The Rise of James Garfield

It was a time of oratory and a time when Ohioans became President. James Garfield was a product of the time. He was born into “a poor family” and “an intellectual in love with books.”[i] He attended the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute as a student and janitor, and by the following year, he became an assistant professor.[ii] Garfield was a man who treasured intellect. When William Dean Howells came to Garfield’s home in Hiram, Ohio in 1870, he sat on the porch and told a story about New England’s poets; Garfield “stopped him, ran out into his yard, and hallooed the neighbors sitting on their porches: ‘He’s telling about Holmes, and Longfellow, and Lowell, and Whittier.’”[iii] At a time when the Midwest fostered “a strong tradition of vernacular intellectualism” that manifested itself in “crowds for the touring lectures, the lyceums, and later the Chautauquas,” the neighbors gathered and listened “to Howells while the whippoorwills flew and sang in the evening air.”[iv]

That night, Garfield listened to Howells but also spoke. It was a cool summer evening, and he told a story of another such evening during the Civil War when he was “riding into the valley of the Kanawha with his command” and, when approaching a meadow, saw “men lying in sleep, until he suddenly realized they were not sleeping but dead.”[v] At “the sight of these dead men whom other men had killed, something went out of him, the habit of his life-time, that never came back again: the sense of the sacredness of life, and the impossibility of destroying it.”[vi]

This was a time of former Civil War generals not just telling stories but finding themselves in positions of power. Some entered industry and became leaders in the burgeoning railroad sector while others entered the political arena. In fact, there was one former general who could not stay out of the political arena. Ulysses S. Grant, already having served two terms as President, had been the Union’s favorite general since George Washington and was eager to return to politics for the election of 1880 to seek an unprecedented third term as President, even conducting “a triumphal tour across the country, but it lasted too long.”[vii] Americans had started “to see him not as the old warrior whom they might have to draft to serve the republic but as a failed president too eager to return to office,” and, picking up on that sentiment, Grant took time away from touring the country and left for Cuba and Mexico only to return for the Republican Convention.[viii] The problem was not only that Grant seemed too eager—a liability at a time when disinterestedness in running for office still was expected; it was also that many voters reflected on his record and the scandals that plagued his two terms. Those scandals dragged down Grant; but they blemished other figures’ reputations in the Republican Party. In fact, the Crédit Mobilier scandal had tarred Garfield’s reputation, but—with his party having accommodated the likes of Grant, James Blaine, and Roscoe Conkling—Garfield still appeared “to walk among the righteous.”[ix] In any event, Garfield, taking on the role as a disinterested politician—one that would serve if his country called on him—claimed he had no desire for the nomination.[x] Of those who knew him, few believed him.

Winfield Scott Hancock. By: Mathew Brady.

And justifiably so; Garfield was ambitious and determined to leave his mark. He had served during the Civil War in significant battles—including those of Shiloh and Chickamauga—and had served in the United States House of Representatives for over fifteen years by the election of 1880, but Garfield did not enjoy a prominent place in public discourse. His Democratic opponent, a former major general for the Union in the Civil War—Winfield Scott Hancock—presumably had the edge; but, then again, Democrats had developed a habit of losing presidential elections. Hancock, named after the legendary general who served the United States Army from 1808 to 1861, had not only fought in some of the Civil War’s biggest battles—including Gettysburg—but had earned the admiration of his fellow generals, including Grant. But the electoral map was always going to be problematic for a Democrat; and so it was for Hancock. Although the Democrats were favored to win the South—and did—the northern states’ electoral count was too much to overcome: even with the popular vote being 4,446,158 for Garfield and 4,444,260 for Hancock and each carrying nineteen states, the electoral vote was 214 to Garfield and 155 to Hancock.

Upon winning, Garfield opined on the meaning of the result: “First, that the American people believe in the nationality of the government; second, that they believe in a good, honest, healthy financial policy; third, that they are determined not to narrow and disgrace the sphere of American politics by indorsing a campaign of personal abuse.”[xi] The reality was that the northern states just barely brought about Garfield’s victory, but one voter left the polls and said, “When the North gets mad, it is a terrible people.”[xii] Harper’s Weekly, a newspaper based in New York City, noted that the significance of the election was “that the patriotic nation which paid so sacred a price for the Union does not intend to intrust its control to those who, having sought by force to destroy the government, now, professing the same theory of the nature of the Union by which they attempted to justify secession, have sought by fraud to seize the government.”[xiii] The newspaper further reported: although the victory “imposes great responsibilities upon” the Republican Party, it called into question the continued existence of the Democratic Party: “[a]t the close of the Garfield administration the Democratic party will have been out of national power for about a quarter of a century.”[xiv] Nonetheless, the margins of the victory showed that there would be no lock on power. Even in the states Republicans may have felt they had a lock on, the results were not as encouraging: Garfield had a majority of 2,000-3,000 in Connecticut, 1,000-2,000 in New Hampshire, and a mere 25,000 in New York.[xv]

But, after a victory, one doesn’t just take stock of the challenges ahead; one relishes the win. And so the Republicans and Garfield did, including Garfield’s Vice President-Elect Chester Arthur who may have expected that he would have a quiet four years ahead of him. But the heady days following a successful election are no indication of what turmoil may lie ahead for an administration.

Harper’s Weekly. Caption: “No change is necessary, General Hancock. We are too well satisfied with your brave record as a Union soldier.”

[i] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 401.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id. at 402.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id. at 400.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id. at 401.

[x] See id.

[xi] Harper’s Weekly, November 20, 1880, 738.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

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