I have never been anything else than radical on all these questions of Freedom and Slavery, rebellion and the War. I have had neither inclination or motive to be otherwise . . .--James Garfield
The notion that the Civil War was God’s response to the sin of enslaving blacks appealed to future president James A. Garfield during his prime. “For what else are we so fearfully scourged and defeated?,” he once asked. Descended from the Puritan Edward Garfield who arrived in America in 1635, James Garfield’s early American ancestors were among the successive generations that battled Indians to expand the borders of the colonies. James Abram Garfield was born on November 19, 1831 in a log cabin near Mentor, Ohio to Abram Garfield and Eliza Ballou. When he was only eighteen months old, his father died after catching a cold putting out a forest fire leaving him to be raised by his mother and an uncle. Poverty-stricken and underprivileged he became a voracious reader and compensated for his background by a gritty determination.
Early in life, Garfield joined a religious cult, the “Disciples.” Sharing an evolving doctrine that at times included a radical egalitarian tendency, they split over the issue of slavery. In defending his position, he wrote in his diary, “The simple relation of master and slave is not unchristian (sic).” Most of the local followers in the Case Western Reserve area, however, opposed slavery and Garfield began to oppose slavery in word, as well as in deed, during this period. Once Garfield hid a desperate African American fugitive who had escaped from slavery in the South and helped him on his way to Canada. On another occasion, Garfield organized a group of men determined to rescue by force what he believed to be two African fugitives from slavery that had been recaptured and were being held. As it turned out the incident was merely a college prank, but Garfield’s sentiments and conviction were apparently genuine. Nevertheless, he remained opposed to abolitionism as he refused to allow an abolitionist rally to be held at a meeting house commenting, “(W)hile I stay here, the school shall never be given over to an overheated and brainless faction.” Later, Garfield was termed by a political opponent on campus “the prince of slaveholders and plotters.” Throughout his career Garfield seemed to have mixed feelings on the subjects of African Americans, democracy, and civil rights.
With the emergence of the Republican Party, Garfield became involved campaigning for John C. Fremont in 1856. Despite his ambivalent emotions with respect to African Americans, Garfield later became an ally of the progressive forces represented by Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans. An adaptive politician during his liberal phase, the young congressman declared, “I say here, before this House, that I will never so long as I have any voice in political affairs, rest satisfied until the way is opened by which these colored people, as soon as they are worthy, shall be lifted to the full rights of citizenship.” In Garfield’s inaugural speech, he bluntly stated that there “can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States.”
The evolution of James Garfield’s thought with respect to African Americans and their civil rights was deeply impacted by his experiences during the Civil War. From the outset he viewed the war as an anti-slavery effort, although he knew firsthand the burning hatred many of the union officers harbored toward blacks. As he witnessed what he termed the deep hostility of the Southerners he met and officers whom he felt were not working to win the war as they felt it would end slavery, his political thought evolved. As the war progressed Garfield said he found himself “coming nearer and nearer to downright Abolitionism” eventually reaching the conclusion that slavery being the cause of the war, its destruction must be an outcome of the war. He took as a “solemn oath” that slavery must be destroyed as a God-sanctioned task. During the high point of Garfield’s sentiment opposing slavery he also believed that the elimination of slave owners as a class was a necessary step towards justice and peace. Clearly, at this stage in his career he demonstrated unusual sympathy with the victims of slavery. Once, Garfield was said to have angrily rejected a commanding officers order to hunt for a fugitive slave that had entered his camp telling the general to do it himself. During the war Garfield supported the arming of blacks as soldiers dismissing fears that this move might spark black slave insurrections. It would be bloody, Garfield responded, “but it is not in my heart to lay a feather’s weight in the way of our Black Americans if they choose to strike for what was always their own.”
By 1865, Garfield’s position on black emancipation had hardened, leading to more stridency in his presentations on the issue. His strong sense of spirituality during this period helped him conclude then that the Civil War was God’s retribution for America’s sin of slavery. “For what else are we so fearfully scourged and defeated?,” Garfield once asked. Following the war, Garfield supported voting rights, and also introduced a resolution that would have ended the requirement that African-Americans in the District of Columbia blacks carry passes.
Soon, however, Garfield’s progressive policies began to moderate. By 1870, Garfield heralded the “triumphant conclusion” of the fight against slavery with the passage of the 15th Amendment giving blacks the right to vote. Now, Providence placed “upon the African Race the care of its own destiny. It places their fortune in their own hands.” Eager to reconcile with white Southerners, Garfield wanted to declare victory and move on to other issues. Like Hayes, he began to view former southern Whigs as the best guarantors of black civil rights. At bottom, these Republicans desired to build up a southern branch of their party at the expense of African Americans in the party and in the region. A white southern party would make the Republican Party a truly national party and presumably move beyond mere racial issues to issues they regarded as worthy of national attention. The goal was a situation in which black “constitutional rights,” or lack thereof, would not be threatened by one party’s or the other’s dominance and a situation in which men of the “south as in the north men” could unite around what they view as the “great commercial and industrial questions rather than on questions of race and color.”
Not coincidentally, Garfield came to advocate “states rights:” and, therefore, pleaded that the federal government was unable to respond to the wave of anti-black terrorism plaguing the South. Despite this, as late as 1878, Garfield chided President Hayes for his generosity to the white South saying his policies had “turned out to be a give-away from the beginning.” Upon accepting the Republican nomination for president, Garfield’s message gave African Americans cause to hope that his administration would mark a change from the policies of conciliation. Garfield maintained at the time that the South could only prosper when all voters could “freely and safely support the party he pleases.” In planning the 1880 campaign, the top
During the campaign for president, the candidate Garfield testified to his love of blacks’ loyalty to the union, “we have seen white man betray the flag and fight to kill the Union, but in all that long, dreary war, we never [saw] a traitor in black skin.” He vowed that “now that we have made them free, so long as we live, we will stand by the black citizens. . . . We will stand by them until the sun of liberty fixed in the firmament of our constitution shall shine with equal rays upon every man, white or black, throughout the Union."
Yet, in Garfield’s emotional flip-flops Frederick Douglass and other black leaders found a resurfacing of anti-black sentiment. Their suspicions were well-founded. Although Garfield had backed black suffrage, he confided privately in 1865 that he had, “a strong feeling of repugnance when I think of the negro (sic) being made our political equal and I would be glad if they could be colonized, sent to heaven, or got rid of in any decent way. . . “ lamenting that “colonization has proved a hopeless failure everywhere.” Garfield also once complained that Capital Hill was “infested with Negroes.” Behind Garfield’s transformation was the pressure of the business community, especially in key cities such as Cincinnati where protests and boycotts by southern consumers of local goods and products were beginning to hurt. Several companies laid off workers leading businesses to unite to protest a key Republican newspapers’ perceived anti-southern content. Republican businessmen were among those pressuring leading Republicans toward a more conciliatory and tolerant policy toward the South.
In December 1880, shortly after his election as president, but prior to his inauguration, Garfield sought to replace Frederick Douglass as Marshal of the United States for the District of Columbia. Douglass wrote Garfield requesting that he be reappointed voicing his conviction that “. . . whatever may be the ostensible reasons given for it, the real ground of opposition to me is that I am a colored man, and that my sympathies are with my recently enslaved people.” Douglass mobilized some support for his reappointment, notably author Mark Twain who wrote a supporting letter Garfield. Later, Garfield informed Douglass that he wanted to appoint one of his close friends as U. S. Marshal and that, instead, he would appoint Douglass as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia.
Unprecedented numbers of African Americans attended Garfield’s inauguration ball. Garfield appointed black leaders to the “Negro” jobs within his administration. Blanche K. Bruce was appointed Registrar of the Treasury, John Mercer Langston was named Minister to Haiti and Consul General to the Dominican Republic, and Henry Highland Garnet was appointed to the post of the Minister to Liberia. On balance, however, the brief administration of President James A. Garfield merely continued the policy of fostering sectional reconciliation at the expense of black civil rights that had gathered momentum during the Hayes administration.
The most striking fact with respect to Garfield’s presidency was its brevity. In July 1881 he was assassinated by Charles Guiteau in Washington, D. C. After struggling for life for seventy-nine agonizing days, Garfield succumbed to his wounds.
©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.