President Garfield Reconsidered


Volume III, Number 1, 2
Spring, 1980, Fall, 1980

I am delighted to be on this panel but I am also somewhat embarrassed. The embarrassment is caused by a suspicion that my subject - the presidency of James A. Garfield - is not entitled to equal time with the topics of the other panelists. When I consider that Garfield was an active president for only 120 days while Grover Cleveland was in the White House for eight full years, it would seem that on the basis of strict mathematical parity that I should be entitled to only about four percent of the time allotted to Professor De Santis, or, more precisely, 48 seconds. By that standard, my time is already up and I thank you for your attention.

But rather than take that easy way out, I intend to reexamine the Garfield administration. A reconsideration, of course, requires some understanding of how presidents of the 1880's are generally interpreted, and for that a brief glance at most American history textbooks will reveal that the common attitude is one of supercilious contempt for those "Do Nothing Presidents" who pompously presided over the nation while the real problems facing the people went unmet and unsolved. Garfield, in particular, is given short shrift in these conventional textbook surveys. In a hasty paragraph or two he is elected, engages in an incomprehensible patronage squabble with Roscoe Conkling, is shot (always by "a disappointed office seeker") and dies, all in less than one page.

I once had hopes that the recent scholarly attention paid to the so-called Gilded Age, much of it done by the members of this panel, might modify this stereotype, but so far these hopes have been disappointed. A particularly striking example of the persistence of this conventional attitude recently came to my attention in the form of an Instructor's Manual for a newly-published textbook. This time, at least, Garfield was not ignored. In fact an entire lesson was devoted to his election and assassination. But the conclusions which the discussion leader is urged to elicit demonstrate that increased attention does not necessarily mean greater respect or understanding. Instead, Garfield and his assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, are treated as personifications of the shallowness and ineffectiveness of the politics of the 1880s.1

It is easy to make fun of the earnest pedagogical tone of this manual but I think it should be taken seriously as an example of the sort of attitude all the members of this panel have encountered and tried to correct. The author focuses on the assassination of Garfield as a paradigm of the politics of the era. In this analysis the pathetic psycopath Guiteau is transformed into a sort of existential hero - the wise fool who perceives reality more clearly than the rest of mankind.

"In his own deranged way, Guiteau was an extremely perceptive man," the manual asserts. "He saw, with a curious clarity, what made politics tick during this era . . . There was an odd similarity between Garfield and Guiteau. Both men understood politics in fundamentally the same way: that is, they saw it as an affair of factions and appointments, not of ideas and issues. Guiteau's action was only an insane and illegal version of the most important single event of Garfield's presidency, [the struggle with Conkling.]"2

"You might suggest to students," the manual continues, "that there was considerable accuracy in Guiteau's diagnosis of the way politics worked. There was scarcely any more reason for Garfield's nomination in 1880 than there might have been for Guiteau's if the course of his life had only been a little different. Typically, the Presidents of the period were scarcely more talented than Guiteau, and they were probably no more concerned with ideology or issues than he. To drive the point home, ask students to speculate on whether it made any real difference in the area of policy whether Arthur became President . . ."3

Aside from its appalling taste, what is one to make of this? One must concede that there is a grain of truth lurking somewhere inside the nonsense: Garfield's actual accomplishments were neither bold nor heroic, nor were those of the other Presidents of the 1880s. None of them, in short, was either Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln. That may be regrettable, but it is not exactly a crime.

It is also true that in the days of the unreformed civil service presidents were compelled to devote what seems to our way of thinking an excessive amount of time to patronage matters. In Garfield's case the quarrel with Conkling over New York appointments consumed much of the president's time and energy. But it would be unwarranted to conclude from this that Garfield's vision was limited to such matters. Quite the contrary. As he himself said: "I love to deal with doctrines and events. The contests of men about men I greatly dislike."4 That he found himself preoccupied with such uncongenial matters was a result of circumstances and not of inclination.

However one might deplore the necessity, the fact was inescapable that the offices of the government had to be filled and, in the absence of an elite corps of civil servants, politics represented the most effective way of matching the man to the office. There were over 100,000 government jobs to be assigned. No President could fill more than a tiny fraction of these from his personal acquaintance. He needed help and he found it in the party structure. This was not necessarily venal and it had the advantage of strengthening party loyalty and cohesiveness. It also gave the president an opportunity to shape the party in his image, to give a signal as to what sorts of behavior and attitudes would be rewarded, and to insure that the functions of government would be loyally performed.

Garfield was well aware that the Republican party was deeply divided. His own nomination was the result of a deadlocked convention and his narrow election victory had demonstrated that party harmony was essential to Republican success. Consequently, he decided on a strategy of rewarding all factions of the party. This was a perfectly sensible decision; it just did not work out as planned. I have elsewhere chronicled the reasons for this failure in tedious details but, suffice to say, the major obstacle was presented by Roscoe Conkling and the so-called "Stalwart" faction of the Republican party. Conkling's intransigence forced Garfield to abandon his projected role as impartial party mediator and drove him into the camp of the other great Republican chieftain, James G. Blaine. The results are a familiar story: Conkling was not merely thwarted, he was destroyed as a political force.

It was a complete victory, but it was not the sort of war Garfield would have chosen to fight. Nonetheless, he had (no matter how inadvertently) strengthened the power of the presidential office. To which a skeptic might reply, "So what?" Did it really matter which faction of the Republican party came out on top?

Yes, it did matter. Blaine and Conkling were not tweedledum and tweedledee. Each, in his own way, presided over a different policy that the Republican party could follow. As I have said elsewhere: "Conkling represented a faction and a state; Blaine thought in national and even continental terms. Conkling looked to the past, to a restoration of Grant and all he stood for; Blaine looked to the future, to the problems of an industrialized America with the trials of the Civil War put behind it."5 By siding with Blaine Garfield helped push the Republican party down the path that would lead to the twentieth century. The struggle with Conkling was no mere patronage squabble but "a symbolic duel to determine the destiny of the Republican party."6

For that reason alone the Garfield administration would be memorable, but there were other accomplishments as well. In foreign affairs, Garfield and his Secretary of State Blaine proposed to shift American policy away from its traditional concern with European affairs and direct it towards greater involvement with what we would today call the Third World, that is, the underdeveloped areas of Asia and Latin America. In domestic matters, Garfield and his Secretary of the Treasury, William Windom, successfully refunded 200 million dollars of Treasury bonds without securing the special permission of Congress, as had been the custom - a further declaration of executive independence from congressional restraints. In addition, Garfield launched an investigation into the Star Route scandal of the preceding administration.

If these activities seem inadequate, it should be remembered that Congress was not in session during Garfield's administration. In that more leisurely era, there was no compulsion to compile an impressive legislative record during an administration's first hundred days. Instead, a new president was expected to devote his first few months to putting his house in order and distributing government jobs to the party faithful. The Senate remained sitting in order to give its advice and consent to these appointments but the House of Representatives would not normally assemble until December, which meant, of course, that no legislation could be proposed or enacted until then.

Had he been spared, Garfield intended to ask Congress to deal with at least two major unresolved issues facing the nation. The first was civil service reform. Garfield had a well-considered plan in mind, somewhat different from the Pendleton Act which was later adopted but, nonetheless, workable and comprehensive. He had also given much thought to racial and southern problems and intended to announce new policies to deal with these persistent American dilemmas. Indeed, he was discussing the very topic with Blaine when Guiteau fatally interrupted the conversation.

This catalogue of activities may not seem impressive by present-day standards but it should be sufficient to absolve Garfield of the charge of being a "do nothing" President. It would not, I am certain, persuade the author of that Instructors's Manual to alter his opinion of Garfield as a man unconcerned with "ideology or issues," who refused to face "the realities" of an industrialized society. But is there not an element of arrogance in so judging the past by inappropriate standards derived from the present? Garfield pushed his presidential activities to the limits of his conception of the office - a conception shared by most of his countrymen. Neither he nor they expected presidents, or even governments, to make structural reforms of American society. The function of government was to keep things running, not to make things better. Even had he been so inclined, Garfield's narrow victory (less than a ten thousand vote plurality) was hardly a mandate for sweeping change.

Except in time of war, nineteenth century presidents were not expected to be activists. Their freedom of action in domestic affairs was generally confined to making appointments; otherwise they were expected to defer to Congress. This was before the development of the so-called "imperial presidency." Garfield's entire White House staff consisted of one private secretary (whom he paid out of this own pocket) and about a half-dozen clerks. Presidents were still considered ordinary mortals. They walked the streets without bodyguards and chatted with whomever stopped to talk with them.

When Rutherford B. Hayes felt like going to Philadelphia he bought a railroad ticket and road the coach, enjoying a pleasant chat with the salesman who took the seat beside him. When Chester Alan Arthur arrived in Washington to assume the presidency after the death of Garfield, he took a train by himself, carried his own suitcase off the train and looked for a cab to take him to his lodgings. When Grover Cleveland discovered he had cancer of the jaw, he waited until Congress was in recess, boarded a yacht on the Hudson River where he had major surgery in such secrecy that the entire episode was not revealed until after his death, many years later. Contrast that with President Eisenhower's many illnesses, during which the public was treated to daily reports of the status of his bowels.

Chester Alan Arthur summed up the nineteenth century presidency to a group of temperance women who were urging him to follow the policy of Mrs. Hayes and banish wine from the White House table. "Ladies," he replied, "I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody's damn business!"7 Nowadays, of course, the President's so-called "private life" is everybody's business and Betty Ford and Rosalyn Carter will even reveal the First Family's bedroom arrangements to a supposedly eager nation.

The nineteenth century was a simpler time and the presidency was a simpler institution. Presidents, and even governments, were not expected to make much of a difference. This, however, does not mean that Garfield's victory over his Democratic rival, Winfield Scott Hancock, was meaningless. Parties did matter and there was a substantial distinction between the Democrats and the Republicans. This distinction might at times be blurred and fuzzy but it was nonetheless real. The Republicans, for all their occasional hesitation and backsliding were still, after all, the Party of Lincoln, the party that boasted of having saved the Union and struck the shackles from the slave. Hancock's muttered warnings against "nigger domination" only emphasized this fundamental difference in the ways the parties viewed race, section and history. The Republicans prided themselves as being the party of ideas and the party of morality, and they drew much of their strength from college-trained and evangelical Protestant elements of the North. As a one-time college president and a former evangelist, as well as a Civil War general, Garfield embodied in his career many of the elements that gave the Republican party its strength and cohesion.

This, perhaps, helps to explain a final phenomenon of the brief Garfield era - the unprecedented national outpouring of grief that followed his assassination. No event since the Civil War had evoked such an intense emotional response. Objectively, there seems to be no explanation for such a reaction. Garfield had hardly spent enough time in the White House to become a national hero and it might seem as if the nation was mourning a stranger.

Yet, as I have suggested elsewhere, Garfield was not remembered so much for what he did but what he was. It was his life, not his deeds, which captured the imagination of his countrymen. As popularized by dozens of campaign biographers, Garfield's career touched the deepest chords of nineteenth century imagination, vivifying many of the most cherished aspirations of his fellow citizens. As the embodiment of the self-made man who rose from canal boy to president, the fatherless farm lad who studied hard, got religion, was good to his mother, served his country in peace and war, Garfield was a living cliche.

Never mind that Garfield's life was actually far more complex and contradictory that this simple scenario would indicate; what mattered was that here seemed to be living proof that America's most cherished verities could bring fame and success. Garfield was perceived as an exemplar of old-fashioned American values and his sudden passing was a reminder of how transitory those values might be. In mourning him, Americans were mourning themselves.


1Allen Weinstein and R. Jackson Wilson, Instructor's Manual for Freedom and Crisis: An American History (New Work: Random House, Inc., 1974), 89-95. 

2Ibid., 89. 


4Diary, March 14, 1881. James Abram Garfield Papers, Library of Congress. 

5Allan Peskin, Garfield, (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1978), 557. 


7H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1969), 148.