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

CONGRESSIONAL CAREER

In Congress, James Garfield was confronted by the war and the reconstruction of the South that followed. His goals for the freedmen were very much in sync with the Radical Republican program, especially the passage of the constitutional amendments designed to elevate the status of blacks in American society and under law. He supported the extension of the Freedman’s Bureau, the Civil Rights acts passed in the late 1860s, and with initial misgivings, the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. In time, he became disillusioned with radicalism, writing to his friend Burke Hinsdale, “I am trying to do two things, viz. be a radical and not a fool – which… is a matter of no small difficulty.”

Even before the Civil War ended, Garfield could be counted among those who favored the confiscation of rebel property in order to secure a Northern victory. He believed that the South had to be “beaten to its knees,” that both slavery and landed estates had to be abolished. “It is well known that the power of slavery rests in the large plantations… and that the bulk of all the real estate is in the hands of the slave-owners who have plotted this great conspiracy… let these men go back to their lands and they will again control the South…” If the slave-holders continued to have power, they would use that power to the detriment of the freed people, and that would call into question all the blood and treasure that had been expended during the war.

Yet, for all his desire to see slavery ended, he did not want to see African-Americans given “special treatment.” Garfield could not agree with Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to equalize the pay of white and black soldiers. Apparently he thought Stevens’ proposal was a ploy to win political points at home. Though he praised black troops for their devotion and service to the Union, Garfield would not “pat the black man on the back merely because he is black,” and he would not attempt to make “political capital by showing an excessive zeal for the black man.”

Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was a fierce abolitionist with whom Garfield disagreed over equal pay for black soldiers.  (Library of Congress)

Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was a fierce abolitionist with whom Garfield disagreed over equal pay for black soldiers. (Library of Congress)

Congressman Garfield would not “condescend” to African-Americans. Yet as a much younger man, having attended a lecture on slavery, he observed, “The Darkey had some funny remarks, and witty too.”  Was this a condescending, consciously racist remark? Or was he paying “the Darkey” a genuine compliment?

Racial prejudice certainly seems to have been a factor in Garfield’s attitude, when in July 1865, he wrote to his friend David Swaim, “It goes against the grain of my feelings to favor Negro suffrage, for I never could fall in love with the creatures…” It was a private comment – condescending perhaps – that by today’s standards seems to be an ugly remark. Still, whether or not to grant freedmen the suffrage – the right to vote, and under what circumstances – was an enduring and controversial issue during Reconstruction.

If Garfield’s discomfort with the idea of unrestricted black suffrage was based in the race prejudice of his day, it seems likely that his own experience influenced his thoughts just as much. His background was one without advantages, but he acquired education and had abiding interests in history, religion, philosophy, literature, science and the theatre. He grew knowledgeable about the world around him, and felt informed about how it worked and what its needs were. In his eyes, he was fit to exercise his voice and vote in public affairs. Not so every recently freed slave.

A young James A. Garfield, who overcame extreme poverty to obtain an education and careers as a teacher, college president, soldier, congressman, lawyer, and president.  Though some of his private remarks about blacks seem harsh today, his public support for black suffrage was consistent.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

A young James A. Garfield, who overcame extreme poverty to obtain an education and careers as a teacher, college president, soldier, congressman, lawyer, and president. Though some of his private remarks about blacks seem harsh today, his public support for black suffrage was consistent. (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Whatever may have been his private reservations, James Garfield was consistent in his public support for African-American suffrage. He condemned the idea that race should determine the right to vote. “Let us not commit ourselves to the senseless and absurd dogma that the color of the skin shall be the basis of suffrage…” he said in a speech at Ravenna, Ohio on July 4, 1865.

In the same speech Garfield spoke of the common cause of the black and white soldier: “In the extremity of our distress,” he said, “we called upon the black man to help us save the Republic; and amid the very thunders of battle, we made a covenant with him, sealed both with his blood and with ours… that, when the nation was redeemed, he should be free, and share with us its glories and its blessings”.  And he warned, “[God]… will appear in judgment against us if we do not fulfill that covenant. Have we done it? Have we given freedom to the black man? What is freedom? …Is it the bare privilege of not being chained – of not being bought and sold, branded and scourged? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery…” In expressing these thoughts, Garfield was referring to the mistreatment of blacks in the South, and the racial prejudice they experienced even with emancipation.

Garfield’s support for black suffrage was tied to goals that combined a sincere concern for the welfare of African-Americans with his nationalist point of view incorporating the economic unity of the country and a desire to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party in the South. Without black suffrage, these goals could not be achieved. Like many Republicans, Garfield saw voting was an economic right, as much as a political one. Without the vote, Garfield feared that the freed Negroes would be unable to control their own destinies. They would be left “to the tender mercies of those pardoned rebels who have been so reluctantly compelled to take their feet from his neck and their hands from his throat.” If blacks could not vote, they would “have no voice in determining the conditions under which they are to live and labor…” Under these circumstances, “what hope have they of the future?”

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African Americans.  (icivics.org)

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to African Americans. (icivics.org)

The mix of idealism and political pragmatism embodied in this idea took concrete form in the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments abolished slavery, conferred citizenship to the freed people, and guaranteed a right to vote for adult Negro males. Subsequent legislation passed in the early 1870s was designed to reinforce those amendments.

During the debate over passage of the 14th Amendment, the necessity of abolishing the three-fifths clause in the Constitution was obvious. While slavery was constitutional, that clause had worked to the advantage of the Southerners in Congress. It counted as three-fifths of a person every enslaved individual, artificially inflating Southern influence in the House of Representatives. By abolishing the three-fifths clause, the influence of the landed whites who had brought on the rebellion was reduced. By conferring citizenship on blacks, their influence was increased. Of the necessity of removing the three-fifths clause, Garfield said, “If the Negro be denied the franchise and the size of the House of Representatives remain as now we shall have fifteen additional members of Congress from the states lately in rebellion… This… will place … the destiny of 412,000 black men in the hands of 20,000 white men. Such an unjust and unequal distribution of power would breed perpetual mischief…”

Throughout the 1870s white Southern racists constantly attacked African-Americans and their Radical supporters, politically, physically, and psychologically. Violence in Louisiana and Mississippi in the mid-1870s was particularly galling, but these events only seemed to encourage Northerners to withdraw from the racial and political problems of the South. Supreme Court decisions nullified civil rights protections and permitted restrictions on the right to vote. James Garfield’s response was to plead for additional civil rights legislation. “God taught us early that in this fight the fate of our own race was indissolubly linked with that of the black man. Justice to them has always been safety to us.” To a friend he wrote in January 1875: “I have for some time had the impression that there is a general apathy among the people concerning the war and the Negro. The public seems to have tired of the subject and all appeals to do justice to the Negro…”

The harsh Reconstruction imposed on the South by Radical Republicans led to the creation of  racist resistance groups like the Ku Klux Klan.  Members of these groups used fear tactics and terrorism to attempt to keep blacks from enjoying the full rights and opportunities of freedom and citizenship.  (www.learnnc.com)

The harsh Reconstruction imposed on the South by Radical Republicans led to the creation of racist resistance groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Members of these groups used fear tactics and terrorism to attempt to keep blacks from enjoying the full rights and opportunities of freedom and citizenship. (www.learnnc.com)

The battle over civil rights protections for blacks was a subtext for political control between Democrats and Republicans. In a highly partisan speech, “The Democratic Party and Government,” Garfield lamented, “that a people, accustomed to [the] domination of slavery, reenacted in almost all of the Southern states… laws limiting and restricting the liberty of the colored man – vagrant laws and peonage laws, whereby Negroes were sold at auction for payment of a paltry tax or fine, and held in a slavery as real as the slavery of other days.” Garfield thought that the “experiment” of allowing Southern whites to have control over the political culture was “a failure.” He condemned “those dreadful scenes enacted by the Ku Klux organization,” calling them “shocking barbarities,” and “sufficient proof …of that great conspiracy against the freedom of the colored race.”  He was witnessing the beginning of what historian Douglas Blackmon has chronicled in his book, Slavery by Another Name – the “re-enslavement” of African-Americans by means of forced labor for “crimes” committed. Indeed, as Garfield feared, the freedom won by war was lost in peace.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

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“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