James A. Garfield and a Black Washingtonian, Part I

On Friday evening, July 1, 1881, Charles Guiteau was skulking on Lafayette Square opposite the White House, trying to find his best opportunity to carry out his crazed ambition: the death of President James A. Garfield. That evening, according to his own statement, Guiteau felt he had a splendid chance to achieve his objective. The President had come out of the White House alone and was walking north along the east side of the Square passing in front of the former Washington Club (which became the home of Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward) and the Dolley Madison House, where Gen. George B. McClellan lived for several months in 1861-62. Turning east on H Street the President walked the short distance to the next corner of 15th and H Street to the residence of Secretary of State James G. Blaine, which he entered.

Map showing the route President James A. Garfield took to Secretary Blaine's house the evening of July 1, 1881.  Charles Guiteau followed the President as he pondered the assassination attempt he would make the following day.  (Author's image)

Map showing the route President James A. Garfield took to Secretary Blaine’s house the evening of July 1, 1881. Charles Guiteau followed the President and pondered the assassination attempt he would make the following day. (Author’s image)

Guiteau following nearby, and after checking the readiness of his gun, took up a vantage point directly across the street by sitting on the front stoop of Wormley’s Hotel. This building was the flagship of African American entrepreneur James Wormley’s renowned hospitality enterprises in Washington.

This ca. 1884 image shows Wormley' Hotel and the approximate seat Guiteau occupied the evening of July 1, 1881.  (Author's image)

This ca. 1884 image shows Wormley’ Hotel and the approximate seat Guiteau occupied the evening of July 1, 1881. (Author’s image)

According to reportage in the New York Herald, Guiteau waited at this location for one half-hour for the President to emerge. Unfortunately for the assassin, the President came out of the house with Secretary Blaine, directly opposite where Guiteau was waiting in ambush. The two men walked arm-in-arm along the same path in the opposite direction taken by the President earlier that evening, returning to the White House. With Secretary Blaine on the left side of the President between the assassin and his target, it seemed that even after days of trailing the President, this would no longer be the optimum time for the attempt. Unfortunately the assassin did not have long to wait and completed his attack on the President the next day, Saturday July 2, at the Baltimore and Ohio railroad depot.

Interestingly, as we begin to report here, this was not the first occasion when the lives of this leader of the United States and his African American business acquaintance became intertwined. James Wormley’s reputation as a nurse, caterer and hotelier had already been widespread, both nationally and internationally, in the decade prior to the Civil War. Beginning with Buchanan’s administration James Wormley, the son of a free Black couple who had arrived in Washington in 1814, had operated a row of boarding houses and his restaurant from his properties on I Street NW between 15th and 16th Streets.  This location was just one block to the north of Lafayette Square just beyond St. John’s church (sometimes referred to as the President’s Church). At that time James’s businesses as a restaurateur and hotelier were in addition to his duties as the steward for the Washington Club on Lafayette Square during the 1850s. The patrons of this Club had included men like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Charles Sumner, William Corcoran and some of the most powerful men from both the North and South.

Before he was president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis spent years in Washington, D.C. as a Senator and presidential cabinet member.  During those years, he was a frequent guest to Wormley's.  (

Before he was president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis spent years in Washington, D.C. as a Senator and presidential cabinet member. During those years, he was a frequent guest to Wormley’s. (History.com)

 

All the while, from its propitious location on I Street, Wormley’s had become one of the favorite places for the leading citizens of the capital city where they could find the finest accommodations and delicious food. Prior to the war General Winfield Scott had made those houses his Washington residence. In May 1860 Wormley was engaged to cater the first Japanese Commission to visit the United States on their trip to Washington aboard the Steamer Philadelphia from Old Point Comfort, Virginia. Once they left the capital he once again was engaged to have his staff attend to the culinary wishes of these foreign dignitaries as they proceeded to Philadelphia. As an illustration of the high regard for his accommodations, Senator Wigfall from Alabama had set up his household at Wormley’s in the winter of 1860 which was outlined in a book by his daughter. She described James’ boarding house as “… a synonym for delightful living and in even those days the acme of comfort”.

When General McClellan was living in the Dolley Madison House on Lafayette Square during his tenure as head of the Union Army he was a regular and frequent patron of James’s dining rooms. In a letter to his wife on August 23, 1861 the general told his wife: “We (the general and his staff) take our meals at Wormley’s, a colored gentleman who keeps a restaurant just around the corner on I St.” On November 20 of that year, in an article in the Evening Star, Col. John H. Forney gave a dinner there for about 50 gentlemen including the Secretary of War, several army generals, and John Hay and John Nicholay, the private secretaries to President Lincoln.

