“The Most Important Political Change We Have Known”: James A. Garfield, Slavery, and Justice in the Civil War Era, Part I

In the last year-and-a-half, a new book, Destiny of the Republic, has been published regarding the incident for which this late nineteenth century president is remembered by most Americans, if he is remembered at all: his assassination. But there is much more to James A. Garfield than the manner of his death. Born into poverty with no material advantages, he harnessed his broad intellect and natural curiosity to become a well-educated and cultured individual. He was a preacher, a teacher, a college president, an Ohio state senator, a Civil War general, a member of the United States House of Representatives for seventeen years, and the twentieth President of the United States.

Though he never called himself an "abolitionist," Garfield felt strongly enough about the evils of slavery and the preservation of the Union to volunteer for the Union army in mid-1861.  This image shows him as a Brigadier General.  (Original photo by Mathew Brady)

Though he never called himself an “abolitionist,” Garfield felt strongly enough about the evils of slavery and the preservation of the Union to volunteer for the Union army in mid-1861. This image shows him as a Brigadier General; he was a Major General when he left the army to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of 1863.  (Original photo by Mathew Brady)

The majority of James A. Garfield’s political career was spent in the House of Representatives. Over the course of seventeen years, from 1863-1880, he grew in influence and responsibility. Congressman Garfield had decided views on the economic issues of his day, was a proponent of scientific investigation, and supported a national bureau of education. He also supported the civil and political rights of African-Americans even as those rights were being curtailed in the South. Still, though his public statements about blacks have the ring of a genuine humanitarian concern, it is also true that he had political objectives that coincided with the sincere support for the civil and political rights of blacks that he expressed right into his presidency. At the same time, it is also clear that he shared attitudes about race that were common in his day.

James Garfield’s earliest comments regarding African-Americans, and specifically slavery, appear in his diaries of the 1850s when he was a young man in his twenties. It is important to note that at this time his views on slavery and politics were thoroughly influenced by his religious affiliation, the Disciples of Christ. Many Disciples contended that no one who was concerned with politics could be a Christian, a conviction Garfield adopted when he became a member of the sect at age nineteen in 1850. On numerous occasions he spoke of his disdain for politics as contrary to being a Christian. For example, he wrote on Thursday, September 5, 1850, “I have engaged to support the following proposition, viz., Christians have no right to participate in human governments!” And after hearing a sermon about slavery in October that year, he read essays on the relationship of slavery to Christian thought. He concluded that, “the simple relation of master and slave is not unchristian.”

Also in October 1850, James Garfield heard Congressman Joshua R. Giddings denounce the recently adopted Fugitive Slave Law at a public gathering in his Ohio district. Giddings’ abolitionist views were well known in the Western Reserve, but again, reflecting his discomfort with politics at this time in his life, Garfield “could not help but consider that the cause for which he was laboring was a carnal one.”  In other words, slavery was a concern of this world and therefore not a concern of a true Christian.

Ohio Representative Joshua R. Giddings was a vocal abolitionist.  He once resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives when that body censured him for supporting the freedom of slaves who had rebelled aboard the slave ship Creole.  His constitutents promptly voted him back into office.  (Ohio Historical Society)

Ohio Representative Joshua R. Giddings was a vocal abolitionist. He once resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives when that body censured him for supporting the freedom of slaves who had rebelled aboard the slave ship “Creole.”  His constitutents promptly voted him back into office. (Ohio Historical Society)

Within a few short years, James Garfield’s views on politics and slavery had changed. Study, experience and intellectual maturity “gradually and somewhat painfully shook [him] loose from some of his smugly-held beliefs.”  In 1855, while he was a student at Williams College in Massachusetts, Garfield heard two abolitionist lecturers whose attacks on slavery completely altered his views: “I have been instructed tonight on the political condition of our country, and from this time forward I shall hope to know more about its movements and interests.”

He was now convinced that slavery must not be allowed to spread into the new territories acquired after the Mexican War. In his youthful enthusiasm he confided to his diary that, “At such hours as this, I feel like throwing the whole current of my life into the work of opposing this giant evil. I don’t know but the religion of Christ demands such action.”  He also wrote, “I am sometimes led to think that our people are not yet fit for Liberty, nor worthy of it, but ‘Let come what may come.’ Slavery has had its day, or at any rate is fast having it.”  What a reversal in his view of politics and Christianity.

CIVIL WAR YEARS

During the Civil War, Garfield’s military service convinced him that the institution of slavery was politically and morally bankrupt. Particularly disturbing to him was the bigotry in the Union army that he witnessed first-hand. Writing from Pittsburg, Tennessee to his friend J. Harry Rhodes, in May 1862, he expressed his disgust with army politics and the “conspiracy among the leading officers, especially those of the regular army to taboo the whole question of anti-slavery and throw as much discredit upon it as upon treason. The purpose is seen clearly both in their words and actions.  I find myself coming nearer and nearer to downright abolitionism.”

