The 1879 “Government Shutdown,” Part I

Mark Twain never said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” He did observe, however: “It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.” This is nowhere more true than in politics, and it is certainly as apt today as it was when Twain wrote it in 1907.


Mark Twain, American humorist, author, and social critic.  (PBS)

In recent years, Americans have become accustomed to threats of a “government shutdown” at the hands of one party in the Congress, opposed to the programs and policies of the President of the opposite party. One side cries, “Politics!” The other side counters, “Principle!”  But when threatening to defund the government in order to change public policy was first attempted in 1879, the cry was “Revolution!” Politics and principle, principle and politics vied with one another in minds, and hearts, and maneuvers, of all parties involved.

Some background is in order. Between 1865 and 1870, the years immediately following the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution were adopted. These were the first amendments to the Constitution to be passed in sixty years. The amendments abolished slavery in the United States, conferred citizenship to the newly freed people, and granted black males the right to vote. With these amendments came modern conceptions of civil rights and voting rights.


The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery.  The next two amendments granted citizenship to African Americans and gave Black men the right to vote.  These are collectively known as the “Reconstruction Amendments.”  (Library of Congress)

Through several legislative measures in the late 1860s and 1870s, blacks gained property rights and equal protection under the law. Mechanisms to ensure that blacks could vote in free and fair elections were established, supported by the U.S. Army and federal courts.

At the same time, many white southerners were disfranchised. Immediately after the Civil War, former political and military leaders of the Confederacy were barred from holding political office. Many white southerners felt that they were at the mercy of Republican Carpetbaggers from the North, the Union Army, and the newly freed blacks, who for the first time exercised political power in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress.

The once-dominant southern Democrats were determined to regain their political and social dominance in the former Confederacy. For more than a decade they used intimidation, physical violence, and even murder to keep blacks and southern Republicans from the polls.


White southerners did everything possible–including murder–to keep African Americans from the polls after the Civil War.  Efforts to suppress the black vote and resurrect white supremacy also led to the creation of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan.  (Newberry Library)

Federally appointed civilian officers were employed to monitor the fairness of elections. When violence broke out, the U.S. Army was brought into maintain peace and an orderly election process.

Fearing “negro domination,” white southern Democrats invoked states’ rights. Republicans sought to preserve the rights of the freedmen as a matter of justice, and also as a means to expand the influence of their party in the South. These constant tensions were at the heart of the controversy in 1879.

In early 1879, in the waning days of the second session of the 45th Congress, the House’s Democratic majority attached riders to funding bills to prohibit the use of federally appointed marshals to oversee elections, and to prevent the Army from having any role in protecting voters at polling places. The Republican Senate would not agree to these measures. As a result, Congress failed to pass $45,000,000 in appropriations for the Federal government for the fiscal year beginning on July 1.

This impasse caused President Hayes to call the 46th Congress into special session on March 18. The new Congress presented a problem for the Republican president. Both the Senate and the House were now controlled by the Democrats (for the first time since 1859). This spelled trouble for Hayes and his chief lieutenant in the House of Representatives, James Garfield.

J.A. Garfield

Congressman James A. Garfield worked closely with President Hayes.  (Library of Congress)

Toward the end of April, the 46th Congress passed an Army Appropriations bill with a rider identical to the one that passed at the end of the 45th Congress. Once again, the Democrats aimed at preventing federal marshals to oversee elections. Once again, the Army would be prohibited from keeping peace at the polls during congressional and presidential elections.

From the Democrats’ point of view, it was time to end Republican and federal government interference in elections in southern states. They invoked the constitutional principle of states’ rights while they sought to insure the dominance of white men in the politics of their states. They were also looking to the 1880 presidential contest, hoping to be able to intimidate or discourage enough black voters to elect a Democrat president for the first time since 1856.

Using the appropriations authority vested in the House of Representatives, the Democratic majority was trying to force the hand of the Republican president – to sign the appropriation with the objectionable rider – or to defund the government. Senate Democrats were in full accord with their House colleagues.

President Hayes and Congressman Garfield understood both the constitutional argument being made by the Democrats and the political advantage they sought. Even before the final bill was passed, Hayes wrote in his diary, “The appropriation bill is essential to the continuance of the Government… It is the duty of Congress to pass it. The rider is attached to get rid of the Constitutional exercise of the veto power to defeat… [a rider]… the Pres[iden]t does not approve…”  The political gamesmanship of the House Democrats gave the Republican President a constitutional argument with which to battle them.

Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President of the United States from 1877-81. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

In his diary, the president expressed his thoughts about this controversy many times. Of the Democrats he wrote, “They will stop the wheels – block the wheels of government if I do not yield my convictions in favor of the election laws. It will be a severe, perhaps a long contest. I do not fear it – I do not even dread it. The people will not allow this Revolutionary course to triumph.”  Later, he confided, “I object to the [army appropriations] bill because it is an unconstitutional and revolutionary attempt to deprive the Executive of one of his most important prerogatives… [and to] coerce him to approve a measure which he in fact does not approve.”  This was the constitutional counter-argument taken up by the Republicans.

(Check back soon for Part II!)

-Joan Kapsch and Alan Gephardt, Park Rangers


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?  (

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? (

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?  (

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?(

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 (

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.  (

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