James Garfield: Congressman (Part II)

The 43rd Congress

1872 was again a presidential election year, with Grant running for a second term against Horace Greeley, the candidate for a rebellious splinter group of “liberal Republicans” and the Democrats. “In my interior view of the case,” said Garfield, “I would say Grant was not fit to be nominated and Greeley is not fit to be elected.” But Garfield’s own election prospects improved with the redistricting after the 1870 census. The nineteenth district was redrawn, removing Mahoning County and adding Lake County, freeing Garfield from the “Iron men” of the Mahoning Valley, and adding another solidly Republican voting bloc. His nomination was unopposed, and his election was 19,189 votes to 8,254.

Ulysses_Grant_1870-1880

Ulysses S. Grant was elected President of the United States in 1868 and re-elected in 1872.  He was interested in running for an unprecedented third term in 1880, but the Republican nomination that year went to James A. Garfield instead.  (Library of Congress)

The 44th Congress

Garfield faced his stiffest challenge to re-election in 1874. Grant’s second term was consumed by scandal and mired in depression. Voters were generally in a foul, “throw-the-bums-out” mood. And in the nineteenth district local Republican conventions were passing resolutions condemning Garfield’s association with the Credit Mobilier scandal and the congressional “salary grab.” At least one local party meeting passed a resolution demanding Garfield’s immediate resignation.

For the first time, Garfield and his political friends in the district knew that they were in a real fight. In January, Garfield told Harmon Austin, his most important local advisor, that he would “abide by all your engagements, and will send you the means to pay all expenses. There are political friends here [in Washington] that will aid in raising the necessary funds if I am no able to carry the load alone.”

A third scandal involving a contract for paving the streets of Washington, D.C. added to the tense atmosphere, but the issue that most aroused the voters of the nineteeth district was the “salary grab.” As a part of the annual appropriation bill, congress had voted itself a $2,500 raise, retroactive to the beginning of the 43rd Congress. This, when the legislature was cutting programs across the government, was simple for voters to understand and vocally oppose. As chairman of the appropriations committee in the House, Garfield was seen as personally responsible for the passage of the “salary grab” even though he had opposed it in committee and on the floor of the House.

JamesGarfieldOval

Congressman James A. Garfield.  (Library of Congress)

So Garfield returned to his district and campaigned for delegates to the local nominating conventions, explaining his positions mostly in small meetings and through his friends. In August he wrote in his diary: “The District is very thoroughly aroused and we shall have large primary meetings. My enemies are bitter and noisy, my friends more active than ever before and full of fight.”  Harmon Austin had developed an impressive political machine to meet challenge, and when voters met at the township level to choose delegates to the district convention, the Garfield forces showed up. The Congressman netted two-thirds of the local delegates, and by the time the district convention met the opposition had collapsed.

But the disaffected Republicans didn’t give up; instead they named an independent candidate, H. R. Hurlburt, to challenge Garfield and the Democratic candidate Daniel B. Woods, who had run against Garfield in his first campaign twelve years earlier. In a month of fierce political fighting, Garfield attempted to answer every question and every challenge. “I let these gentlemen know that during this campaign it was to be blow for blow and those who struck must expect a blow in return.” In refuting the queries of a questioner named Tuttle, Garfield said, “I doubt if he knew when I left him whether he was hash or jelly.”

On election day the result was Garfield 12,591, Hurlburt 3,427 and Woods 6,245. Garfield retained his seat, but a nationwide “blue wave” meant that his party lost its majority in the House. For the rest of his career in Congress, Garfield would serve in the minority.

The 45th Congress

It was his position as leader of the minority that gave Garfield his springboard to the 1876 election. At the end of the congressional session that spring, Democratic Congressman L.Q.C. Lamar of Mississippi, whom Garfield respected as among the ablest Democrats in the House, delivered a carefully written and polished defense of the Democratic Party. It was immediately seen as the opening argument for the upcoming presidential campaign, when the Democrats saw their first real opportunity to win the White House since the Civil War. The next day, Garfield, as the Republican leader in the House, answered with a nearly extemporaneous response, arguing that the Democrats could not be trusted to manage the government. His speech was immediately praised by Republicans and Republican newspapers, and was reprinted for circulation everywhere.

