The Available Man

James Garfield's "Honest Graft"

By William Bryk

“Murder of a President,” a recent episode in the PBS series "American Experience" dealing with the assassination of President James Garfield, apparently presented him as "the John F. Kennedy of his century." (One gathers this from a review in the New York Times, not having watched the program.) Given what we now know about John F. Kennedy, the analogy is not wholly far-fetched. Garfield was intellectually curious, well-read, a splendid orator, a gifted amateur of mathematics and the classics; he was also a self-made man and a hardened professional politician.

One would not know this from the review, which quite fairly accepts the program's vision of Garfield as change agent. Perhaps he was, the most important change being the end of Reconstruction and the return of political power over the freed slaves to their former masters.

Garfield was part of the elite conspiracy that handed the Presidential election of 1876 to the loser. This is by now accepted history, part of the ongoing skein of bipartisan passive consent to electoral chicanery that has marked the post-Civil War history of both Establishment parties into our own day. As the ballots went into the boxes in 1876, Samuel Tilden, Democrat of New York, won the majority of electoral votes. The Republicans challenged the results in several Southern states, then occupied by the U.S. Army. The presence of Federal troops permitted Reconstruction -- the effective enforcement of the Constitutional amendments and statutes affording equality to the freed slaves. This was reprehensible to the Southern elites, who wanted the Negroes back in their place.

Amid rumors of renewed civil war, on February 26, 1877, four Southern Democrats and five Ohio Republicans, including Garfield, met at the Wormley House, a Washington hotel. Nothing was put on paper. It never is. They agreed that Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, would be inaugurated without disruption. He would then withdraw the Federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction. This condemned Southern blacks to a century of Jim Crow legislation and state-enforced white supremacy. Garfield, a member of an abolitionist party who had himself fought for the Union, openly believed in Negro inferiority. To him, perhaps, the freedmen were just so many niggers.

Garfield was in some ways an admirable man. His father died while he was an infant. His mother raised him alone. They were poor. He worked hard from childhood and, not being a loser, developed a powerful ambition to educate and better himself. After years of study in local schools, he worked his way into and through Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, taking his baccalaureate in 1856. Today this is a commonplace; then, it was a miracle. He taught school (he didn't enjoy the experience) and probably rejoiced at his election to the Ohio state senate in 1859. Amidst all this, he read law and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1861.

When the War Between the States erupted, he helped raise an Ohio regiment, of which he was commissioned colonel. Unlike most Union political soldiers, he actually mastered the profession of arms, largely by studying the manuals. The books, as they say, show one how to be a competent soldier, if only because each manual is addressed to a moron who, nonetheless, has to learn how to do his duty, whether as a private on guard duty or a colonel managing and leading a regiment. That is no insult to Garfield. Garfield was a fine officer, who took good care of his men, and proved successful in the field, leading his command with distinction at Shiloh.

Yet physical and moral courage are distinct things. Garfield's record as a soldier and statesman is marked by moral ambiguity. In 1862, as a brigadier general, he was appointed by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to the military commission that railroaded Major General Fitz John Porter from the Army as a scapegoat for the defeat at Second Bull Run. Stanton (who some wish had been more closely questioned about the Lincoln assassination) wanted Porter eliminated for his own reasons, political and personal. As Stanton had appointed the commission, so Porter was dismissed from the service. Sixteen years later, Porter would be wholly exonerated because the commission had adopted perjured and hearsay testimony and restored to his rank in the Army. 

As for Garfield, immediately after the verdict he was appointed chief of staff to the Army of the Cumberland. Within a few months, he was promoted to major general. One recalls Hamlet's line about hire and salary. Meanwhile, he had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first of nine terms, and retired from active duty.

Like most Representatives of his time, he accepted free shares of stock in Crédit Mobilier, the general contractor for the Union Pacific Railway, then being built with tax dollars on a cost-plus basis. Crédit Mobilier didn't actually build anything; it merely let contracts, marked up the subcontractors' bills, and forwarded them to Washington, where they were paid with little difficulty or scrutiny. As one might expect, the profits were lush and the dividends huge.  Garfield's sworn testimony over his possession of shares was economical in the actualité, to borrow a phrase from the courtroom testimony of Mrs. Thatcher's minister, Alan Clark, when describing his statements to Parliament over his government's sale of weapons to Saddam Hussein. Garfield had never taken title to the shares but he had received the dividends paid on them.

In the early 1870s, while serving as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Garfield received a $5,000 legal fee -- then equal to a Representative's annual salary -- for helping the DeGolyer Paving Company obtain paving contracts from the District of Columbia. He apparently did little more to earn his fee than write a brief and have a friendly chat with Alexander Sheppard, then the Republican political boss of the City of Washington, D.C. In 1860, some 12 years before, when Abraham Lincoln was paid $5,000 for successfully arguing a case up to the U.S. Supreme Court, that fee had been the highest ever paid an American lawyer.

DeGolyer's paving blocks were shoddy. This was only one of many scandals in the capital's municipal government during the 1870s, leading to the city's bankruptcy and Congressional abolition of home rule in 1874. Although Representatives were not prohibited from practicing law, many wondered whether the Chairman of House Appropriations -- the committee that allocated money to, among other things, the District of Columbia -- might not have exercised political influence as well as legal skill. It was, after all, the Gilded Age and conflict of interest -- "honest graft" -- ran rampant. Yet even then it stank. 

Having helped his party secure the White House in 1876, Garfield became Speaker of the House of Representatives. So he was not an unknown, and certainly no innocent, when he stepped onto the platform at the deadlocked 1880 Republican National Convention, buying time for the boys in the back room to work out a deal. He asked the delegates the rhetorical question, "…what do we want?" Back came the supposedly unexpected reply, "We want Garfield."

One who has attended a few political conventions might think it naïve to believe the reply was unexpected. One might find it more likely that the men in the smoke-filled room had chosen a fresh and acceptable warm body to replace the old warriors who had fought the convention to a standstill -- in this case, former President U.S. Grant, Senator James G. Blaine (the "Continental liar from the State of Maine"), and the respectable, boring Senator John Sherman of Ohio.

Thus Garfield became the available man, the last American president born in a log cabin, and the second to be assassinated. Along his road to glory were the shabby markers that signaled his own dishonor. He was not President long enough to make a difference in the Oval Office. We know the differences he made in American life as a soldier and a U.S. Representative. Fitz John Porter and the freedmen could have told us about them.

Published April 4th, 2016