Like many of the nation’s prominent figures, while Garfield served in the House of Representatives he would also have likely partaken of Wormley’s hospitality. Members of the Cabinet, Justices of the Supreme Court, foreign delegations, artists, financiers and Congressmen would tend to come to this famous establishment to live, to eat some of the finest food available, to conduct private political meetings and to be seen at the “in” place in Washington. In September 1868 Wormley and his staff catered the wedding of Robert Todd Lincoln (Garfield’s future Secretary of War) and then, the next day, the wedding train to New York. Robert’s mother Mary and his brother Tad were also in attendance.

Robert Todd Lincoln was the only one of Abraham and Mary Lincoln's sons to survive to adulthood.  He was Secretary of War under President James A. Garfield and was in the building when Charles Guiteau shot the president on July 2, 1881.  Thriteen years before, James Wormley catered Robert Lincoln's wedding.  (Library of Congress)

Robert Todd Lincoln was the only one of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s four sons to survive to adulthood. He was Secretary of War under President James A. Garfield and was in the building when Charles Guiteau shot the president on July 2, 1881. Thriteen years before, James Wormley catered Robert Lincoln’s wedding. (Library of Congress)

 

In 1869, after six years of living in Washington as a Congressional representative from Ohio, Garfield and his wife built a house just two blocks east of Wormley’s on I Street at the corner of 13th Street.  His Congressional colleagues from Ohio, Americus V. Rice and Frank H. Hurd, would spend some of their years in the city taking up residence at the hotel, additionally leading to the conjecture about the visits to Wormley’s from Garfield. His good friend, former Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase, who was also a customer and friend of Wormley, was named Treasury Secretary by Lincoln. In fact, James Wormley was frequently called upon to cater meals for several Cabinet members such as Gideon Welles, William H. Seward and Edward Bates. James Wormley was so fond of anti-slavery activist Chase that in 1872 he purchased the portrait of then Chief Justice Chase, which had been commissioned by Jay Cooke.

(Check back soon for Part II.)

-Donet D. Graves, Esq., Volunteer Contributor

“It Bristles with Law Points”: James A. Garfield’s Career as a Lawyer, Part II

Throughout his congressional career, Garfield maintained an active part-time law practice. Following his spectacular debut with the Milligan case, biographer T.C. Smith states, “He had patent interference and infringement cases, lawsuits for civil damages, suits involving the interpretation of the powers of territorial governments and suits involving the fulfillment of contracts.” Eleven of those cases were before the Supreme Court. Garfield saw his legal work as an intellectual challenge, and an important way to supplement his income. Writing to a friend in the spring of 1871, Garfield reported, “In addition to my Congressional work I have kept up and increased my law practice in the State courts and in the Supreme Court of the U. S. and have, from that source realized about $2000 a year for the last four years.”

Lawyer James A. Garfield argued many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, seen here in 1868.  Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had been a close friend of Garfield's during the Civil War while the former was Secretary of the Treasury and the latter a young Union officer awaiting orders in Washington, D.C.  Chase was Chief Justice from 1864-1873.  (U.S. Supreme Court)

Lawyer James A. Garfield argued many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, seen here in 1868. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had been a close friend of Garfield’s during the Civil War while the former was Secretary of the Treasury and the latter a young Union officer awaiting orders in Washington, D.C. Chase was Chief Justice from 1864-1873. (U.S. Supreme Court)

Other cases arose out of the Civil War. In 1870, again before the Supreme Court, Garfield argued In re Bennet vs. Hunter. At the beginning of the war, Congress passed a law “for the collection of direct taxes in insurrectionary districts within the United States” in order to raise revenue for the war effort. The law stipulated that if the taxes could not be paid, the land would be forfeited and sold by the government. B. W. Hunter owned a tract of land in Alexandria, Virginia upon which a tax was levied in 1862. Mr. Hunter died, his son, a Confederate soldier, inherited, and the tax went unpaid. His property was advertised for sale in January, 1864. After the land was advertised, but before it was sold, Hunter sent a tenant to pay the full amount of the taxes owed, plus penalties. The tax commissioners refused to receive the money because it was not offered by the owner in person. So the land was sold, and Hunter sued. Since both the tax levy and the property sale were undertaken by the federal government, the case rose to the U. S. Supreme Court. In his argument in behalf of Mr. Hunter, Garfield made this appeal:

“The last time I had the honor to appear before this court you were then considering in the case of ex parte Milligan what were the rights of an American citizen on trial before the law. And you decreed that the shield of equal justice covered all the citizens of the republic, the highest and the lowest, the proudest and the humblest, the innocent and the guilty until found unworthy by conviction before a court of competent jurisdiction. You established the right to life and liberty. You are now called upon to make a similar decision relating to the rights of property which the law gives to every citizen of the Republic.”

