The Front Porch Campaign of 1880

In 1880, the “surprise” presidential nomination of Ohioan James A. Garfield by the Republicans resulted in a campaign that, unlike any before it, regularly brought citizens and candidate face-to-face. It was conducted on the front porch of Garfield’s home.

Prior to 1880, it was considered undignified for anyone to actively seek the presidency. Nominees did not travel from state to state or city to city to tell voters that they had the solutions for the country’s problems. Expected to emulate the example of George Washington, they were to remain above the fray.  The sitting president, Rutherford B. Hayes, spoke to this tradition when he advised Garfield to “sit cross-legged and look wise until after the election.”

Traditionally, it was the Congressmen, Senators, and party workers who did the heavy lifting during presidential campaigns. It was they who traveled, they who spoke, they who organized evening torchlight parades, and more. Garfield honored these traditions. Meanwhile, he stayed home; he stayed put. But his 1880 campaign departed significantly from past practice.

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In 1880, James A. Garfield had represented his Ohio district in the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years.  He was also a U.S. Senator-elect when the Republicans chose him to be their presidential candidate that year.  (Library of Congress)

Arriving at his Mentor farm after his nomination at Chicago, Garfield was greeted by crowds of citizens. People who had known him from his days as a student, teacher, and Civil War officer came to wish him success. Newspaper reporters camped out on his lawn. Their accounts of the welcome Garfield received stimulated interest in his candidacy.

Farmers and businessmen, college students and women (unable cast ballots in 1880), immigrants and Union veterans, including a number of black veterans, came to see, came to hear, and came to meet the Republican nominee.

In the little campaign office behind his home, Garfield and his aides exchanged letters and telegrams with the leaders of groups to fix dates and times of arrival, and to exchange information, so that when they met, a group’s spokesman and Garfield could address each other with appropriate remarks.

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This is a modern image of the small exterior library building that James A. Garfield turned into a campaign office during his 1880 presidential campaign.  It is located just behind the main Garfield home, and visitors to James A. Garfield NHS are invited to step inside and see the office’s interior.  (NPS photo)

An estimated 15,000 to 17,000 citizens traveled to Mentor, Ohio (population: 540) to see and hear Garfield. From a train platform specially built to bring the people to the candidate, they literally walked a mile-and-a-half up a lane that extended the entire length of Garfield’s 160 acre farm. They walked up that lane in good weather and in bad, in sunshine and in showers.

Often, a “Garfield and Arthur” band was playing near the front porch when visitors arrived, adding excitement to the air. Poets read and singers sang. A Congressman, Senator, or local official would hail the Republican Party and Garfield.

Soon, the candidate would pass through the vestibule doors leading from the interior of his home to his porch. A designated group leader addressed him respectfully. Garfield would respond, eschewing political issues. He spoke instead to the identities and the aspirations of those gathered before him. His remarks were often brief, sometimes lasting no more than three or four minutes. From the porch serving as his podium, Garfield discussed “The Possibilities of Life,” “The Immortality of Ideas,” and “German Citizens.”

As a teacher, soldier, Congressman, and Republican presidential nominee, James Garfield wrestled with the matter of race. It was as difficult an issue for his generation as it is for ours.  Still, he supported the right of African-Americans to be free, to be equal with whites in the eyes of the law, and to be treated with justice. In his remarks on “The Future of Colored Men,” Garfield spoke to 250 such citizens assembled on his lawn in October 1880.

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These African American Civil War veterans visited James A. Garfield’s Mentor, Ohio property during the 1880 “front porch” presidential campaign.  The Garfield home is visible in the background.  Garfield was one of the few Republicans still openly talking about race and civil rights as late as 1880.  (NPS photo)

“Of all the problems that any nation ever confronted,” he said, “none was ever more difficult than that of settling the great race question… on the basis of broad justice and equal rights to all. It was a tremendous trial of the faith of the American people, a tremendous trial of the strength of our institutions…” that they had survived a brutal and bloody civil war; that freedom had been won for the enslaved as a result; that the promise of fair treatment was to be the inheritance of the freedmen.

When, late in the campaign, he stood before his “Friends and Neighbors” from Portage County, Ohio, he revealed the tender side of his nature, and his appreciation for the life he’d been given. To this audience, composed of the many who had helped to form the fabric of his being, he offered these thoughts:

“Here are the school-fellows of twenty-eight years ago.

Here are men and women who were my pupils twenty-

five years ago… I see others who were soldiers in the

old regiment which I had the honor to command… How

can I forget all these things, and all that has followed?

How can I forget…the people of Portage County, when

I see men and women from all its townships standing at

my door? I cannot forget these things while life and

consciousness remain. The freshness of youth, the very

springtide of life… all was with you, and of you, my

neighbors, my friends, my cherished comrades… You

are here, so close to my heart… whatever may befall me

hereafter…”

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A common scene during the 1880 front porch campaign: Garfield and family members sitting on the front porch of their Mentor, Ohio farmhouse.  Left to right: Eliza  Ballou Garfield (James Garfield’s mother); James Garfield; Mollie Garfield (President and Mrs. Garfield’s 13-year-old daughter); and Mrs. Lucretia Garfield.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

And then, as he had so often done before, James Garfield invited his guests to linger in friendly communion: “Ladies and gentlemen, all the doors of my house are open to you. The hand of every member of my family is outstretched to you. Our hearts greet you, and we ask you to come in.”

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

(Park Ranger Alan Gephardt wrote this article in January 2016 for the blog of PBS’s American Experience to coincide with the February 2 national broadcast of Murder of a President, their excellent documentary about President Garfield and his tragic 1881 assassination.)

A Private Chapter of the War, Part II

Bailey remains at the Smith plantation for most of the month of August.  Lybyer leaves after about two weeks, guided by a runaway slave named Jim.  When he returns, Bailey decides, using Jim as his guide, to try to reach the Union rear by moving east, which he sees as the rebel right flank, past the Union left, and then north toward Conyers Station on the North Georgia railroad, eight miles away.  But Sherman had moved north and west after the battle in which Bailey was captured, and at the end of August he began a wide sweeping movement around the west side of Atlanta and turning south to cut the railroad below the city.  Local intelligence was that the Federal troops were retreating to Chattanooga.  Bailey decides that a tactical retreat is in order—to the farm of a family named Freeman.  He had encountered the Freemans on the way to Conyers Station.  They were a poor white farm family working land that they did not own.  He arrived there on the night of August 31-September 1.  There he stayed until September 9, when he retreated further, to the Smith farm he had left on August 29.

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General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general who captured Atlanta and made “Georgia howl” with his famous “March to the Sea” to capture the city of Savannah.  (Library of Congress) 

September 10.  …Confederate cavalrymen and stragglers on foot are wandering about from plantation to plantation, purchasing pigs, corn, chickens, potatoes, etc.  They report that the ‘whole army is encamped at Jonesboro’ (on the railroad, only twelve miles eastward).  “The Atlanta army fallen back!”  The writer immediately determined that Smith’s was no place for him.  He yearned for the other flank—the right flank of the Federals—as the rebels were manifestly being pressed eastward.  At all events, he discovered that he was now among the enemy, and either flank would be preferable to the center… There’s no delusion this time—Sherman’s in Atlanta!  Our cavalry raiders will certainly “hang about” the rebel flanks…

While attempting to flank the Confederate forces, Bailey and his guide, Jim, encounter a runaway slave couple.  The man has a carbine that he took from the body of a Union soldier who drowned attempting to ford a river.  Bailey convinces him that he would be in more danger if he is found with the gun, and as Union property, it would be wise for the slave to turn the gun over to him.  For the first time since his capture on July 22, Lieutenant Bailey is now armed.  On September 11, he was at the Freeman farm once again.  Jim was sent to gather intelligence.