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Representative (later Senator) Lucius Q.C. Lamar of Mississippi.  (Library of Congress)

At home, Garfield reported that at the district convention “the change from two years ago is very marked. . . From early in the morning the throng of friends and converted enemies came to see me. My speeches in Congress at the late session, especially that in reply to Lamar is spoken of constantly.” Garfield was nominated by acclamation.

Not all his enemies from 1874 were converted, but they had learned a lesson. Instead of attempting to run an independent candidate, they joined with Democrats to nominate General John S. Casement, and again campaign against Garfield’s “systematic corruption, perjury and bribery.” While Garfield apparently never considered his re-election in danger, Casement did garner more votes than any other candidate who had challenged him, winning 11,349 votes to Garfield’s 20,012.

The 46th Congress

In 1878, the Ohio legislature, controlled by Democrats, redrew the state’s congressional districts for partisan advantage. Portage County, Garfield’s home for most of his life, and his original political base, was moved to another, more Democratic, district.  Mahoning County, with the “Iron men” who so often disagreed with and criticized Garfield, was returned to the nineteenth.

Garfield was unanimously re-nominated by the Republicans, but he was challenge not only by a Democratic candidate, but also by an emerging Greenback party, whose candidate, G, N. Tuttle, had been one of Garfield’s loudest critics back in 1874. The main issue in the district, and across the country, was greenback currency or specie resumption. It was an issue that never seemed to be resolved, but one where Garfield’s hard money position was well know.

Garfield 17,166        Hubbard 7,553         Tuttle 3,148

James A. Garfield

James A. Garfield was a man of many presidential firsts! This intense image of him is one of our favorites here at James A. Garfield NHS. (Library of Congress)

 

The 46th Congress was the last to which James Garfield was elected. During the term of that Congress he would be selected by the Ohio legislature to serve in the United States Senate, and later that year (1880) was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate. During the nearly eighteen years Garfield served in Congress, he faced a number of issues and a variety of challenges. It is clear in looking over his congressional campaigns that he enjoyed the rough-and-tumble of campaigning, even though he often protested otherwise. Two things remained constant in Garfield’s political philosophy—his insistence on independence of judgment, and his loyalty to the Republican Party.

 

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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James Garfield: Congressman (Part I)

In the Memorial Library at James Garfield’s home is a fancy little desk with a brass number tab. It is a Congressional desk of the style used in the House of Representatives during the early years of Garfield’s service in that chamber. It offers an opportunity to talk about his congressional career. A recent visitor asked a question we seldom hear—what were the issues in Garfield’s many congressional campaigns?

James Garfield was elected to represent northeast Ohio in the Congress of the United States nine times. His tenure in the House stretched from the last year of the Civil War to his election to the White House in 1880. The issues that faced Garfield, the voters of the nineteenth district, and the nation changed over the years, of course, as did the district itself. Here, for our visitor, is a short synopsis of the issues and challenges that faced Congressman Garfield.

The 38th Congress

Garfield first began to think about running for Congress in the spring of 1862. He was in the army at the time, serving under General Henry Halleck in the vicinity of Corinth, Mississippi. In Garfield’s view the army was bogged down both militarily and politically, neither pursuing the enemy nor liberating the slave population.  He felt he could more usefully serve the country in a differ capacity, telling his friend Harmon Austin, “It seems to me that the successful ending of the war is the smaller of the two tasks imposed upon the government. There must be a readjustment of our public policy and management. There will spring up out of this war a score of new questions and new dangers. The settlement of these will be of even more importance than the ending of the war. I do not hesitate to tell you that I believe I could do some service in Congress in that work and I should prefer that to continuing in the army.”

GenGarfieldStanding

Brigadier General James A. Garfield in 1862 or 1863.  (Library of Congress)

Garfield’s home in Portage County was in a new nineteenth district, drawn after the 1860 census. Portage and Geauga were added to Ashtabula, Trumbull and Mahoning. His “friends” in the district, whom Garfield had been cultivating since his years in the state legislature before the war, told him that any “prominent men” from any of the five counties could have an equal chance at the Republican nomination. Garfield allowed his friends to enter his name in nomination, although he remained away from home and did not actively seek the nod. He won the nomination on the eighth ballot at the district convention in September.

The major issues in the fall campaign all related to the war, of course. Failures on the battlefield and the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation divided Union voters. In the nineteenth district, one of the strongest anti-slavery districts in the country, Garfield won overwhelming support: 13,288 votes to his opponent’s 6,763.  In northeast Ohio, a Republican nomination virtually guaranteed an election victory.

The 39th Congress

Two years later, the conduct of the war and the re-election of Abraham Lincoln were the issues of the election. Freshman Congressman Garfield had expressed less than full-throated support for the President, and had voted for an extension of the draft that was not popular in his district. Garfield spoke to the 19th District nominating convention in late August, 1864. “I cannot go to Congress as your representative with my liberty restricted. . . If I go to Congress it must be as a free man. I cannot go otherwise and when you are unwilling to grant me my freedom of opinion to the highest degree I have no longer a desire to represent you.” This strong statement moved the crowd to enthusiastic cheers and re-nomination by acclimation.  In November, Garfield prevailed, 18, 086 votes to his opponent’s 6,315.

The 40th Congress

Election to the 40th Congress in 1866 turned on questions of reconstruction. In the district voters were unhappy with Garfield’s support for the draft through the end of the war, and for his participation in a case before the United States Supreme Court that arose out of the war. Ex parte Milligan was the first case James Garfield ever argued in court. It revolved around the question of whether civilians arrested for aiding the Confederacy should be tried in military tribunals or in civilian courts. Garfield told a constituent, “I knew when I took the Indiana case (Milligan and several other were arrested by the Army in Indiana) that I would probably be misunderstood, but I was [so] strongly convinced of the importance of the decision of the case on the right side, that I was willing to subject myself to the misunderstanding of some, for the sake of securing the supremacy of the civil over the military authority.” Some of his constituents saw it as a “defense of traitors” and many believed it conflicted with the Radical Republican plan for reconstruction in the South.

ExParteMilligan

Once again Garfield was re-nominated by acclamation, and he spent most of the fall campaign outside the district, stumping for Republican candidates in close Congressional districts in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and New York. The goal was to elect enough Republicans to defeat any veto by President Johnson and install a Radical reconstruction program. Not only did Garfield win, 18,598 votes to 7,376 in his district, he help secure a “magnificent victory” for Republicans across the country. “I trust,” he said, “Congress may be able to preserve the fruits of victory.”

The 41st Congress

On May 15, 1868 Congressman Garfield took the floor of the House to deliver a carefully prepared speech about “the currency question.” Since the end of the war, Garfield had focused his attention on the “new questions and new dangers” of a peacetime economy based on fiat currency—that is, a national currency that was not back by gold. Political sentiment in Ohio, and particularly in the nineteenth district favored inflationary greenbacks, but Garfield argued against focusing on unbacked paper currency as the only, or even the main cause of the prosperity and industrial growth of the war years. The speech served to explain the reasons he felt it was important to return to “sound money,” and to challenge his opponents at home.

During the 1868 campaign, Garfield and his political friends distributed copies of his speeches in Congress on the currency, the tariff, and Reconstruction. The result: Garfield 20,187 votes, McEwen 9,759.

Garfield$5bill

A Garfield $5 bill from 1882, the year after President Garfield was assassinated.  Garfield was a believer in hard currency, not paper money (“greenbacks”).  Wonder what he would have thought about his appearance on this paper currency!  (oldcurrencyvalues.com)

The 42nd Congress

Protective tariffs, particularly on iron products, were the campaign issue of 1870. Garfield’s constituents in Mahoning County were demanding high tariffs on imported iron goods, or that he be replaced “by a gentleman who is at heart true to the protective tariff interests of his country.” All through the spring, the “iron men” search for a candidate to oppose him, but by June Garfield was able to report, “So far as I know there is to be no organized opposition in the convention. The Iron men tried every means in their power to secure a candidate but failed. The will probably sullenly acquiesce in the inevitable.”

Other issues included reducing the size of the army and the problems of reconstruction. On that topic, Garfield was not optimistic. “We have now reached a critical period in our legislation when we are called upon to perform the final act, to complete, for better or for worse, the reconstruction policy of the government. . . I confess that any attempt at reconciling all we have done. . . so as to form consistent precedents for any theory given to legislation is, to my mind, a failure. There are no theories for the management of whirlwinds and earthquakes.”

Garfield 13,538           Howard 7,263

 

(Check back for Part II soon!)

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide