Did Garfield Know Darwin or Twain?

On a tour the other day a very bright nine year old asked me, “Did Garfield know Charles Darwin? Did he know Mark Twain?” The question surprised me, but I could answer the first part. Although James Garfield read a great deal by and about Charles Darwin, he never met him. (More about that in another post.)  But, did James Garfield ever meet Mark Twain? That I wasn’t sure about; it certainly seemed possible. A little research was required.

Naturalist, scientist, and author of On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin.  We know he and James A. Garfield never met.  But did you know that Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln?  (biography.com)

Naturalist, scientist, and author of On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin. We know he and James A. Garfield never met. But did you know that Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln? (biography.com)

I went to the usual sources, and found in The Life and Letters of James A. Garfield, the family approved biography written by Theodore Clarke Smith, published in 1925, “Twice only does the name of Mark Twain appear in the journal, for the later ‘Twain legend’ was far in the future.” 

The first entry Smith mentions is on January 4, 1873. Congressman Garfield was chairman of the Appropriations Committee. His diary records that “at 12 o’clock met the Committee on Appropriations…Read Mark Twain’s ‘Great Beef Contract’ to the committee. Twain is the most successful of our humorous writers in my judgment.” Smith declares, “This skit was a savage satire on the exorbitant and corrupt private claims which, by sheer persistence and patience, were often engineered through Congress. Garfield’s interest in it was obviously professional.” I think this tells more about the way Smith feels about the “Twain legend,” than it does about Garfield’s appreciation of Twain’s satire. I read “The Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract,” which Twain published in 1870. Yes, it is a savage satire, and yes, Garfield no doubt read it to the committee to make a political point. But the point could well have been that government had created such a maze of officers and departments—“the Second Comptroller of the Corned Beef Division, the Mislaid Contracts Department, the Commissioner of Odds and Ends”—that it cost the government huge amounts of money to avoid paying its bills. By reading “The Great Beef Contract” to his committee, was he suggesting that they look for more efficient ways to spend federal dollars?

James A. Garfield read and enjoyed many works by Mark Twain, still regarded as America's greatest humorist and satirist.   Is it possible the two ever met?  (americanhistory.unomaha.edu)

James A. Garfield read and enjoyed many works by Mark Twain, still regarded as America’s greatest humorist and satirist. Is it possible the two ever met?(americanhistory.unomaha.edu)

Smith then mentions the journal entry for January 24, 1876, “Read Mark Twain’s article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled ‘A Literary Nightmare,’ a very clever story.” The diary also includes, “May 5, 1878…In the evening the children read from Mark Twain’s Roughing It,” which Smith did not mention, perhaps because it was the children, not Garfield, doing the reading.

The index to the published diaries of James A. Garfield led to a couple of additional entries. December 30, 1874, in New York City: “In the evening attended the theater and listened to The Gilded Age, a piece whose stupidity is only equaled by the brilliant acting of Colonel Sellers. The play is full of malignant insinuations and would lead a hearer to believe that there is no virtue in the world, in public or in private life.” The play Garfield saw that evening was based on the novel, The Gilded Age, written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in 1873. The title of the book gave name to an era that had certainly inspired Twain’s rapier wit. During the Credit Mobilier scandal, which damaged Garfield’s personal reputation and political standing, Twain had had plenty to say about Congress: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress,” and “I think I can say and say with pride that we have some legislators that command higher prices than any in the world.” The book and the play elaborated on the same themes. It’s no wonder Garfield found it stupid and malignant! But apparently Garfield bore no grudge. On the evening of April 16, 1880, according to his diary, “Crete and I attended a party at Governor Hawley’s given to Charles Dudley Warner [yes, Twain’s co-author]. A very select and pleasant company were present.”

Twain speaking (mrcapwebpage.com)

Twain was quick-witted with both his pen and his tongue.  While Garfield certainly didn’t care for Twain’s cynicism about Congress or the era in which they both lived (which Twain called the “Gilded Age”), he greatly enjoyed Twain’s work, even going so far as to once read a Twain satire to a congressional committee on which he served.  (mrcapwebpage.com)

Mark Twain was a “jubilant” supporter of Garfield and the Republican ticket in 1880. A few days after Garfield’s election, Twain spoke to the Middlesex Club, one of the oldest Republican organizations in the country, reporting on his campaign experience. “I did not obstruct the cause half as much as I might have supposed I might in a new career, politics being out of my line. But it was a great time. The atmosphere was thick with storm and tempest, and there was going to be a break, and everybody thought a thunderbolt would be launched out of the political sky. I judged it would hit somebody, and believed that somebody would be the Democratic party…I did not believe we had much to fear on the Republican side, because I believed we had a good and trustworthy lightning rod in James A. Garfield.” Pretty sophisticated analysis for someone who claimed to be a political novice.

But did they ever meet? I did not find anywhere that James Garfield said, “Met Mark Twain today.” Nor did I stumble across a Twain declaration that he met Garfield. They certainly sometimes traveled in the same circles, making a meeting possible, perhaps likely. But I am still without an answer for my nine year old visitor.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

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Garfield Resources are All Around Us

Unlike many of our modern-day Presidents who have a Presidential Library constructed to serve as the repository for all things related to their administration, there is no central repository for everything related to the public service career and life of President James A. Garfield.

The First Lady (Lucretia Garfield) had the foresight to preserve the papers and documents of her husband’s Presidency and congressional career, and did so by creating the fireproof vault off of the Memorial Library, known as the “Memory Room.” It is, or was, the main holding place of President Garfield’s records until the President’s papers were transferred to the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov). The Garfield children, to their great credit, recognized they could not properly store and maintain the official records of their father’s career, and that the Library of Congress could. This was a donation of great value to the chronicling of a period of our nation’s history.

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband's book collection and memory for herself and their children.  She added the "Memory Room" to store the papers of his public career, thus creating the nation's first presidential library.  (NPS photo)

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband’s book collection and memory for herself and their children. She added the “Memory Room” (not visible here) to store the papers of his public career, thus creating the nation’s first presidential library. (NPS photo)

However, as I have found while conducting my own research for some of my presentations here at James A. Garfield National Historic Site, there is no single place where I could find all I needed. For example, this spring I gave a presentation about the State Senate career of James A. Garfield, and while I used the authoritative biography of the twentieth President, Garfield, by Dr. Allan Peskin, I also received assistance from the Ohio Legislative Service Commission (www.lsc.state.oh.us), and one of their amazing staff members, who provided to me information about the bills introduced and supported by then-Ohio State Senator James A. Garfield. Additionally, I was able to find information on the website of the Ohio Senate (www.ohiosenate.gov), and some additional information through the Ohio Historical Society (www.ohiohistory.org). Special thanks to Adam Warren, Administrative Aide to State Senator Nina Turner, who provided me with some photos of the Garfield Room in the Ohio Statehouse. I also found out that records related to the State Senate tenure of James A. Garfield can be found at the University of Akron (www.uakron.edu). This makes great sense, as Garfield represented Summit and Portage Counties in the Ohio Senate.

Seeking assistance from multiple places makes historical research even more like the assembly of a jigsaw puzzle.

Beginning with President Herbert Hoover, the National Archives and Records Administration (www.nara.gov), began to assemble the documents and artifacts of Presidential administrations into Presidential Libraries and Museums. Just last week, on May 1, the thirteenth (13th) Presidential Library opened to the public on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Located in Dallas, Texas, the George W. Bush Presidential Library is the largest of the 13 NARA Presidential Libraries. It is the central repository for the papers, artifacts, and other notable events of the tenure of our 43rd President.

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, located in Dallas, is the newest and largest presidential library.  It was dedicated May 1, 2013.  (www.architecture.about.com)

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, located in Dallas, is the newest and largest presidential library. It was dedicated May 1, 2013. (www.architecture.about.com)

Those Commanders-in-Chief who preceeded President Hoover, often, as in the case of President Garfield, have multiple sites, administered, often times, by multiple agencies or organizations. For example, the birth site cabin is managed by the Moreland Hills Historical Society (http://morelandhills.com); the Garfield home is a National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/jaga); and the Garfield Monument is part of Lake View Cemetery (www.lakeviewcemetery.com). Additionally, there are Garfield artifacts and papers in places such as the Hiram College Library (www.hiram.edu), the Western Reserve Historical Society (www.wrhs.org), and the Bedford Historical Society (www.bedfordohiohistory.org). Finally, one of the places near and dear to my heart, the Cleveland Public Library (www.cpl.org), also has a fairly extensive collection of Garfield-related books, speeches, and other items.

I would be remiss if I did not mention three great places to find information about President Garfield in the Washington, DC, area: the U.S. Capitol Historical Society (www.uschs.org), the White House Historical Association (www.whitehousehistory.org), and, of course, the White House (www.whitehouse.gov).

Should you come across any great sites or artifacts, we would love to hear about them. I wish you happy hunting in your quest to learn more about President Garfield, or any of our nation’s other leaders. If we can be of any further assistance to you, or if you are interested in becoming a National Park Service Volunteer, please do not hesitate to contact us through our website at www.nps.gov/jaga or by calling James A. Garfield National Historic Site at 440-255-8722.

Though he was President just a short time, James A. Garfield's life and career are integral to the history of northeast Ohio.  Visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site learn more about the man and his family and his career and legacy.  Visitors who tour the Garfield home are taken into the two rooms that constitute the nation's first presidential library.  (Library of Congress)

Though he was President just a short time, James A. Garfield’s life and career are integral to the history of northeast Ohio and the United States. Visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site learn more about the man and his family and his career and legacy. Those who tour the Garfield home are taken into the two rooms that constitute the nation’s first presidential library. (Library of Congress)

(Did you know that prior to the mid-1990’s renovation of the Ohio Statehouse, the names of the Presidents from Ohio, including Garfield, encircled the top of the rotunda inside the Statehouse? Also, during the 1990s renovation of the Statehouse, a skylight bearing the State Seal of Ohio commonly used from the 1840s to roughly the mid-1860s , was found in the top of the rotunda? I mention this because this version of the Seal can be found in the Memorial Screen in Eliza Ballou Garfield’s bedroom in the top white shield-shaped panel.)

-Andrew Mizsak, Volunteer