October 7.  Bailey finally leaves the Freeman farm, along with Jim, with the goal of reaching Lithonia, and the North Georgia Railroad.  They are told the Federal forces are at Decatur, but that there are Texas Rangers roaming through the area searching for deserters and runaway slaves.  After midnight Bailey and Jim reached the railroad just west of Lithonia, fifteen miles from Decatur.  “No halting, no resting, no lagging; we are between the lines of two armies, and daylight will find us at Decatur, or worse.”

Daylight did find them in the Union fortifications a quarter mile east of Decatur.  They “are vacated—campfires still smoking, but the Federals gone.  Smiling Hope had beckoned us on, only to make despair the more certain.  The coveted Federal lines at last, and nothing to greet us but the refuse of a camp and smoldering remnants of campfires with which were kindled by friends! Despondent—hungry—footsore—cheated—exhausted—chafed—irritated—lacerated—drooping in the gloom of faded hopes.”

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Confederate artillery set up to defend Atlanta in 1864.  (Wikipedia)

During the day Bailey and Jim are overtaken by a pair of armed deserters, one in butternut, the other dressed in blue.  Bailey is again a captive, and disarmed; his captors make it clear that they have no intention of treating him as a prisoner of war.  Late in the afternoon one of them says, “My friend, this is as good a place to die as any man could wish.”  Given an opportunity to pray before dying, Bailey decides that “it’s manifestly too late to pray ‘deliver us from evil;’ God helps those who help themselves.”  Bailey runs.  Three shots were fired at him in rapid succession, and a fourth later.  The second shot threw Bailey to the ground, entering his right shoulder, passing through his shoulder blade and penetrating his lung.  But he got up and ran on.  After the captors had fired all their loaded weapons, Jim ran as well, soon catching up with Bailey.  The two of them staggered through the woods until sunset.  Bailey sees the light of a farmhouse and tells Jim, “I believe I am mortally wounded.  But if I’m mistaken, Jim, that light—that house—whatever it is—is my last chance for life.  I know I can’t live in the woods through this night.  I know it.  Take me to that house.”

The house belonged to a widow named Carrie E. Hambrick, who, with her sister, took Bailey in and nursed him overnight.  Jim, meanwhile, was sent to find the Federal forces.  By mid-day, October 9, a force of about 150 Federal troops, with an ambulance and surgeon arrived. “Ah! Lieutenant, we’ve come for you!”  Almost immediately the room was filled with officers and soldiers…faithful Jim in the midst of them.

Our little column passed through Decatur, and another little jaunt of six miles brought us to Atlanta.  Atlanta!  That “Hood had made up his mind to hold at all hazards.”  Atlanta!  That “the Yankees can never take, sir.”  Atlanta! before whose gates the rescued soldier, while concealed in distant Southern forests, had so often heard the thunder of Federal cannon.  Atlanta!  At peace beneath the flag of the stripes and stars.  As we neared the fortifications, the escorted ambulance passed the battlefield of July 22nd, and over the very road beside which its wounded occupant was captured, which spot was immediately identified with much interest; but the grand feast to his bedimmed vision was the sight of the old flag.  How majestically it floated where before he had seen only “stars and bars.”  Never before did the flag of the Union appear so bright and glorious; never was he prouder of the uniform he wore; never so desirous of witnessing a vigorous prosecution of the war for the Union; never before so appreciative—so delighted—so comfortable—so safe—so satisfied under the glorious old stars and stripes.

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An Atlanta home bearing the scars of battle in 1864.  (CivilWar.org)

A month later George Bailey was at home in St. Louis.  Fifteen years later he wrote his “Private Chapter,” to which he added this coda:

The writer respectfully submits that, from the facts within his limited experiences as herein related, the following conclusions may readily be reached:
I.  That the whole South was not in sympathy with the war against the Union; that there was much in the Southern maxim, “The rich man’s war, and the poor man’s fight;”  and that in numberless instances the poor were the mere victims of circumstances which placed them under the control of the aristocracy of wealth, and that while necessity forced action, very many of the actors bore no real enmity against the government; that with them it was not a matter of choice, but they were mere floaters on the tide of public sentiment, which their standing on the social scale permitted them neither to control nor to stem.

  1. That the negroes at the South, as a class, were opposed to the enemies and true to the friends of our government, and were ever ready and willing to render aid and comfort and to make cheerful sacrifices, by day or by night, for our unfortunate straggling “boys in blue,” to whose interests and welfare they generally evinced a remarkable degree of fidelity.

III.  That localities should not always be condemned because of the unlawful acts of a few; for the vicinity that produces outlaws and fiends to wound, may also be capable of furnishing angels to save and comfort the wounded.

  1. That nobility of soul cannot be bound within the narrow confines of sectional prejudices, but, when opportunity is presented, is capable of asserting itself in spite of bitter enmities naturally engendered by civil war.
  2. That among the real enemies of the government there were at least a few whose prowling proclivities found “duties” at the rear, as a pretext to avoid the dangers which threaten soldiers at the front—beast of prey in human form, whose cowardly instincts compelled them to seek only safe opportunities to vent their spleen against the government by adding the crime of murder to that of treason.
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The copy of Bailey’s “A Private Chapter of the War” sent by the author to Republican presidential candidate–and Union veteran–James A. Garfield in 1881.  (NPS photo)

 

Tellingly, Bailey’s memoir is dedicated “To Mrs. Carrie E. Hambrick of Atlanta, Ga., whose nobility of soul manifested itself in rising above surrounding prejudices and circumstances, proving superior to them, by extending welcome and bestowing aid and comfort upon a helpless stranger whom the misfortunes of war brought to her door, and whose life was preserved by her motherly care, sympathy, and encouragement,…”

But why did George Bailey send a copy of his book to General Garfield, then the Republican candidate for President of the United States?  Was it simply “veteranizing” (a usage coined by Sherwood Anderson)—one old soldier to another? Or did Bailey hope that the conclusions he reached, based on his experience of the war, would be meaningful in the political context of the presidential campaign.  We do not know if he sent a copy to Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democratic nominee, and another Union veteran.  Nor do we know if Garfield read his book.

What we can say with some confidence is that Bailey’s “Private Chapter of the War” taught him things that he felt were unique and worth sharing fifteen years after the event.  Even if George Bailey’s conclusions did not add to the political conversation of 1880, they were important then and they remain relevant today.  We are glad they are here, preserved in the library of our twentieth president.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

Mourning President Garfield

“The waves of emotion that swept over the country, moreover, were fed not only by the fact that America’s president had been attacked…but that that president had been Garfield.”
-Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
President James A. Garfield was only in office just four short months before Charles Guiteau’s attempted assassination. While his time as President was brief, his effect on the nation was not. Out of the many things that stand out about James A. Garfield, his effect on the nation is one that must not be over looked. His death has been compared that of John F. Kennedy. Both were bright, articulate, hopeful presidents who had set out to unite America.
On July 2, 1881, President Garfield became the second president to be shot. Walking through Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore & Potomac train station, heading toward his New England-bound train, President Garfield was shot twice by Charles Guiteau, a man who until recently had hoped to work for the President.

