Around and About James A. Garfield: Whitelaw Reid (Part II)

Over the course of time, Reid’s views on U.S. intervention in world affairs, and the acquisition of territories changed. As problems festered between Spain and its colonial possession Cuba, perceived threats to American business interests, and American idealism about human rights created pressure on the McKinley administration to intervene. Reid first opposed intervention; then he favored it. Cuba would be acquired as an American territory, he thought, but should a retain measure of self-government. Reid continued to oppose the idea of statehood.

Reid’s views on the question of the Hawaiian Islands evolved similarly. He saw an advantage to have coaling stations along the Pearl River, but still he did not favor statehood for the island nation, only territorial status.

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U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom Whitelaw Reid.  (Miami University Archives, Miami, Ohio)

The post of Ambassador to Great Britain finally came to Reid in 1904, with the blessing of McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt. By this time, Reid was 67. It was a largely ceremonial role, as TR was his own chief diplomat. Reid took quarters at Wrest Park, an hour or so from London, and also maintained a residence at Dorchester House, within the city limits. He had many servants, was a charming host who entertained lavishly, and clearly loved the grandeur of the settings in which he lived. Always the Anglophile, he even adopted a slight British accent. At Roosevelt’s urging, Reid continued as Ambassador under President Taft. He died at his post at age 75 in 1912.

 
Why is it worth knowing something about Whitelaw Reid? He is a relatively minor figure in the American story. Still, he served James A. Garfield at critical times during Garfield’s 1880 presidential campaign and through the early weeks of the truncated presidency. He also shared with the twentieth president a similarly humble beginning in life. Then too, their intellectual bents, and fine educations propelled each man to positions in life neither might have imagined. Both men moved in elite circles in their adult lives – though Reid seems to have very much enjoyed the glitter of that world, more than Garfield.

 
Reid’s career is striking in that it touches on several important developments in the domestic and diplomatic history of the United States. His positions with regard to labor were part and parcel of the growing frictions that resulted from the growth of large industrial concerns, frictions that continue to reverberate in American politics. What is the proper relationship of management and labor? Is there a role for labor unions in the American workplace, and if so, what is that role? Do unions have too much power?

 
In the late nineteenth century most Americans, and their leaders, saw the influence of the United States in the world as limited to the Western Hemisphere. By the early twentieth century the United States was a nation with far-flung territories in the Pacific the Caribbean. Reid’s views changed as his country’s role changed. Opposed to the development of a large navy, the acquisition of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and Cuba as a young newspaper editor in the 1870s, the diplomat of the early 1900s embraced the a large and powerful American navy, with Hawaii an important factor in its operation, Yet questions about the extent of American influence in the world remained. How extensive should be the power of the United States abroad? That question echoes from Reid’s day to our own.

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-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger