfield, too, seemed less attractive.

History, however, is not a stock market, with reputations rising or falling like some sort of omniscient Dow-Jones average. Nor is it a horse race with certified winners and losers. But so long as the past is considered merely an imperfect mirror of the present; so long as some historians persist in regarding themselves as judges empowered to award points to those who had the foresight to anticipate currently fashionable ideas and attitudes; so long, that is, as history is treated as a debater’s weapon rather than as an objective discipline, then neither Garfield nor his age can expect to fare very well.

If, after a century of Garfield, the man and his times still remain neglected, the fault, perhaps, may be in ourselves.

go to top of page

go back to Hayes Historical Journal - Volume 3 No. 4