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked.  Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield.  (

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked. Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield. (Library of Congress)

In 1881, Presidents did not have guards surrounding them or security escorts when traveling. Americans believed the President should be accessible to everyone. The only guard between the President and the people when he was at the White House was his secretary, Joseph Stanley- Brown. Even President Garfield, desperate to cling to any remaining freedoms after taking office, argued that he needed no more protection than the average American.
This mindset, the ability to relate with the general public, was one of the things the nation loved about Garfield. He was human to them, someone with whom nearly everyone could identify. He had grown up in extreme poverty in northern Ohio. His father had died young, and that left only his mother to raise him and his older siblings. He attended school, much of which he paid for by working before and after his classes. Entering the army during the Civil War, he rose up the ranks to become a Major General, only leaving to take a seat in Congress to which his fellow Ohioans had elected him while he fought. However, he remained a farmer and a family man, constantly challenging his children both physically and intellectually. These facts made him different than many of the presidents before him. His life story made him relatable to the average citizen. He welcomed all to his farm in Mentor, Ohio. During his campaign he spoke to all with the same tone of respect, regardless of their place in society.

1880 view of the Garfield home and property, which became the focal point of Garfield's 1880 presidential campaign. (Wash drawing by delineator L.C. Corwine, Library of Congress)

1880 view of the Garfield home and property, which became the focal point of Garfield’s 1880 presidential campaign. (Wash drawing by delineator L.C. Corwine, Library of Congress)

It was Garfield as a person, not a president, that made his death heartbreaking to many Americans. With his death, Americans united with a common feeling of loss, and a common sense of patriotism that had not been seen since before the Civil War, if ever before that.
For many, President Garfield represented not just who America was, but also what it hoped to become. With his death, Americans lost the figurehead they had made Garfield, and that loss was felt by all, regardless of race, gender, or statehood. He was someone who would not tolerate discrimination but also managed to make many in the South feel as though the government was their government, too. This was something they had not felt in years. His background allowed him to connect to the pioneers heading west, while also relating to the immigrants arriving from the east. James A. Garfield was someone that many Americans not only trusted, but loved almost as family.
For 80 days, from the shooting on July 2 to his death on September 19, the public read every newspaper and waited for each bulletin from the President’s doctors hoping for news of Garfield’s recovery. With the announcement of his death, the entire nation mourned, and many traveled to the Washington, D.C. Over 100,000 people went to the nation’s capital to view the President’s body. Everyone from poor farmers to wealthy women and African American laborers came to pay their respects. Mollie Garfield, the president’s daughter wrote in her diary about how the whole city was covered in black. From the White House to the poorest homes, the city was in full mourning. Many who could not afford anything more tore up black clothing and hung it in their windows.

The White House with mourning decorations in September 1881, after the death of President James A. Garfield.  (Library of Congress)

The White House with mourning decorations in September 1881, after the death of President James A. Garfield. (Library of Congress)

Americans were not inactive in their mourning. Over $300,000 was raised to help Lucretia and her children. Hundreds of people wrote letters sending their condolences to Lucretia, many of which she kept in the Memorial Library she created after her husband’s death. Large amounts of memorabilia for the late president were also made, and could be seen in many homes across the country. His monument at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio was one of the biggest and most elaborate mausoleums of its time. People wanted a lasting memorial to Garfield, much like his wife wanted when she created the Memorial Library at their home in Mentor.

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband's book collection and memory for herself and their children.  She added the

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband’s book collection and memory for herself and their children. She added the “Memory Room” to store the papers of his public career, thus creating the nation’s first presidential library. (NPS photo)

Garfield was the last president to be born in a log cabin. He was the last of many things, but the first of many more. More important than any of Garfield’s achievements during his brief presidency was the impact he had on the American people. His death truly united citizens as Americans. A man who in life had made everyone feel welcome in the United States in death made them feel as though they truly were the United States.

-Rachel Gluvna, Volunteer

Political Satire and the 1880 Presidential Campaign

There’s no denying that the internet and social media play a prominent role in the way we access news today, and the type of news we choose to follow.  This is especially true when it comes to politics and modern presidential campaigns. With this seemingly endless stream of information, there is no shortage of criticism and humor directed at politicians. Whether it’s good or bad, most Americans have likely even come to expect it!

So what about presidential campaigns of the 19th century? Did such witty criticism of the nation’s potential commander-in-chief exist then, too? The answer is, of course, a resounding “yes.”  While Americans of the day certainly were not inundated with updates via Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media site (there weren’t even radios for inquisitive citizens to gather information from), that doesn’t mean humor was absent from political campaigns of the period.

Humorous criticism has always been a staple of political campaigns, in varying degrees of seriousness, and there was no lack of it in James Garfield’s successful campaign of 1880. The most prominent satirical periodical of the day was Puck Magazine, and Garfield often found himself on the receiving end of the publication’s commentary and political cartoons during his campaign. From Credit Mobilier to DeGolyer Pavement and the “salary grab” of 1873, Garfield’s congressional career provided ample ammunition for journalists of the day to criticize.

This image of Garfield and some of the scandals of his political career was entitled "It Makes Him Sick."  It appeared on the cover of the August 18, 1880 issue of Puck Magazine.  (Puck/University of Michigan)

This image of Garfield and some of the scandals of his era was entitled “It Makes Him Sick.” It appeared on the cover of the August 18, 1880 issue of Puck Magazine. (Puck/University of Michigan)

Simultaneously, Garfield’s opponent was not immune from critics. Democratic candidate Winfield Scott Hancock was just as frequently at the center of the magazine’s jokes, despite the fact that it was generally more sympathetic to the Democratic Party. Yet while I found the comics and commentary poking fun at the two candidates to be rather even, while combing through editions of the magazine from the 1880 campaign I stumbled upon something a bit more unusual.

Democratic candidate Winfield Scott Hancock was not spared the satirical treatment in 1880, either, as this Puck cartoon shows.  (Puck/University of Michigan)

Democratic candidate Winfield Scott Hancock was not spared the satirical treatment in 1880, either, as this Puck cartoon shows. (Puck/University of Michigan)

While I expected to see the presidential candidates lambasted, I was not expecting to see anything targeting their spouses. Yet that’s exactly what I found in the July 21, 1880 edition. Starting with Mrs. Garfield, the writers at Puck weave an intricate story of a woman more impressive than even her husband! Of course upon closer examination it’s less about her actual accomplishments and more a grossly exaggerated fiction of the soon-to-be First Lady.  From holding four patents for boiling potatoes, to entering West Point at the age of 71 (!) – only to subsequently give up her military duties to marry James Garfield at the age of 74 – the magazine creates the image of a comically overambitious woman.

The reason behind this exaggeration and why Puck chose to portray Mrs. Garfield in such a light is unclear, though perhaps it becomes clearer after reading the magazine’s description of Mrs. Hancock. Whereas Mrs. Garfield’s life and accomplishments were impossibly unrealistic, Mrs. Hancock is presented as possessing qualities “quite important enough, in a quiet, unobtrusive and domestic way to set a noble example to the women and children of the universe.” Unlike Mrs. Garfield, whose accomplishments have “shaken the world to its foundation,” Mrs. Hancock is presented to the readers as the epitome of a virtuous American woman. Setting a noble example, Puck sees Mrs. Hancock as the more suitable of the two to fulfill the duties of First Lady, as she provides the American public with a character to which any woman would aspire.

This lengthy article satirized Mrs. Lucretia Garfield during the 1880 presidential campaign.  Was this really directed at her, or at her husband?  (Puck/University of Michigan)

This lengthy article satirized Mrs. Lucretia Garfield during the 1880 presidential campaign. Was this really directed at her, or at her husband? (Puck/University of Michigan)

So why the criticism of Mrs. Garfield? Was there something particularly loathsome about her character that prompted the editors at Puck to attack her? Looking through other sources of the time, from Cleveland’s Plain Dealer to The New York Times, Lucretia Garfield is notably absent from any criticism related to her husband, and is even referred to as a “quiet, thoughtful, and refined woman” by the Times. Using a little leeway, perhaps it’s not that Puck is not actually ridiculing her, but rather using her as a way to poke fun at her husband and his rise from “canal boy” to presidential candidate.

However, that is just my conclusion. Whether the authors of this humorous article were truly looking to mock Mrs. Garfield, or to find an alternative way to satirize her husband, we may never know. The one conclusion we can draw is that political satire is certainly not new to American political campaigns or candidates. Whether Lucretia Garfield deserved to bear the brunt of this joke or not is almost irrelevant, as this article clearly illustrates that satire was becoming a prominent voice in American politics, and anyone was fair game.

-James Brundage, Museum Technician

James A. Garfield and a Black Washingtonian, Part II

After the war, Wormley had become so successful that, in 1869, he purchased the initial portion of the previously mentioned Wormley Hotel main building, located at the SW corner of 15th and H Streets to add to his business locations. He then alternately referred to the original collection of five boarding houses and a restaurant on I Street as the “Annex” and the “Branch Hotel”. While Garfield was spreading his national image and building his house in the city, Wormley’s newest structure had become the privately owned, yet public, seat of political maneuvering, high society and statesmanship in the District.

James Wormley as he appeared around 1869.  (Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

James Wormley as he appeared around 1869. (Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

As a military and political leader in support of the rights of Blacks, Garfield had to be in touch with Wormley fairly frequently. Unfortunately, since this research regarding Garfield has just begun we have not, as yet, uncovered expansive direct information about their personal relationship. We do know that as Mr. Garfield entered upon his life in the White House the existence of the relationship became more widely known.

In the fall of 1879 John Hay and his wife had taken up a two month residence at Wormley’s Hotel while they waited for their new home a block away on H Street to be finished. Just a few years previously in this same building it was reported that the Presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes had been negotiated. During the period 1880 to 1881 the patrons of the hotel included famous and wealthy aristocrats like the Astors, Henry Adams, the Alexander Graham Bell family, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Garfield’s presidential election Democratic opponent General Winfield Scott Hancock, Robert Lincoln and family and the Hawaiian Annexation Commission.

John Hay was one of President Abraham Lincoln's private secretaries during the Civil War.  President-elect James A. Garfield asked Hay to take the same job in early 1881 while Hay was staying at Wormley's Hotel, but Hay declined.  John Hay was later Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.  (Library of Congress)

John Hay was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries during the Civil War. President-elect James A. Garfield asked Hay to take the same job in early 1881, but Hay declined. John Hay was later Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. (Library of Congress)

During his Presidency Garfield appointed several close black friends of Wormley to prominent federal appointments including Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, and Blanche K. Bruce. The well known Post Office “Star Route Scandal” investigations originating under Garfield’s administration included an allegation that Henry Bowen attempted a $25,000 bribe while at the hotel. Garfield’s Postmaster Thomas L. James, charged by Garfield to clean out the corruption, was a Wormley’s patron and was honored at a banquet at the hotel on March 16, 1881 which was attended by members of the Cabinet and Supreme Court.

Garfield, as part of his pre-inauguration activities on the evening of March 3, 1881, spoke at the hotel to his fellow Williams College alumni and is quoted as saying, “…Tonight I am a private citizen. Tomorrow I shall be called to assume new responsibilities and, on the day after, the broadside of the world’s wrath will strike.”

For the next few months the new President would settle into his duties at the White House, which brings us to Saturday, July 2, 1881, the day of his shooting. After the attack by Charles J. Guiteau, the President was brought to the White House to minister to his wounds. Among the early attendees to the needs of the President was James Wormley. James had been known to be called to attend to the care of many prominent men of the 19th century including President Lincoln after his shooting and also to attend to his son Willie who had lain dying in the White House nearly 20 years earlier. According to many accounts Wormley also had been a “nurse” to political luminaries the likes of Clay, Calhoun, Webster, Sumner and many others. As likely the most famous caterer and nurse of his time, James was asked to care for the needs of Garfield as he lay attempting to recuperate from his wounds and the ministrations of his physicians in the White House.

A look at James A. Garfield's March 3, 1881 diary entry, in which he mentions Wormley's Hotel.  Garfield was inaugurated as President of the United States the next day.  (Library of Congress)

A look at James A. Garfield’s March 3, 1881 diary entry, in which he mentions Wormley’s Hotel. Garfield was inaugurated as President of the United States the next day. (Library of Congress)

According to an article in the New York Herald dated July 26, 1881, Wormley was immediately sought out to prepare the meals of the President by the attending physician, Dr. Willard Bliss. One of the foods most requested by the President was something called “beef tea.” This concoction was prepared from the finest tenderloin available. The meat was placed upon a broiling iron, not to cook but to sear the surface. It was then placed into a mechanical press provided from Wormley’s which compressed the meat with a pressure of 300-400 pounds until all the juices had been squeezed out of the steak. The juice or “tea” according to contemporary sources was one of the most nutritious foods provided to the President as he attempted to recuperate. Multiple news accounts, such as that in the Times Picayune on August 9, 1881, report that most of the foods provided for the suffering President came from Wormley’s farm and country homes on Pierce Mill Road on the outskirts of the city.

Despite the best care available and the aid of mechanical appliances devised by inventors like Alexander Graham Bell, the President died on September 19, 1881. Wormley, as an expression of his sorrow, commissioned a large white funerary bouquet in the shape of an angel holding a silver trumpet and about the size of a five year old child which was suspended above the coffin as the President lay in state.

The body was transported to Cleveland in a train from Washington with members of the family. It was followed approximately 20 minutes later by a train for dignitaries. This train was catered by James Wormley and his staff as it made its way to Cleveland. This catering for the train resulted in a bill for liquors, wines and lunches in an amount exceeding $1,700.00 and was the source of some consternation as reported in the Daily Globe on March 29, 1882.

Garfield’s Vice President and successor, Chester A. Arthur, had already been a patron of Wormley’s and that continued throughout his administration. One of the most important accomplishments of Garfield and, ultimately, Arthur was the viable creation of the Civil Service Commission. The first meetings of the Commission were held in the rooms of Chairman Dorman B. Eaton at Wormley’s.

Chester A. Arthur, a regular patron of Wormley's became president when James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Chester A. Arthur, a regular patron of Wormley’s became president when James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881. (Library of Congress)

James Wormley survived Garfield for only a few short years, dying from complications from surgery in Boston in 1884. It seems that both of these significant men would have survived but for the relatively primitive medical procedures undertaken on their behalf. Perhaps the scholarship around these two men will bring greater illumination to how the leader of the nation would have engaged in regular intercourse with a Black man in our nation’s capital over their twenty years of daily prominent existence within a few blocks of each other.