The Court endorsed Garfield’s position; Hunter’s land was restored to him.

Garfield described another case that arose from the war: “…It was a great question on the effect of war on a life insurance policy—whether it vitiated the insurance policy of a man who lived in the South, a belligerent. We took the ground that it did; it was a question that had never been tested in the Supreme Court. It was a new question.”

Because of the absence of one Justice, the Court failed to reach a decision, tying four to four. The next year a similar case brought by the New York Life Insurance Company rose to the Supreme Court and Garfield was retained by the company to argue both cases. All through the winter of 1875 Garfield prepared his arguments and briefs. The case was heard on April 26, 1876; the Court ruled in favor of the insurance companies.

Congressman James A. Garfield as he appeared in the 1870s while doing a great deal of legal work.  (Library of Congress)

Congressman James A. Garfield as he appeared in the 1870s while doing a great deal of legal work. (Library of Congress)

Not every case Garfield handled involved a great constitutional question or a question of law in times of insurrection. Take for example the 1872 case of U.S. vs. 100 Barrels distilled spirits, aka Henderson’s Distilled Spirits. In accepting this case, Garfield said, “The amount in controversy is not large but it bristles with law points.”

The law in question, being a tax law, was long and exceedingly complex. Passed in July, 1866, the statute levied taxes on hundreds of products; it had seventy-one sections and covered “seventy-five large and closely printed pages of the statute book.” One of the sections addressed distilled spirits, levying a tax payable by the distiller before the liquor was sold or moved to a bonded warehouse. The distiller in this case, a man named Nimrod Johnson, deposited the 100 barrels of liquor at a bonded warehouse in New Orleans, but did not pay the taxes due. Henderson bought them, paid the tax, and transported the spirits to St. Louis where they were again placed in a bonded warehouse awaiting sale. It was there that federal agents seized the liquor, because Johnson had not paid the taxes he owed on it. Everyone involved in the case agreed that Henderson was an innocent and bona fide purchaser, and he won his case in federal district court. At the Supreme Court Garfield defended Mr. Henderson in a two hour oral argument and declared, “I am pretty well satisfied with the case as I have presented it.” He did not convince the Court, which ruled in favor of the government.

Several times during his nine terms in Congress, Garfield considered ending his political career for full-time law practice. Each time, a political or personal reason prevented him from making the change. In 1875 he worried in his diary, “My fear is that I have delayed too long…” and by the next year Garfield determined that his leadership position in the House required all his time and effort. He began to take new cases in 1879, as he saw the possibility of his House leadership ending and a less demanding Senate career beginning. His Presidential nomination in June of 1880 effectively ended James Garfield’s legal career.

Garfield's legal career ended when he became the Republican presidential nominee in 1880.  This campaign banner shows Garfield with his running mate (and successor), Chester A. Arthur.  (National Park Service)

Garfield’s legal career ended when he became the Republican presidential nominee in 1880. This campaign banner shows Garfield with his running mate (and successor), Chester A. Arthur. (National Park Service)

In his Eulogy on the Late President Garfield, delivered by James G. Blaine in the House of Representatives, February 27, 1882, Garfield’s colleague and good friend assessed the late President’s legal career with these words:

“As a lawyer, though admirably equipped for the profession, he can scarcely be said to have entered on its practice. The few efforts he made at the bar were distinguished by the same high order of talent which he exhibited on every field where he was put to the test, and if a man may be accepted as a competent judge of his own capacities and adaptations, the law was the profession to which Garfield should have devoted himself. But fate ordained otherwise, and his reputation in history will rest largely upon his service in the House of Representatives.”

James G. Blaine was Garfield's friend from their years of congressional service together.  Blaine sought the 1880 Republican presidential nomination that went to Garfield and became Secretary of State for his old friend.  Blaine was the Republican presidential nominee in 1884 but lost the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.  (Library of Congress)

James G. Blaine was Garfield’s friend from their years of congressional service together. Blaine sought the 1880 Republican presidential nomination that went to Garfield and instead became Secretary of State for his old friend. Blaine was the Republican presidential nominee in 1884 but lost the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland. (Library of Congress)

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide