Why We Laugh

Good friends and casual visitors often remarked about James Garfield’s passion for books and their contents. A visitor to the Congressman’s home on I Street in Washington, D.C.:

“The books… overflowed the library. And undoubtedly the overflow has been regular, as you can go nowhere in the general’s home without coming face to face with books. They confront you in the hall when you enter, in the parlor and the sitting room, in the dining-room and even in the bath-room, where documents and speeches are corded up like firewood.” (quoted in Leech & Brown, The Garfield Orbit, p.182-183)

Garfield’s life-long friend Burke Hinsdale described his reading habits:

“In his later years, he read everywhere—on the cars, in the omnibus, and after retiring at night. If he was leaving Washington for a few days, and had nothing requiring immediate attention on hand, he would go to the great Library of Congress and say to the librarian, ‘Mr. Spofford, give me something that I don’t know anything about.’ A stray book coming to him in this way would often lead to a special study of the subject.” (quoted in TC Smith, James Abram Garfield, Life and Letters, p. 747)

And in the spring of 1881:

Visitors noticed that the White House now seemed filled with books: “Everywhere—in every nook and corner,” a reporter wrote. “A case in the parlor contains editions of Waverly [sic—referring to the Waverly novels by Sir Walter Scott.] and Dickens,” along with “French history in the original, old English poets and dramatists richly bound in black and gold” in the hallways and dining room. (Kenneth D. Ackerman, Dark Horse, p. 322)

Now, all those books (except, we hope, for the ones borrowed from the “Congressional Library” as Garfield called it) fill the shelves of the President’s home in Mentor, Ohio. The Waverly novels are in the parlor, Dickens is in the boys’ room. About half of the books are in the Memorial Library—an eclectic collection that includes law, religion and philosophy, political history and biography, poetry, and interesting titles like Hygiene of the Brain, Mizpah, and Natural Laws of Husbandry. On a low shelf in a corner hides Why We Laugh, by S. S. Cox.

Samuel S. Cox, Congressman from both Ohio and New York during his career, presented this copy of his book "Why We Laugh" to his House of Representatives colleague James A. Garfield in 1876.  It is now on the shelves of the Memorial Library in the Garfield home here at James A. Garfield National Historic Site. (National Park Service)

Samuel S. Cox, Congressman from both Ohio and New York during his career, presented this copy of his book “Why We Laugh” to his House of Representatives colleague James A. Garfield in 1876. It is now on the shelves of the Memorial Library in the Garfield home at James A. Garfield National Historic Site. (National Park Service)

Samuel S. Cox was born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1824; practiced law in Cincinnati; edited the Ohio Statesman in Columbus; and served as a Democratic Member of Congress from the Columbus area for four terms, from 1857 to 1865. Outspokenly opposed to the Civil War, and to President Lincoln, Cox’s political fortunes in Ohio waned, and he moved to New York. Democrats in New York elected him to Congress in 1868, and he served there until 1883. So, Cox served alongside James Garfield in the House of Representatives for fourteen years. On March 29, 1876, Mr. Cox presented Gen. J.A. Garfield with a copy of Why We Laugh.

Perhaps to impress his readers with his scholarship, Cox begins his book with a classical definition of humor. “Humor, in its literal meaning, is moisture. Its derived sense is different; but while it is now a less sluggish element than moisture, we still associate with humor some of its old relations. In old times, physicians reckoned several kinds of moisture in the human body—phlegm, blood, choler, and melancholy. They found one vein particularly made for a laugh to run in, the blood of which, being stirred, the man laughed, even if he felt like crying…” It quickly becomes apparent that the “We” in Cox’s title refers to Americans in general and legislators in particular.

Samuel S. Cox was born in Zanesville, Ohio.  He served in the House as a Demoract and was vocally opposed to both the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln.  He and James A. Garfield were Congressional colleagues and social friends in Washington, D.C.  (National Archives and Records Administration)

Samuel S. Cox was born in Zanesville, Ohio. He served in the House as a Democrat and was vocally opposed to both the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln. He and James A. Garfield were Congressional colleagues and social friends in Washington, D.C. (National Archives and Records Administration)

He asserts repeatedly that American humor is based most often on exaggeration. “The Declaration of Independence is a splendid exaggeration…’all men are created equal’…’all government derives its powers from the consent of the governed’…With such a chart[er], and with such a grand initial momentum, need we wonder at the magnitude of our ideas, the magniloquence of our orators, and the exaggerations of our humor? Our large lakes, our long rivers, our mountain ranges, our mammoth conifers, our vast mineral treasures, our wide prairies, our great crops, our growing cities, our enlarging territory, our unrivaled telegraphs, our extensive railroads and their equally extensive disasters, our mechanical skill and its infinite production, our unexampled civil unpleasantness and its results, would seem to call for an aggrandized view of our political and social position, and, as a consequence, for a broad, big, Brobdingnagian humor.”

Eighteen of Cox’s twenty-five chapters are about legislative humor. Filled with quotes, quips and epigrams, it is quite apparent that Cox found his colleagues to be his most important source of material; this volume is a classic study in the fine Washington art of name dropping. Garfield’s name only appears a few times, most notably in the chapter called Legislative Retort and Repartee: “ It was a railroad grant. ‘Where is all this to lead?’ exclaimed Washburne. ‘To the Pacific coast,’ said Garfield. ‘To the bottom of the treasury rather,’ was the prompt rejoinder.” It doesn’t seem to me that Garfield was an active participant in the repartee. I wonder if every man named between the covers of Why We Laugh received a signed copy.

James A. Garfield had a good sense of humor and loved to laugh.  This image can be found in the exhibits at James A. Garfield NHS and show the future President of the United States laughing and rolling on the ground with his son and a family friend.  (National Park Service)

James A. Garfield had a good sense of humor and loved to laugh. This image can be found in the exhibits at James A. Garfield NHS and show the future President of the United States laughing and rolling on the ground while his friend Charles Henry and Henry’s son laugh with him. (National Park Service)

Were Cox and Garfield friends? In his diary Garfield mentions a number of dinners with other members of Congress, including S. S. Cox. And he notes, “Some of the best men socially in Congress are political adversaries.” But the journals also indicate that in the work of Congress, Garfield found amusement in different places than Cox.

Tuesday, March 5, 1872: On the Judicial Fund a brisk debate sprung up, which drifted off into questions of Ku Klux, in which an amusing passage at arms occurred between Cox of N.Y. and Rainey, a colored member from South Carolina. Cox got the worst of it.

Wednesday, February 9, 1876: In the House the debate continued on the Diplomatic Appropriations Bill and nothing was accomplished. Springer if Illinois and Cox of N.Y. attempted to make fun of the Diplomatic Service and got off a good deal of stale wit, with a little that was bright.

Monday, November 19, 1877: The day was spent on the Paris Exposition Bill. Cox made a carefully prepared speech devoted to witticisms, pleasant to hear but very uncomfortable for the man who indulges in it. I do not believe it is possible for such a man to have a pleasant reputation for good judgment.

This last is after Garfield accepted Cox’s book. Had he read it? Does this entry reflect Garfield’s reaction to Cox’s thesis, or is it more a comment on their political differences?

Samuel S. Cox's message and signature in the copy of "Why We Laugh" he presented to James A. Garfield on March 29, 1876.  (National Park Service)

Samuel S. Cox’s message and signature in the copy of “Why We Laugh” he presented to James A. Garfield on March 29, 1876. (National Park Service)

House colleagues and social friends, Cox and Garfield seem to have had very different senses of humor. Toward the end of his book, Mr. Cox finally explains why he feels levity is so important to legislating:

“Our enjoyments in this life should antedate our future bliss. We have enough clouds of sorrow here. Let us fringe their dark edges with sunshine. Let us mellow and brighten them for the solace of others, if not for the joy of our own heart. Grief and melancholy are selfish. All nature calls for hilarity…In that province of human activity in which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the ostensible objects of guarantee—the province of statesmanship—where the collisions of prejudice, interest, and passion are in constant debate, while there may be no need for the cap and bells of the fool or the acrobatic entertainment of the harlequin and clown, there is ever an urgency for those gifts which cheer, brighten, and bless, and which suffuse through society their soft radiance like the sweet, hallowing influences of sunset.”

Perhaps Mr. Garfield could agree with that.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

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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