-Donet D. Graves, Esq., Volunteer Contributor

The Remarkable Roscoe, Part III

Even though Conkling’s supporters endorsed reform at the 1877 New York Republican Convention, he thrashed reformers verbally, suggesting that they were amateurs, phonies, or hypocrites. He referred to the Civil Service as the “Snivel Service,” and called supporters of reform “man milliners,” who paraded “their own thin veneering of superior purity” while attacking Grant. “Their stock in trade is rancid, canting self-righteousness,” he said.

Yet, despite all the self-interested antagonism that he directed at Hayes, he still agreed with the President on important monetary policy matters. He stood with Hayes in opposition to the Bland-Allison bill, which called for the remonetization of silver. He called this an idea of “a nearly equal mixture of idiots and knaves.” Conkling voted against the measure, but failed to do anything to prevent a Senate override after Hayes vetoed it, and Bland-Allison became law.

As President, Rutherford B. Hayes sometimes had Roscoe Conkling's support.  Conkling did not, however, back President Hayes's efforts to reform the nation's civil service.  (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

As President, Rutherford B. Hayes sometimes had Roscoe Conkling’s support. Conkling did not, however, back President Hayes’s efforts to reform the nation’s civil service. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

Conkling also stood with Hayes in the matter of “riders” to appropriations bills. In 1879, House Democrats attempted to “de-fund” the U.S. Army; to prevent it from “interfering” with Congressional elections in the South. Five times the Democrats attached such riders to appropriations bills, and five times Hayes vetoed them. Conkling supported Hayes every time, denouncing the efforts to compel Hayes “to give up his convictions, his duty, and his oath, as the price to be paid a political party for allowing the Government to live.”

But these were rare moments of good will. When the presidential election year of 1880 came around, he was anxious to replace the retiring Hayes with former president Grant. His support for Grant began in February 1880, soon after the latter’s return from a much publicized and praised trip around the world. Conkling led a pro-Grant majority at the New York state convention. It seemed as if Conkling had unified New York’s delegation to support Grant at the national convention. This was an illusion.

An intra-party power struggle played out in May, when state senator William Robertson (always a thorn in Conkling’s side) announced that he would vote for James G. Blaine, of Maine. Soon, a revolt against Grant that began in the New York delegation spread throughout the national convention that met in June. The “unit rule,” that pledged state delegations to vote as one for the candidate who had majority support in each came under attack. William Robertson led that fight in New York and Congressman James A. Garfield of Ohio fought the unit rule in the Rules Committee.

William H. Robertson caused Conkling a great deal of trouble, first by publicly announcing his support of Blaine for President in 1880; then by being named by President Garfield to be Collector of the Port of New York.  Robertson was not a "Conkling man," and therefore NOT acceptable to Cokling for the Collectorship.  Robertson's appointment put Garfield and Conkling on a collision course over the issue of who controlled the civil service in New York: the state's senior senator, or the President.  (Wikipedia.com)

William H. Robertson caused Conkling a great deal of trouble, first by publicly announcing his support of Blaine for President in 1880; then by being named by President Garfield to be Collector of the Port of New York. Robertson was not a “Conkling man,” and therefore NOT acceptable to Cokling for the Collectorship. Robertson’s appointment put Garfield and Conkling on a collision course over the issue of who controlled the civil service in New York: the state’s senior senator, or the President. (Wikipedia.com)

Irony of ironies, it was General Garfield – who hadn’t sought the nomination – who won it. Grant’s defeat angered Conkling. He didn’t think any better of Garfield than he did of Hayes. To many Grant Republicans, the Democratic nominee, General Winfield Scott Hancock, looked like a winner. Roscoe Conkling thought James Garfield was a beaten man. That wouldn’t be so bad; he could run Grant again in 1884.

So, as in 1876, Conkling did not go out of his way to support the 1880 national ticket. He troubled the nominee with his demands over control of New York appointments and cabinet appointments in a future Garfield administration. Once again, Conkling’s self-interest guided his thoughts and actions. Conkling and Garfield met on more than one occasion after the surprise Republican nominee became the surprise Republican victor. Conkling’s insistence that he control New York patronage was an irritant and a warning to the President-elect.

This Puck cartoon shows outgoing President Hayes (background) leaving civil service reform (in the form of a screaming baby) on incoming President Garfield's doorstep.  (Puck)

This Puck cartoon shows outgoing President Hayes (background) leaving civil service reform (in the form of a screaming baby) on incoming President Garfield’s doorstep. (Puck)

Garfield was determined to avoid what Hayes had gone through. When Garfield appointed William Robertson to be the new Collector of the Port of New York, a political battle between the new president and Conkling rivaled anything that had gone on between Conkling and Hayes. It was a months-long battle of wills that led Conkling to resign from the Senate, in the belief that he would be reelected, and thereby be placed in a stronger position to defeat the Robertson nomination and prevail over Garfield. Conkling’s gamble failed. Republicans in the New York Legislature were not about to defy their own president. Conkling was not reelected.

Meanwhile, a demented Charles Guiteau, having followed the course of the Garfield- Conkling fight in the press, assassinated the President. His distorted sense of reality led him to believe that removing Garfield would reunite the Republican Party – and save the country.

The combination of political defeat and Guiteau’s bullet brought Conkling’s political career finally and irrevocably to an end. Conkling acknowledged as much when he said after Garfield’s death, “How can I speak into a grave? How can I battle with a shroud? Silence is a duty and a doom.” Later he said, “I am done with politics now and forever.” He meant it.

After 1881, Conkling devoted himself to his law practice. Among his clients were financier Jay Gould, and the young inventor, Thomas Edison. He was a defense lawyer in the Supreme Court case, San Mateo County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad. It was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court declared that the “equal protection” clause of the 14th amendment was intended to protect corporations as well as individuals.

Sunday, March 11, 1888 was a miserable day in New York City. A heavy rain turned into sleet, and the sleet into snow. It was not long before the city was a mess, with traffic stopped, the elevated railway disabled, and shops closed. The next day the wind gusts were clocked at 75 mph. After spending the morning in court, Roscoe Conkling trudged two-and-a-half miles through huge drifts of snow to his home. He wrote late, “I had an ugly tramp in the dark…drifts so high that my head bumped against the signs… and fallen telegraph wires.” Upon arriving home, he collapsed.

This image shows New York City during the March 11, 1888 blizzard through which Conkling walked home.  He became ill and died about five weeks later, at just 58 years old.  (Library of Congress)

This image shows New York City during the March 11, 1888 blizzard through which Conkling walked home. He became ill and died about five weeks later, at just 58 years old. (Library of Congress)

Soon he was confined to bed, the victim of an abscess in his right ear. Ironically, Dr. D. Hayes Agnes, who had attended President Garfield, was called to Conkling’s bedside. By early April, an operation was necessary. A hole was drilled into Conkling’s head with a mallet and chisel to relieve a buildup of pus. It was hoped that the strong, athletic Conkling would pull through. He did not. He fell into a coma and died on April 18, 1888, at the age of 58.

What could be made of this man who once so towered over his competitors? The noted agnostic Robert Ingersoll eulogized Conkling, acclaiming him as a man who “stood for independence, for courage, and above all for absolute integrity …Roscoe Conkling was an absolutely honest man.”

This was not the view of all men at the time, and Conkling’s reputation remains largely negative because of all the controversy that he stirred in defense of his political machine. True, he could be principled, as when he urged President Grant to veto the inflation bill of 1874 and when he sided with President Hayes over the appropriations riders. He took the high road when he stood by Mississippi Senator Blanche K. Bruce, as their white colleagues altogether avoided the first elected black member of that body.

