Assess the achievements of the Garfield Presidency of 1881.



James Garfield was president of the United States for a little less than eight months (or 200 days), which makes him the second-shortest serving president after William Henry Harrison. For almost the whole period he was either comforting his extremely ill wife, or suffering the aftermath of an assassination attempt. It is therefore remarkable that his Administration had any achievements at all. Nevertheless, serious reform of the Post Office, the Civil Service and of the conventions involving presidential deference to the Senate all occurred as a result of Garfield’s initiatives. Garfield managed a reduction of bond payments on the United States debt that saw interest rates cut from 6% to 3.5%, and also promoted African American figures and interests at a time when there was political sense in ignoring that constituency.

It is also possible to talk to the circumstances of Garfield’s election in term of two key achievements. Garfield’s ‘dark horse’ nomination effectively prevented the nomination of John Sherman, Ulysses Grant, or James G. Blaine. This served to prevent the continuing break-up of a notoriously fissiparous party, and the election of a manifestly corrupt and incapable one. 

Republicans had emerged as a united force in 1856. They split for most of 1864, with one faction backing Ben Butler, before reuniting over Lincoln. They were then held together, despite tensions over gold, tariffs, western expansion, and civil rights, by an organised campaign against their own vice-presidential nominee of 1864, Andrew Johnson. This campaign was clearly orchestrated, principally by Speaker of the House Thaddeus Stevens. A bare reunion allowed the election of Ulysses Grant, before another split in 1872 into the Republican and Liberal Republican parties, before the election of 1876. Against all of this, a prolonged Civil War was fought, Reconstruction was botched, Indian wars amounting to near-genocide started, massive scandals such as Credit Mobilier arose, and the 'first' Great Depression (that of 1873) took hold. It is not comforting, given this record, to think of what an utterly cynical and pro-actively racist Democratic Party, or a Republican faction, would have done.

James Garfield, however, could win or command the attention and loyalty both of Grant’s ‘Stalwart’ faction and Blaine’s ‘half breeds’ as well as the acquiescence of Sherman’s Ohio Fixers and, for the sake of the election, New York’s Roscoe Conkling. When one considers that, even so, Garfield almost lost the general election in 1880, the sense in which Garfield prevented a Democratic ‘redemption’ with the renewed national tensions that entailed can be grasped. With a united party, Garfield managed 1,898 votes more than his opponent, Winfield Scott Hancock. Though this was exaggerated in the Electoral College, a Republican split that allowed Hancock two of either New York, Pennsylvania, or Indiana would have given the Democratic nominee the election. The Democratic Party of Southern ‘redeemers’ and deeply corrupt Northern fixers against which even Grover Cleveland was fighting in Buffalo would have been in power, and the nation’s finances, instead of descending from a 6% to a 3.5% bond yield, would have been thrown into chaos by a party committed to Silver and even monetisation of the Greenback, as it had been in fusion with the Greenback Party.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
The second key achievement of Garfield’s election, which was sadly one of barely realised potential, was the demonstration that an individual personally committed to Civil Rights could still be elected deep in the middle of the gilded age. Garfield was elected in the teeth of a racist campaign which suggested that he would unpick the results of the 1876 compromise and seek to appoint black men to prominent positions—which was true—and that he would ‘flood’ the country with Chinese immigration, which was not. The origin of both issues was the Democratic Party, whose operatives were committed to a blend of ethnic fear-mongering and Southern racialism that sat atop the reversal of reconstruction. In office, however, Garfield managed to make ringing calls for civil rights, including his inaugural address. In addition, he indicated where his future administration might have taken the country by appointing Frederick Douglass to an executive job, as well as former senator Blanche K. Bruce, John Langston, and Robert Elliot. All were African-American; Douglass, the great leader of abolitionism, Bruce and Elliot two of the five black people to serve in Congress until the 1960s. Seen in this light, Garfield’s support for federal education, especially of the poor regardless of colour, and his encouragement of the Virginia Readjuster biracial coalition offer a glimpse of what was cut short with his death. In conversation with Secretary of State Blaine, Garfield had apparently indicated that he wished to use the anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown to launch a major call for the enforcement of civil rights, although of course the sincerity and validity of such aspirations are difficult to prove.                                                                                                                                                                       
The signature achievement of Garfield in office, of course, was the institutional strengthening of the presidency. The office had evolved rapidly under Lincoln into one in which there was an expectation of presidential action over two terms (Grant had in fact sought three). This was a long-term process as the expansion of the Union, and the emergence of domestic and foreign challenges brought attention to the powers of a Chief Executive who was also Commander-in-Chief. It was also inevitable, given the way in which the Senate became larger and less suited to its own ‘executive sessional’ war-declaring or treaty-ratifying roles as each new state was added. Until 1912, the Senate was also appointed by state legislatures that were seen as corrupt or inscrutable in their selections, which made for a degree of delegitimisation.

Garfield, in his short time in office, was forced into taking advantage of this point by the intransigence and self-delusion of the ‘stalwart’ faction, and particularly of Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. To this extent the attribution of an achievement to Garfield or to his administration should be qualified but not erased. Garfield deliberately chose to pick an honest man for the position of Collector of the Port of New York. Given that US revenues at the time were not raised from an income tax (which would be illegal until the sixteenth amendment in 1913) the monies raised by taxation at the ports were vital to the federal government. Over time, the understanding arose that the New York portion of this income in particular could be skimmed by political appointees and machines. By challenging this proposition, Garfield was taking a brave and reforming stand of the sort that his vice-president would never, for instance, have individually made since Chester Arthur was a creature of precisely these sorts of machines.

Garfield’s behaviour over the Port Authority fight also distinguished him from his immediate predecessors in that they reflected an Administration concern for the future growth of American power which many historians have wrongly seen as separate from tariff concerns. In this, he and the Secretary of State (as was the nineteenth century tradition) very much worked as a team. Blaine believed in using US economic interests to expand the reach of the United States, and then using the revenue from improved trade to develop the Navy whilst supporting the Army in the west. He and Garfield both argued for a more interventionist and activist American attitude to South America. In that regard, Blaine defended US exports of pork and other meat to Europe, developed close ties with Korea, and recognised the government of Madagascar. The Administration also pursued a policy of attempting to retreat from the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty which allowed for multiple investors in a Panama Canal, in favour of US interests. Most of these activities required presidential control, or at least oversight, of US trade and the ports, and that the Senate’s grip on ports (with the attendant corruption and diversion of money) be broken. That is what the Garfield Administration did.

In addition to achievements on election and in office, the Garfield Administration enjoyed a very strong legacy in the form of civil service reform. In other contexts, it has not been seen as an administration achievement for the president to die and inspire his successor to do something, unless very clear plans existed; John Kennedy’s limited 1963 commitment was often credited with the ultimate responsibility for Lyndon Johnson’s sweeping Civil Rights reform in 1964, for instance, whereas Franklin Roosevelt is not often seen as responsible for Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Such analyses are tendentious, in that, like counterfactuals, they presume that the successor of the president was acting to fulfil a legacy rather than to build one of his own, with his own powers. Often, the most that can be written is that the death and support in life allowed the successor a fair wind to get their own proposals moving. (Of course such a statement must be qualified by the lack of any obvious act of self-sacrifice in presidential history).  

Seen in such a light, Chester Arthur’s championing of what became the Pendleton Reform Act can be said to have been inspired by Garfield but won by Arthur. The extent of the inspiration is not really hard to gauge; there is no way any serious observer would ever have suspected Chester Arthur of being a reformer of the spoils system and an advocate of its replacement by civil service exams if it were not for James Garfield’s example and memory. That he was not, was after all why Arthur was put on the ticket in 1880.

The assessment of posthumous achievement thus becomes a kind of apophatic theology, in which things are described by reference to what they are not. Arthur was not originally a reformer; therefore his reforms were encouraged by Garfield’s inspiration. A more sophisticated analysis might suggest that ‘everyone grasped the importance of reform as an issue in the 1882 mid-term elections, but Arthur went beyond supporting a limited reform’. This foundation would actually allow a formulation somewhere near the truth, which was that Arthur acted within the letter and beyond the spirit of the limited Pendleton reform passed under his administration to appoint Federal Civil Service commissioners who were honest, to extend the new rules about selection by ability to more than the minimum 10% of offices, and to gain the support of other reformers, despite his own record. In that regard there was a startling continuity of trajectory between Arthur and his predecessor which can be said to be a result of Garfield’s inspiration, but also of Arthur’s own character.


Eight Presidents have died in office, four as a result of fatal assassination attempts. It is unsurprising that the deaths of three of the latter—Lincoln, Kennedy and Garfield—have given rise to a small industry of ‘what ifs’ in which speculation about what they would have done is built upon their behaviour, stated principles, and perceived direction whilst in office. The achievements of James Garfield—holding the Republican Party together, leading it to victory, and governing in a spirit of reform whilst calling for civil rights and American expansion—are relatively clear. Their posthumous inspiration and elevation of Chester Arthur from the hack that he could have been is further agreed. The question which will always be asked and never really answered, however, is whether a two-term Garfield may have moved to a version of the Theodore Roosevelt administration, with far more stability, and without the trade union and monetary disputes that marred Cleveland’s terms or the Philippines and Indian issues which disgraced his successors before Roosevelt, whilst precluding segregation and Plessey v Ferguson and all the historical difficulties for the moral condition of the United States that they entailed. We shall never, of course, be able to tell.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

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