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.”


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.


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.


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

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

In 1852, twenty year old James Garfield was considering possible future career paths. He rather vehemently rejected any thought of politics. “I am exceedingly disgusted with the wire pulling of politicians and the total disregard for truth in all their operations. Miserable, low, ungentlemanly trash fills the columns of the political press, unfit for refined feelings, tender consciences, or kind hearts.” Two years later he considered the law. “Though I do not regard the Legal Profession incompatible with Christianity, still I think it would be much more difficult to cultivate and preserve that purity of heart and devotedness to the cause of Christ while partak[ing] of those ambitious aspirations that accompany the Gentlemen of the Bar.” Ironically, it was in those two fields that Garfield was most successful, and made lasting marks on American law.

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.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

After two years of private study—while also teaching, regularly preaching, and campaigning for a seat in the Ohio Senate—James Garfield presented himself to a board of examiners seeking admission to the Ohio Bar. Following a “thorough and searching examination,” the board complimented his “unusual and phenomenal” mastery and admitted Garfield to the practice of law on January 26, 1861. Almost immediately the Civil War intervened and teacher, preacher, politician, lawyer Garfield became a soldier.

James Garfield’s legal career didn’t begin until the war was over and he was serving in Congress. He was asked by Jeremiah Sullivan Black—a friend, a fellow Disciple of Christ, and a Democrat—to join him in arguing a case called Ex parte Milligan before the United States Supreme Court. It would be Garfield’s first appearance as a lawyer in any courtroom.

Lambdin P. Milligan was the main defendant in the Ex Parte Milligan case.  He and four others had been arrested for treason and argued that as civilians, the military had no jurisdiction to try them. This case was the first ever argued by lawyer James A. Garfield.  (Yale University Law School)

Lambdin P. Milligan was the main defendant in the Ex Parte Milligan case. He and four others had been arrested for treason and argued that as civilians, the military had no jurisdiction to try them. This case was the first ever argued by lawyer James A. Garfield. (Yale University Law School)

The Milligan case came out of the Civil War. Lambdin P. Milligan and four co-defendants had been arrested in Indiana in the fall of 1864 and charged with treason. Milligan and his southern-sympathizing friends were accused of plotting to release Confederate prisoners of war and giving aid to Rebel raiding parties in southern Indiana. They were tried by the army in a military tribunal, convicted, and sentenced to hang. They appealed, arguing that as civilians, they should not have been tried by the military in a state of the Union where civilian courts were operating. The case reached the Supreme Court in 1866.

Garfield’s argument on behalf of Milligan and his co-defendants was lengthy and learned—he had spent weeks in preparation. He told the Justices that a ruling for the defendants would demonstrate “that a republic can wield the vast enginery of war without breaking down the safeguards of liberty; can suppress insurrection, and put down rebellion, however formidable, without destroying the bulwarks of law.” The Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the military did not have jurisdiction in the case, upholding Garfield’s position. Writing for the court, Justice David Davis said that the Constitution was “a law for rulers and people, equally in time of war and peace.”

Ex parte Milligan is recognized as one of the Supreme Court’s most important decisions about the rights of citizens to due process as outlined in the Constitution, and it gave Garfield instant recognition as a constitutional lawyer.

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 Radical Republican that opposed the final decision in Ex Parte Milligan.  He feared it would be used by those opposed to military courts in the South to get those courts disbanded. (Library of Congress)

But Milligan was not decided in a vacuum. Immediately following the war, President Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans in Congress, and the people of the South were facing the issues of reconstruction. Following their overwhelming victory at the polls in 1866, Republicans in Congress, including James Garfield, quickly outlawed President Johnson’s very accommodating Reconstruction program. Fearing that essentially unreconstructed southern states would “substitute a degrading peonage for slavery and make a mockery of the moral fruits of northern victory,” Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act, establishing military rule in the former Confederacy. A feature of congressional reconstruction was a series of military courts established to maintain order and protect freedmen. President Johnson cited Milligan to oppose these courts. One of the most radical of the Republicans in Congress, Thaddeus Stevens worried that the Milligan decision, “although in terms perhaps not as infamous as the Dred Scott decision, is yet far more dangerous in its operation.” But Milligan did not address the appropriateness of the use of military courts in the states that had rebelled. Contrary to the fears of some that the decision by the Supreme Court had nullified at least a part of Reconstruction Act, what the Justices carefully declared was that military jurisdiction “can never be applied to citizens in states which have upheld the authority of the government, and where the courts are open”—exactly the argument Garfield had made.

(check back soon for Part II)

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide