James “I am a Poor Hater” Garfield, 20th president of the United States.
I was on Martin Di Caro’s “History as It Happens” podcast.
FROM MY ARCHIVES
Social Security started a year after my grandmother was born. I’ve covered her first card, still affixed to the original pamphlet.
Jamelle Bouie on the fantasy of politics without partisanship: “But if there is a solution, it will involve an effort to harness and structure our partisanship and polarization through responsive institutions, not pretending it away in favor of a manufactured and exclusionary unity.”
Ruth Marcus on Trump’s latest legal woes: If the new allegations in Jack Smith’s “superseding indictment” are indeed true, Marcus writes that “the former president is a common criminal—and an uncommonly stupid one.”
Abbott Khaler’s new podcast: “Remus: The Mad Bootleg King.”
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I’ll be sharing some of my research for “How Should a President Be,” my fellowship project at New America, as the year goes on. This is the first in a series of conversations with experts on presidents.
If James A. Garfield (1831-1881), the 20th president of the United States, is remembered at all, it's for being shot. He spent just four months in office before Charles J. Guiteau, an embittered office seeker, shot him on July 2, 1881 with a .44 British Bulldog. Guiteau thought the gun would look impressive in a museum.1
After doctors failed to locate the bullet, which was lodged behind his pancreas, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried in vain to find it with an induction-balance electrical device. On September 19, 1881, Garfield died from infection and internal hemorrhage.
Civil reform, one of my favorite subjects [no one ever wants to talk about], could have saved his life! Many presidents complain about the neverending parade of office seekers, but Garfield, in a sad twist of fate, was preparing to change the system. That was one of many things I learned from Todd Arrington, the Site Manager at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site and author of The Last Lincoln Republican: The Presidential Election of 1880 (University Press of Kansas, 2020). I’m a longtime fan of Arrington’s vis-a-vis the site’s Twitter account, beloved by the history community.
Here are my takeaways:
Garfield served Lincoln, but he didn’t agree with him.
“Garfield was very frustrated with Lincoln during much of the Civil War. Garfield correctly believed from day one that slavery was the war’s root cause. He wrote a letter on April 14, 1861—just two days after the attack on Fort Sumter—in which he noted 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.’ He clearly thought at that time that Lincoln was mistaken not to immediately say that abolition of slavery was part of the Union’s war plan. Later, Garfield softened his stance on Lincoln and came to see Lincoln’s wisdom on this issue—as most historians have, too.”
I have no notes on Garfield’s founding takes.
“When he was preparing his own inaugural address, Garfield read the inaugurals of all his presidential predecessors. He commented on several of them in his diary, including noting that John Adams’s was ‘far more vigorous in ideas than Washington’s’; James Madison’s ‘were not quite up to my expectations’ and ‘Monroe’s first was rather above.’”
He embraced the founding complexity.
“As a relatively young man, he became a very impassioned abolitionist (though he never used that word to describe himself), so certainly he believed the Founders were wrong not to explicitly ban slavery from the Constitution.”
He understood that the founders lived in a different time.
“The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787,” Garfield wrote in his 1881 inaugural address. Todd sees this as “a definite nod to the Founders, to the Constitution, and to what I think is probably the greatest thing about the Constitution: that it can be amended to reflect changes as America grows and evolves.”
Garfield made Civil Rights a focal point of his inaugural speech in 1881.
“No president said as much about civil rights in an inaugural until Lyndon Johnson in 1965. David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, told us this on Twitter when I put out a quote from Garfield’s inaugural address. This gentleman had read all the inaugurals from Lincoln forward when helping President Clinton with one of his inaugurals.”
Had Garfield lived, he may have been more active in civil rights for formerly enslaved people.
“By 1880 many white southerners were once again openly oppressing Black people and returning white supremacy as much as possible in that part of the country. Based on his congressional record and his inaugural address, I think he would have tried to some degree to make the South safer for Black people and to ensure that their physical security and civil rights were protected. To what degree he would have done so, I don’t know. But I do think Garfield was exactly who the Republicans needed at that moment to remind them of who they were. This was the era in which many Republicans started to turn away from Black people, feeling they’d done all they could or should do for Black men and women by abolishing slavery and passing the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution. The party was starting to look for other alliances to maintain and grow its power, and wealthy finances and industrialists offered this. Had he lived, I think it’s possible Garfield might have at least somewhat pulled the Republicans back toward being a party supporting equality and opportunity for all rather than one beginning more and more to cast its lot with ‘big business.’”
Garfield had a healthy relationship with power.
“Garfield had been a professor, college president, Union Army general, Congressman, and even Senator-elect. So he was certainly used to being in powerful positions and understood the responsibility that came with that power.”2
Garfield is the key to Garfield’s successful Twitter account.
“I like to think Garfield would have been a great tweeter,” Todd mused, and in a way, he already is; when Todd sees a great quote in his letters and diaries, he uses that material.
Like a good published historian, Todd’s goal on twitter is the same as it is in any other medium, from exhibitions to lectures. When “people say, ‘Garfield’s premature death was a real loss for the country’ or ‘This man would have been a great president if he’d lived.’”
Garfield was a clear, articulate, bold communicator.
In 1868, Garfield, then a Congressman, was a keynote speaker at the nation’s first national Decoration Day ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. Garfield, who had been a Union General, “did not disappoint.” He met expectations, memorializing fallen soldiers, “but also very pointedly reminded everyone that slavery was the war’s root cause.”
Garfield was loyal to country over party.
“Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was the king of the patronage system and demanded final say over many appointments in New York. When he objected to Garfield’s pick for Collector of the Port of New York, Garfield stood his ground, noting in his diary at one point, “We will see if I am the Executive of the nation or the registering clerk of the Senate.” Conkling ended up resigning. I think that kind of backbone and willingness to stand up for what was right, even against his own party, would have served the country well for the next four or eight years.”
Garfield was “pathologically reasonable.”
The author of a new book on Garfield recently spoke here and called Garfield “pathologically reasonable,” and I think that’s a great description. He was very reasonable, saw both sides of every issue, and always looked for a way for both sides to get something; in other words, a compromise. He also didn’t hold grudges, at one point saying of himself “I am a poor hater.”
Garfield was empathetic and flexible.
At different points in his career, Garfield was thought of as a Radical Republican, a moderate, and a conservative. This strikes us as a good thing. “The willingness to compromise and to see an issue from several different sides and perspectives are other attributes Garfield had that modern presidents should want to emulate,” Todd explained.
But for Garfield, there were downsides. He “called himself ‘cursed’ by being able to see both sides of every issue,” Todd explained, “sometimes vacillating on things, seeming to at times believe in the ‘go along to get along’ philosophy.”
Ulysses S. Grant took a dim view of this “curse,” too, describing Garfield as having the “backbone of an angleworm.”
Like most presidents, he was frustrated to see his schedule was crowded by office seekers.
“But almost immediately after he won, people started showing up at his home in Mentor, Ohio (near Cleveland and now the site of James A. Garfield National Historic Site) asking for jobs once he took office. And that got even worse once he became president. He lamented in that diary how much time he had to waste this way and wondered ‘what a vigorous thinker might do’ with four years as president if he could devote all his time to trying to deal with the country’s problems and issues rather than listening to people lobby for jobs. What he wanted more than anything during those four months in office before he was shot, was to not have to waste so much time receiving people who wanted jobs from him or his administration.”
It may have been one of his greatest regrets.
“But also, I know he regretted and was frustrated by the hours and hours he had to spend each day receiving members of the public looking for jobs. That just wore him down and frustrated him to no end.”
But he didn’t just complain about it. He came up with a plan for civil service reform–which could have literally saved lives.
“I think that reform is one big change he was going to make. Of course, it did eventually come in the form of the Pendleton Act of 1883, and Garfield’s murder at the hand of a mentally unstable office seeker made that possible. But that’s something I think Garfield would have pursued even had he lived.
Garfield was a student of history.
“Garfield was classically educated and very well-read, so he certainly was a student of history, though he was just as likely to ponder examples from the Greeks or Romans—or the words of Shakespeare—as the Founding Fathers.”
He was a lifelong diarist.
“Garfield was a diarist for much of his adult life. His self-awareness does, to me, come through in those diary entries. He obviously thought a lot and worked out a lot of problems on paper while writing those diary entries. Elected officials of that era often knew that their letters to others would be published, so they were often guarded and careful in letters. But they could be much more open and honest in their own personal diaries, and this was certainly the case with Garfield. His self-awareness and personality really come through in his diaries.”
He entered the presidency with decades of experience.
“Congressman James Garfield—a former teacher and school president—proposed the first federal Bureau of Education. Garfield spent nearly eighteen years in Congress, and his experience was viewed as a positive for candidates. I think that’s something that can still be relevant today: having the right experience to serve as president and really knowing how Congress and the legislative process work. Presidential candidates always make a ton of promises, but most of them realize upon becoming president just how easy it is to make promises but how hard it is to actually govern. And taking a long view—considering how something will affect the country in five or ten or twenty years, rather than just today or tomorrow—is something else that Garfield had that would serve modern candidates and presidents well.”
His presidency was short, as was his life, but his record was not.
“I wish more people would realize that Garfield is much more than just a footnote in American history. I wish they would look more at what he did and accomplished in a relatively short life (he was only 49 when he died). His early life, military career, and time in Congress—17 years, which was a very long congressional career in that era—are all fascinating and give us some idea what kind of president he may have been had he lived.”
With a long record of service comes accountability.
“Garfield knew he was accountable to his constituents and had to earn their votes to return him to office every other year during his nearly eighteen years in the U.S. House of Representatives. And that schedule—the need to constantly be politicking and campaigning—was a grind. He eventually decided to move over to the Senate, where he felt he could be more effective and only have to worry about reelection every six years instead of every two.
He was “presidential.”
“Well, certainly he fit the mold for postwar presidents in some ways: he was a Republican, he had served the Union in uniform during the Civil War, and he had a beard. Many people tend to mix up the post-Civil War presidents and to view the presidency as a big black hole full of nobodies between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Obviously, that’s not the case. For example, look at the much-deserved resurgence of interest in and appreciation for Ulysses S. Grant and his management of Reconstruction.
He had potential.
“Garfield will never be a Lincoln or even a Grant simply because he was president so briefly. But I do think that people are taking a second look at Garfield and realizing that he had a lot of potential to be a strong and impactful president. He was incredibly smart, experienced, and knew when to stand firm and when to compromise. He cared deeply about civil rights, fiscal issues, and education.”
One man’s curse is another generation’s hope.
“Considering just how polarized our politics are these days, having someone who understands the opposite point of view on some issues and actively seeks to unify people and compromise is a lesson for current presidents, I think. Someone willing to stand up even to his or her own party, as President Garfield did in his fight over patronage with other Republicans, is something to be admired as well.”
He’d be surprised at how much our political parties have changed.
“I think something that would surprise Garfield today, as well as his voters, would be just how different the major parties are now compared to his era.”
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The gun is missing! There are dubious claims online that the Smithsonian once had and lost it.
Garfield never took his seat in the U.S. Senate representing Ohio due to receiving the presidential nomination just a few months later.