The passage of the first Confiscation Act by Congress in 1861 permitted the Union Army to take fleeing slaves under its protection. However, many Union generals, particularly those who were Democrats, refused to honor this provision, which angered James Garfield. In 1862, he pointedly rebuked what he termed “the haughty tyranny of proslavery officers.” He wrote, “Not long ago my commanding general sent me an order to have my camp searched for a fugitive slave. I sent back word that if generals wished to disobey an express law of Congress, which is also an order from the War Department, they must do it themselves for no soldier or officer under my command should take part in such disobedience…”

The First Confiscation Act (1861) permitted Union troops to seize any property-including slaves-that were being used to support the Confederacy.  This 1862 image shows escaped slaves working for wages for the Union army near Yorktown, Virginia.  (Library of Congress)

The First Confiscation Act (1861) permitted Union troops to seize any property-including slaves-that were being used to support the Confederacy. This 1862 image shows escaped slaves working for wages for the Union army near Yorktown, Virginia. (Library of Congress)

Garfield’s humanity in regard to a slave he encountered in the field is eloquently recalled in The Garfield Orbit, by Margaret Leech and Harry Brown. Shortly after the battle of Middle Creek, Kentucky, in early 1862, “a Negro boy was brought to Colonel Garfield – an odd figure, dressed in Confederate uniform and fully armed and equipped. The servant of a Virginia colonel, Jim Rollins had slipped away near the close of the fight and come to the Union commander to give himself up. Garfield was touched by his trust. His thinking was changing… He was coming to believe that the war to save the Union would inevitably carry nationwide emancipation in its train. It added personal warmth to Garfield’s intellectual conclusion that he stood to this Negro boy as the representative of protection and freedom.”

Though Garfield was troubled by how Union officers treated African-Americans, he was equally aware of the dilemma of what to do with Negro camp followers, especially women and children. The men could be employed as Teamsters or drilled to become soldiers. But with the surrounding country being, in Garfield’s words, “devastated and destitute,” he was “totally unable to see how its people and especially the Negroes will escape actual starvation. Thousands have been abandoned by their masters, who… now cruelly turn them out to perish or become a burden which this army cannot safely assume. We should be obliged to duplicate our rations in less than two months if we took them up to feed and protect. It is one of the saddest pictures I ever witnessed… I wish the government would try some plan of alleviation.”

It is clear that James Garfield responded with compassion to the plight of the enslaved people. The political angling that surrounded them, the circumstances that called into question their survival and his inability to render them aid frustrated him.

In uniform and in Congress, Garfield supported enlisting blacks to the Union Army. He did not give great weight to the fear that such enlistees could lead to slave insurrections. Such a result might indeed lead to bloodshed, “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…” If the slaves rebelled, that would be all the better in undermining the Confederacy.

As a Union officer, James A. Garfield supported the enlistment of black soldiers such as these from Company E, 4th United States Colored Troops.  Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation permitted blacks to join the Union army and navy, and nearly 200,000 eventually served.  (Dickinson College, www.housedivided.dickinson.edu)

As a Union officer, James A. Garfield supported the enlistment of black soldiers such as these from Company E, 4th United States Colored Troops. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation permitted blacks to join the Union army and navy, and nearly 200,000 eventually served. (Dickinson College, http://www.housedivided.dickinson.edu)

In October 1863, Congressman-elect Garfield accompanied Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to a rally in Baltimore, which called for the unconditional abolition of slavery in Maryland. In a letter to his wife Lucretia, he described finding “15,000 to 20,000 people assembled on Monument Square and the speakers – many of them lifelong slaveholders – made the square bold issue” for ending the peculiar institution in the Old Line state.”He continued, “I was never more delighted and astonished, and when I spoke to them the same words I would address to our people …and hearing their long applause, I felt as if the political millennium had come.”

(check back later in February 2013 for Part II of this post)

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

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4 thoughts on ““The Most Important Political Change We Have Known”: James A. Garfield, Slavery, and Justice in the Civil War Era, Part I

  1. I realize that this is “only” a blog, but you gloss over a fairly unsavory incident while JAG was principal of the Eclectic Institute. A faculty member of the Eclectic, Norman Dunshee, had become too openly critical of anti-abolitionists particularly among the Campbellites for several of the trustees. Garfield, according to Dunshee later in his life, had colluded with board members to have him terminated from the school (though F. M Green’s jubilee history of the College in 1901 has nothing but praise for him). Dunshee’s bitterness toward Garfield never abated and is notoriously the basis for one of the few negative memorials to Garfield after the assassination. Garfield’s letters with his father-in-law Zeb Rudolph also indicate a far less sanguine view of anti-slavery activities than many of his modern admirers would like to have true.

    • Dear Mr. Anderson, I’m familiar with the controversy between Norman Dunshee, the Eclectic, and James Garfield, and recall that Garfield wanted to discourage a controversy over the issue of slavery and abolitionism at the school. I confess that am unfamiliar with the letters between Mr. Garfield and his father-in-law, and now am curious to look them over. Are these letters located with President Garfield papers at the LOC? Thanks for your comment. While I have tried to take a positive view of James Garfield’s evolving thoughts and feelings in regard to slavery and blacks in his day, I appreciate your reminder that early on Garfield’s views and actions with regard to slavery do hot present him in the best light. Thank you so much for a valuable contribution to this blog.

      Alan Gephardt

  2. JAG’s letters with his father-in-law (and vice-versa) are in the LOC collection of his letters and papers. There are letters, as well, with other of his contemporaries that bear reading, especially students of the Eclectic who had gone to Oberlin to complete their degrees. It all adds up to a fascinating portrait of a very complex young man living in very complex times. Although the Western Reserve is so often portrayed as a hotbed of abolitionist activity (often for self-serving reasons), the real picture was far more nuanced. The recent PBS documentary about Portage County “sojers” illustrates this copiously by quoting from many of their letters that are in private and public collections. Much of the material is uncomfortable.

  3. Thank you for shedding more light on the nuanced picture. From all I’ve read, I believe Garfield’s views evolved to anti-slavery notions — not abolitionist. I’ve spoken to Alan about this after his presentation at the Mentor Library and he agreed.

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