This statue of Roscoe Conkling stands at the southeast corner of Madison Square Park in New York City.  Conkling seemed destined for greatness, but his reputation is largely negative today due to his personality and unwillingness to compromise on issues like civil service reform.  (www.nycgovparks.org)

This John Quincy Adams Ward-sculpted statue of Roscoe Conkling stands at the southeast corner of Madison Square Park in New York City. Conkling seemed destined for greatness, but his reputation is largely negative today due to his personality and unwillingness to compromise on issues like civil service reform. (www.nycgovparks.org)

Conkling’s poor reputation, however, remains. He contributed no lasting positive record. The economic forces that were transforming the United Stated were controlled by men like Gould and Fisk, Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie. It was a transformation that Roscoe Conkling did not attempt to understand or guide. Intra-party squabbles, not the welfare of the nation, preoccupied Conkling. He repeatedly “let himself be caught up in inconsequentials.” Why did he allow this? Was it a basic insecurity that drove Conkling to act as he did? Was he just a mean-spirited individual who needed to dominate others? Alas, herein lays a mystery.

What is clear is that in his battles with two successive presidents, Roscoe Conkling helped to forge the start of a new path for the institution of the presidency that would make it in our time the most influential and watched position in American politics – and the world’s. In this, Conkling’s career in politics, after more than one hundred thirty years, still echoes.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

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

James A. Garfield and “Rain Follows the Plow”

James A. Garfield pursued many vocations during his relatively short life of 49 years and ten months, including canal worker, janitor, minister, college professor and president, lawyer, soldier, congressman, and President of the United States. Less well-known, though, is his lifelong interest in agriculture, which prompted him to purchase a 120-acre farm in Mentor, Ohio in 1876. “I must get a place where I can put my boys at work, and teach them farming,” he wrote in his diary on September 26, 1876. After purchasing the property, Garfield wrote his wife, Lucretia, “So, my darling, you shall have a home and a cow.” Today, about eight acres of that farm and its buildings are preserved as James A. Garfield National Historic Site. Here Congressman Garfield grew wheat, rye, and barley, and also had an orchard of apple and peach trees.

In early June 1880, Garfield traveled to the Republican National Convention in Chicago to nominate fellow Ohioan John Sherman as the party’s presidential candidate for that November’s election. The next time he saw his Mentor farm, Garfield himself was the somewhat surprised Republican presidential nominee, and the farm became his campaign’s headquarters. Even as a candidate for the nation’s highest office, Garfield meticulously tracked the work being done on his farm. On July 31, 1880 he recorded: “Men continued threshing until noon. Had the oats hauled in from the field and threshed as they arrived. Result 475 bushels. Not so good a yield as last year.  All spring grain seems to be lighter this year than the fall sown crops.”

This image shows James A. Garfield's property as it appeared during his 1880 presidential campaign.  The barn and other farm buildings are visible.  The expansive lawn around the house led reporters covering the campaign to nickname the property "Lawnfield."  (Lake County Historical Society)

This image shows James A. Garfield’s property as it appeared during his 1880 presidential campaign. The barn and other farm buildings are visible. The expansive lawn around the house led reporters covering the campaign to nickname the property “Lawnfield.” (Lake County Historical Society)

Two weeks later, on August 13, he noted, “Have agreed to send my wheat, about 200 bushels of it, to Cleveland for sale at 90 cents per bushel.” On September 19: “Did not attend church, but made a tour over the farm, inspecting the cattle and crops.” On Election Day, November 2: “Arranged for plowing and seeding garden east of house, and starting a new one in rear of engine house.”

Garfield won the election, and from November 1880 to late February 1881, he hosted many visitors seeking an audience with the new President-elect. On January 26, 1881, Garfield recorded in his diary, “Profs. C.D. Wilber and Aughey of Nebraska came at noon, and spent the night…I sat up too late with Wilber for my health.” So just who were these Nebraskans who stopped by to visit and spend the night in the President-elect’s home?

Naturalist and geologist Samuel H. Aughey was a faculty member at the University of Nebraska who published widely on the natural features of his adopted state (he was a Pennsylvania native). He was also a shameless booster of settlement on the Great Plains, encouraging homesteaders and other land seekers to settle in Nebraska. During an unusually wet period in 1880, Aughey asserted that prairie sod being broken by plows was the reason for the increased rainfall. It stood to reason, then, that more settlers turning over more acres of soil would lead to ever more rainfall, and drought on the Great Plains would never be a problem as long as farmers continued to plant and harvest crops. The prairie soil would, according to M. Jean Ferrill in Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, “absorb the rain like a huge sponge once the sod had been broken. This moisture would then be slowly given back to the atmosphere by evaporation. Each year, as cultivation extended across the Plains…the moisture and rainfall would also increase until the region was fit for agriculture without irrigation.”

Samuel Aughey was a faculty member of the University of Nebraska and a vocal promoter of western settlement who developed the theory eventually encapsulated in the phrase "rain follows the plow."  He eventually left the University of Nebraska to become the state geologist of Wyoming.  (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Samuel Aughey was a faculty member of the University of Nebraska and a vocal promoter of western settlement who developed the theory encapsulated in the phrase “rain follows the plow.” He eventually left the University of Nebraska to become the state geologist of Wyoming. (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Journalist and author Charles Dana Wilber picked up on Aughey’s theory and included it in his 1881 book The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest. It was Wilber, in fact, who coined and popularized the phrase “rain follows the plow,” which made Aughey’s bizarre theory more easily accessible to the public by breaking it down to a single phrase: 

“God speed the plow…. By this wonderful provision, which is only man’s mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains … [the plow] is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts a desert into a farm or garden…. To be more concise, Rain follows the plow.”

Wilber also offered divine allegories for man’s besting of the natural environment in the area once labeled “the Great American Desert”:

“In this miracle of progress, the plow was the unerring prophet, the procuring cause, not by any magic or enchantment, not by incantations or offerings, but instead by the sweat of his face toiling with his hands, man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasures of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling… The raindrop never fails to fall and answer to the imploring power or prayer of labor.”

For western settlement boosters like Aughey and Wilber, “rain follows the plow” provided an easy response to those who worried about drought in western states and territories. The theory also appealed to those who put stock in ideas about America’s “Manifest Destiny,” the opinion that the United States had a God-given right and obligation to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific. “Rain follows the plow” could easily be interpreted to justify removing American Indians from their traditional lands since few western tribes lived as sedentary farmers and therefore, according to many, were not using the land to its full potential. Even railroad companies got in on the act, using the theory to draw settlers to their land grants. (Railroad land available for purchase by settlers was often of far higher quality than that available from the federal government for free under the Homestead Act.) The Burlington and Missouri River Railroad eventually went so far as to have a stenographer in the crowd when Samuel Aughey spoke so that copies of his speeches extolling the virtues of western lands could be printed and distributed to prospective immigrants in Europe.

Aughey and Wilber's "rain follows the plow" theory encouraged many to try their hands at homesteading and farming in western states like Nebraska.  New settlers often found dry, barren land and built their first homes from prairie sod.  This famous photo by Solomon D. Butcher shows the Sylvester Rawding family in Custer County, Nebraska.  (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Aughey and Wilber’s “rain follows the plow” theory encouraged many to try their hands at homesteading and farming in western states like Nebraska. New settlers often found dry, barren land and built their first homes from prairie sod. This famous photo by Solomon D. Butcher shows the Sylvester Rawding family in Custer County, Nebraska. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

“Rain follows the plow” fell by the wayside when the Great Plains endured severe droughts in the 1890s that even the steel plows and increasingly mechanized implements of farmers could not prevent. Today, the theory is considered junk science, on par with phrenology, séances, and fad diets. But in January 1881 when they visited President-elect James A. Garfield, Samuel Aughey and Charles Wilber were just entering the period that would make them and their now-discredited theory famous. What fun it might have been to be a fly on the wall and eavesdrop on the conversation on the night of January 26, 1881, when the President-elect “sat up too late with Wilber for my health.”

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation and Education

Stalwarts, Half Breeds, and Political Assassination

Most summaries of the assassination of President James A. Garfield describe his attacker, Charles Guiteau, as nothing more than a “disappointed office seeker.” When police apprehended him after he shot Garfield on July 2, 1881, Guiteau calmly told them, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts…Arthur is president.” Were these just the ramblings of an almost surely mentally unbalanced murderer? Or was there something more to Guiteau’s statement? Understanding the factionalism in the Republican Party during this era helps one understand not only how James A. Garfield ascended to the presidency, but also that his murder was wholly political in nature. 

One main issue led to the split in the Republican Party: patronage. Under the patronage system, the winners of congressional and presidential elections had the power to appoint whomever they chose to fill numerous federal jobs. Experience and qualifications mattered little (if at all). Powerful politicians loved the so-called “spoils system” because it allowed them to put friends and relatives into lucrative positions and ensure loyalty from everyone they appointed. According to author Kenneth D. Ackerman, “Senatorial courtesy—deferring to senators of the president’s party on local positions—helped the party in power to build a national base. Breaking the system apart would threaten everyone.” Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was the undisputed king of the patronage system, and the key weapon in his spoils arsenal was the position of Collector of the Port of New York.

Roscoe Conkling was the senior Senator from New York and the undisputed king of the spoils system. He controlled the most nation’s most prized patronage position: Collector of the Port of New York. (wikipedia.com)

Conkling was also the leader of the Republican faction that came to be known as “Stalwarts.” These Republicans strictly adhered to the patronage system and continued to believe that sectional appeals (“waving the bloody shirt”) were still valid even after the Rutherford B. Hayes administration of 1877-81 began to gradually end Reconstruction in the South. Senator James G. Blaine of Maine was Conkling’s counterpart on the other side of the issue, leading the faction that came to be known as “Half Breeds.” Blaine and his followers “were known as ‘Half Breeds’ because of their willingness to depart from Stalwart orthodoxy,” writes historian Lewis L. Gould. Many of this faction, including President Hayes, believed that the patronage system contributed to the scandals and graft that had recently embarrassed the party during the eight years of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. Civil service reform—the idea that candidates for federal jobs should have some qualification besides just their political affiliation or connections—became a popular cause among the Half Breeds.

Much of the nation’s trade flowed through the Port of New York. Because the Collector of Customs there received a percentage of the customs duties, the job was the most prized appointment in the country. Roscoe Conkling demanded that he alone select the man to fill this politically important and personally lucrative position. President Hayes, seeking to wrest control from Conkling, nominated two different men as Collector. Conkling rallied his Senate colleagues to defeat both and eventually succeeded in getting his own choice, an acolyte named Chester Alan Arthur, appointed instead. In 1878, President Hayes and Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman fired Arthur from his position for turning a blind eye to corruption inside the Customs House. In response, Conkling had Arthur named chairman of the New York Republican committee and made plans to have Arthur elected as the junior U.S. Senator from New York in 1880.

Chester Alan Arthur was Collector of the Port of New York until fired for corruption by President Rutherford B. Hayes. He was a Conkling loyalist who was eventually placed on the 1880 ticket with Garfield to appease the Stalwarts. (wikipedia.com)

Led by Conkling, Stalwarts encouraged former president Ulysses S. Grant to seek an unprecedented third term in the White House in the 1880 election. Despite the many scandals of Grant’s two previous terms (1869-1877), the former Union general was still immensely personally popular with the American public. Grant was disheartened at Hayes’s attempts to dismantle the patronage system and, in consultation with Conkling and other Stalwart allies, agreed to run again. Conkling looked forward to reclaiming control of the New York Customs House and once again serving as President Grant’s right hand man, just as he had done during the earlier Grant administrations. On the other side of the aisle, Half Breeds supported none other than James G. Blaine for the Republican presidential nomination. The personal hatred between Conkling and Blaine, dating back to their early service together in the House of Representatives during the Civil War, made the issue that much more heated and complicated.

At the Republican convention in Chicago, Half Breeds worked tirelessly and successfully to block Grant’s nomination. In turn, the Stalwarts gave absolutely no consideration to supporting Blaine. After the first several ballots, it was clear that neither man could obtain the necessary votes to capture the nomination. A compromise candidate was needed. James A. Garfield of Ohio, longtime member of the House of Representatives and currently Ohio’s Senator-elect, was liked and respected by members of both factions. Garfield had traveled to the convention to nominate another candidate Conkling and the Stalwarts would never support: Treasury Secretary John Sherman. On the 36th ballot, Garfield, still stunned that his name had been forwarded as a candidate at all, received the nomination. To appease the Stalwart faction, Conkling disciple Chester A. Arthur, just two years removed from his New York Customs House firing, received the party’s vice presidential nomination.

This cartoon depicts Roscoe Conkling trying to solve “the great presidential puzzle” and deduce who would be the Republicans’ best candidate in 1880. Conkling hoped to see U.S. Grant nominated for a third term, but many Republicans, including James A. Garfield, opposed a third term. (wikipedia.com)

Garfield went on to defeat Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock by a razor-thin popular vote margin in the 1880 election and assumed the presidency on March 4, 1881. If the Arthur nomination was intended to be an olive branch to the Stalwarts, that branch cracked when Garfield made James Blaine his Secretary of State. The branch then splintered into a thousand pieces when the new president nominated William H. Robertson to be Collector of the Port of New York without consulting Conkling. Historian Heather Cox Richardson notes that Conkling was “a famously touchy character” and that he was “undoubtedly personally affronted.” However, as Richardson points out, Conkling opposed Robertson’s nomination by claiming that the Senate’s role to advise and consent to presidential appointments gave senators the power of appointment itself. “What was really at stake,” writes Richardson, “was whether or not Conkling would control New York.”

Conkling devised a bold plan to force the issue and embarrass President Garfield. He and New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned their seats in protest and fully confident that the New York legislature would immediately reappoint them. (Recall that at this point the people did not elect their senators; rather, they were chosen by state legislatures.) Conkling and Platt miscalculated; the New York legislature was happy to be rid of them and promptly elected others to fill their seats. The Senate confirmed Robertson as head of the New York Customs House, and James A. Garfield won the only political victory of his very brief term in the White House.

So what does any of this have to do with Charles Guiteau and his attack on Garfield? Guiteau considered himself to be a Stalwart Republican. He had supported U.S. Grant for the party’s nomination in 1880, even preparing a nonsensical speech he hoped to give for the Grant campaign throughout New York. When the Republicans ended up choosing Garfield instead, Guiteau simply crossed out all references to “Grant” in his speech’s text and replaced them with “Garfield.” During the campaign, Guiteau hounded Republican officials to let him give his speech, which he finally did to a small and puzzled crowd. This odd performance led the mentally unbalanced Guiteau to believe that he had helped Garfield win New York, the most coveted electoral prize of the 1880 contest and the state that put Garfield over the top and into the presidency. His contribution to the party’s victory entitled him, he felt, to a patronage position, and he soon went to Washington, D.C. to present himself for consideration for the American consulship to Paris. Of course, he had no skills, qualifications, or experience to warrant such a position, but lesser men had received prized jobs under the patronage system.

Charles Guiteau was almost certainly mentally unstable, but he also thought of himself as a Stalwart Republican who opposed President Garfield’s intention to reform civil service. Guiteau was more than just a “disappointed officer seeker.” He was a political assassin. (wikipedia.com)

Once he got to Washington, Guiteau was sorely disappointed. His efforts to secure the Paris appointment failed, and he became a nuisance to the new administration. He aroused the ire of Secretary of State James Blaine, who at one point thundered at Guiteau, “Do not ask me about the Paris consulship ever again!” Once Guiteau realized that he would not get the position he wanted and that the Garfield administration was serious about scrapping the patronage system all together, he decided that “removing” Garfield was his best option. Making Chester A. Arthur president would not only save the country from a Half Breed Republican like Garfield, but would also, considering Arthur’s past affiliation with Roscoe Conkling, save the patronage system and quash civil service reform once and for all. As a nice by-product, Guiteau would also surely receive the Paris consulship from a grateful President Arthur.

Guiteau bought a pistol and stalked the President of the United States around Washington before finally shooting him on July 2, 1881. Garfield lingered for eighty days and suffered horrendous medical treatment before dying on September 19. Rather than being heralded as a hero for saving the Republican Party, Charles J. Guiteau was incarcerated, tried, and found guilty of murder. (In what was probably one of the most lucid statements he ever made, Guiteau, when accused of murdering Garfield during his trial, replied, “The doctors did that. I merely shot at him.”) Guiteau was hanged on June 30, 1882.  He died a “disappointed office seeker,” to be sure, but to describe him as that and nothing more only tells part of the story. He was also a political assassin that killed President Garfield in an attempt to force the Republicans to change course on civil service reform. The Republican Party’s factionalism, clearly responsible for the selection of Garfield as its standard bearer in 1880, also led to the president’s murder at Guiteau’s hands.

This “Puck” cartoon depicts Guiteau threatening murder if not given a patronage job. He sought the American consulship to Paris; he eventually said he would accept the appointment to Vienna instead. Of course, he had no qualifications or experience, but that mattered little under the spoils system. (wikipedia.com)

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation and Education

An 1880 “October Surprise”

Last minute tricks have long been a part of presidential politics, going back at least to the 1844 campaign, when James K. Polk was accused of branding his slaves. Most sources date the use of the phrase “October Surprise” either to the election of 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson declared a bombing halt in Vietnam on October 30th, or to Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State who declared, “Peace is at hand” in Vietnam on October 26, 1972. In both cases, the announcements were immediately seen by the press and the public as intending to influence the outcome of the presidential election. Because both were announcements by members of the current administration, just a few days before people voted, it was nearly impossible for the opposing party to respond. Especially when the country is closely divided, October Surprises have the potential to turn elections.

When James A. Garfield ran for president in 1880, tradition dictated that a candidate write a formal letter to the chairman of his party accepting the nomination. The letter addressed the major issues that were most likely to be discussed during the campaign and set out the candidate’s positions and feelings on those topics. The acceptance letter was the only direct communication from the candidate to the electorate; campaigning was done by party regulars directed by state and national party committees. The candidate stayed at home maintaining a dignified silence. Much rested on the content of the acceptance letter, and candidates always took time to prepare it carefully. Garfield was officially notified on June 8, 1880, that he had been nominated at the Republican convention in Chicago. His letter of acceptance was dated July 12, 1880.

The letter addressed several important issues—civil and voting rights, education, public finance, and internal improvements. These were followed by a very carefully written paragraph on the question of Chinese immigration. 120,000 Chinese, mostly young men and boys, had come to the United States during the 1870s. Almost all of them came as contract workers for the railroads, who paid them just pennies a day to do some of the most dangerous tasks involved in the construction of transcontinental rail lines. Especially in the west, these immigrants were seen as a threat to American labor. In his acceptance letter Garfield said that the contract system used to bring in Chinese labor was “too much like an importation to be welcomed without restriction…” He encouraged negotiation with the Chinese government to “prevent the evils likely to arise from the present situation.” And if negotiations failed, “[I]t will be the duty of Congress to mitigate the evils already felt, and prevent their increase, by such restrictions as, without violence or injustice, will place upon a sure foundation the peace of our communities and the freedom and dignity of labor.”

The question of Chinese immigration did not come up again until October 20. Garfield received a telegram that day asking about a letter the congressman had supposedly written on “the Chinese question.” Within hours he was sent the text of the letter. Written on House of Representatives stationery and dated January 23, 1880, it was addressed to an H. L. Morey of the Employers Union in Lynn, Massachusetts. In the letter, Garfield allegedly said that “individuals and companys [sic] have the right to buy labor where they can get it cheapest.” Further, the letter says that the treaty with China should remain in effect “until our great manufacturing and corporate interests are conserved in the matter of labor.” Garfield immediately denied that he had written it.

The Morey Letter, supposedly written by James A. Garfield on January 23, 1880. Quickly proved to be a forgery, the letter’s true author has never been identified. (www.handwritinganalysis.ca)

A New York newspaper called Truth published the letter the next day, saying that a friend of the Republican candidate—a prominent Democrat—had confirmed that the handwriting was Garfield’s. Democrats pounced, printing and circulating half a million copies. Letters were nailed to signposts and pasted on store windows. Thousands were sent to every town in California, where Chinese labor was the central issue of the campaign. The letter could also be a threat in working class neighborhoods in eastern industrial cities and towns. Some called it “Garfield’s death warrant.”

The Republican National Committee sent detectives to Lynn, Massachusetts where they could find no trace of a person named H. L. Morey, or of the Employers Union. Garfield meanwhile asked to see a photo reproduction of the letter, and he sent a secretary to Washington to comb his files for any correspondence from Morey or the Employers Union. Nothing was found in the files, and after seeing a facsimile of the Morey letter, Garfield finally felt able to denounce it as a “manifestly bungling attempt to copy my hand and signature.” He authorized the Republican National Committee to reproduce and distribute the letter he had sent days before, denying its authenticity. Nearly a week went by before Garfield’s handwritten response was published in newspapers, often side by side with the Morey forgery. Democrats used the delay as evidence of Garfield’s guilt, but given the visual evidence before them, most voters concluded that the Morey letter was “a stupid forgery.”

James A. Garfield’s October 23, 1880 response to the forged Morey Letter. (www.handwritinganalysis.ca)

Despite all the investigations, the author of the Morey Letter was never found. Both the newspaper, Truth, and the Democratic National Committee were suspected, but there was never enough evidence to convict anyone of fraud or forgery. The incident certainly harmed the Garfield campaign, especially on the west coast where the Democrats won Nevada and all but one electoral vote in California. But the perpetrators of the Morey hoax failed to follow the first rule of October election surprises—don’t give your opponent time to respond. There were twelve days between the appearance of the Morey letter and Election Day, plenty of time for the Republican campaign to thoroughly investigate, vigorously reply, and assure that the response reached every corner of the nation.

Puck Magazine’s July 14, 1880 issue demonstrated that both parties agreed on the need to limit Chinese immigration. This issue of Puck came out three months before the Morey Letter became an “October surprise.” (Library of Congress)

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide