Wednesday, November 4, 2015
November 4, 2015: Dead Presidents: James Garfield
[In honor of Warren Harding’s 150th birthday on November 2nd, a series AmericanStudying the lives and deaths of presidents who passed away while in office. Leading up to a special weekend post on a very different anniversary—my blog’s fifth birthday!]
On how the second-shortest presidential term was still an impressive and influential one.
Many of the things I’ve written in the first two posts in this series also hold true, with slight variations, for our 20th president, James A. Garfield. Like Warren Harding, Garfield arrived at his party’s Chicago nominating convention (the 1880 Republican National Convention) as an extreme long shot (indeed, Garfield was there primarily as the campaign manager for another candidate, Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman); when the front-runners were once again unable to gain a majority of delegates, Garfield was added to the roster on the 35th ballot, and nominated on the 36th. And like William Henry Harrison, Garfield named a surprising and ill-prepared Vice Presidential running mate (New York customs collector Chester Arthur) for purely political reasons; when Garfield was assassinated only five months into his presidency, shot by a disgruntled Arthur supporter (a group known as Stalwarts) and office seeker named Charles Guiteau, that unlikely vice president became an even more unlikely president. “Oh my God, Chet Arthur is president!” was the supposed refrain around Washington.
But both Garfield and Arthur were different from, and comprised a more successful and impressive presidential term and administration than, either of the prior subjects of this week’s posts. For one thing, while William Henry Harrison did not serve as president long enough to enact his promised reform of the “spoils system” (and his successor John Tyler had apparently no interest in pursuing those reforms), Garfield was able to set in motion his own plans for civil service reform, a policy shift that had become only more crucial in the decades since Harrison (and in particular in the aftermath of the patronage-heavy Grant administration). Although the assassination cut short Garfield’s own efforts in this vein, Arthur took up the plans and saw them through to fruition, with the result the hugely important Pendleton Act (1883). Given that Arthur and Garfield represented two opposed factions within the Republican Party (the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds, respectively), and that Arthur had been chosen precisely because of his ties to the patronage system that the Stalwarts supported, the two men’s consistent approach to this issue was anything but a sure thing; that Arthur saw his president’s plan through to success speaks well to both men and their relationship.
On the period’s even more dark and divisive issue of race, the two men likewise represented meaningful progress (particularly in the aftermath of the Rutherford B. Hayes administration and its dismantling of Federal Reconstruction). Former Union General Garfield was a supporter of African American civil rights, particularly through the vehicle of education, and proposed a universal, federal education system to extend that vital opportunity to all Americans. Although that proposal did not succeed, Garfield also appointed a number of African Americans to significant positions, including Frederick Douglass as the recorder of deeds and Blanche Bruce as register to the Treasury; he also appointed Supreme Court Justice Stanley Matthews, best known for writing a decision striking down a discriminatory anti-Chinese law in San Francisco. Here too Arthur largely continued his predecessor’s policies, including working with the mixed-race Southern Readjuster Party in an effort to combat the white supremacist Democratic lock on the region, and helping reverse the racist court martial of the second African American West Point cadet, Johnson Whittaker. Arthur did sign the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, but with expressed reservations, and only after vetoing an earlier bill that banned Chinese immigration for 20 years (rather than the 10 of the 1882 act). Neither Garfield nor Arthur were among our best presidents, but taken together their shared term certainly surpasses both others in their era and those about which I’ve written this week.
Next dead president tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on Garfield? Other presidents you’d particularly want to AmericanStudy?