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C.W. Goodyear on the Campbell Conversations

C.W. Goodyear
C.W. Goodyear

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. You know the name James Garfield, probably, but how much else do you know about him and why might he be relevant to thinking about today's politics? My guest today is a historian who has written a new definitive biography of Garfield. C.W. Goodyear’s new book is titled, “President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier”. Charlie, welcome to the program.

CW Goodyear: I agree and thank you for having me on. It's a pleasure.

GR: It's great to have you on. So, as I mentioned just a second ago, for a lot of our listeners, I think Garfield probably occupies this murky middle between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century. So, to start us off, just give us a very, very brief thumbnail sketch of Garfield's background, you know, the highlights of his career and then when and how he becomes president.

CWG: Sure. His career is, he was described, James Garfield, and I'm surprised by the way, you mentioned in the introduction that readers would probably have heard of him, many probably would not have. But James Garfield was even before his election to the presidency, he was our 20th president, he was already being described by his contemporaries as one of the most impressive, accomplished and influential Americans in the history of our nation. Rutherford Hayes categorized Garfield as being above Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln in terms of statesmen who would started so low but accomplished so much in all of our history. And so I'll give you a quick rundown. Garfield was born in a log cabin in rural Ohio. He was actually the last president to be born in a log cabin. Raised by a single mother, never really knew his dad, but by his late twenties, he was a state senator, college president and a very prominent abolitionist preacher all at the same time. And then you fast forward another year and change, and he is actually the youngest general at that time in the Union Army. And then you fast forward another year and change, and he is, by his categorization, the youngest congressman in the nation. And then you have a 17 year House career that follows which is almost a record breaker by the standards of that time in American history. And that House career, by the way, ends with him being elected to the presidency. He was the only American to ever be a congressman, a senator elect and a president elect all at the same time. He was also simultaneously a practicing Supreme Court attorney while he was in Congress. He was a prolific writer, he wrote these great columns for The Atlantic and the North American Review. He founded the first federal Department of Education as a congressman. And then on top of that, he authored an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.

GR: Wow!

CWG: So, yeah, it was an incredible, incredible career and a very long one. You know, his persistence on the national level was insane. And then he was assassinated. He was the second president to be assassinated. And I, you know, I think it's generally understood now that by virtue of being assassinated, a remarkable career was remembered for how it ended rather than its full breadth.

GR: Yeah, I want to get into some of that a little bit later. So, well, now that you've just given that answer, this question sounds a bit dumb, but I'm going to ask it anyway. So why did you decide to write this full on biography of him now?

CWG: Yeah, no that is a good question. I was working at the time as a ghostwriter in D.C., this is about five years ago. And I was very interested, just as a researcher and a writer in finding a period of our history where there was division overrunning our nation, economically, socially, politically, racially. And I wanted to find that period of our history and I wanted to find somebody who was on a national level leading in a way that was trying to overcome those divisions. So I was drawn to reconstruction in the Gilded Age. And throughout those eras, the post-Civil War and then the post post-Civil War, I found the same name appearing in all of these important national events and it was James Garfield. But his career would be distilled, this long career would be distilled into a single sentence very often in these histories. It would be, James Garfield, future president would be assassinated, you know, within his first year in office. But then, and this goes back to my prior answer, the more I dug up about him, the less fair that seemed as a record. And so I got sucked in. And, you know, by gosh, the subject just unfolded and it became, the book became far longer than a lot of us would appreciate but it was just a real blast. When you find a good subject as you know, it just possesses you. So it became a very fun odyssey from then on.

GR: Well, you mentioned this when you were talking about his career, but my understanding is that he became, for the standards of the day, and it's in your title, a radical by that standard then in his thinking about the Civil War and the treatment of those who were slaves and would become former slaves after the war. How did that radicalness of his thinking develop and what exactly were some of the basic contours of those beliefs?

CWG: Yeah, so from the very outset of the Civil War, Garfield was a radical Republican. So he was from a wing of the Republican Party that was militantly progressive on these issues of race and equality in American society. They were too, for lack of a better term, the radical Republicans were to the left of Lincoln and where Lincoln was slow to implement the abolition of slavery and slow to warm up to the ideas of civil and political equality, radicals were there right from the very beginning. And they believed wholeheartedly that the Civil War was not really a war about sovereignty, it was not really about preserving the union. In fact, it was really about addressing the root cause of this division in society, which was inequality of race. And so Garfield was a member of that faction from the very beginning. He had this firebrand progressivism that he intertwined with patriotic history. He blended progressive ideology in the civic religion of America very, very passionately. The origins of that have much to do with where he was from, northeast Ohio, the Western Reserve. And that was a militantly progressive region of the nation on these issues. It's been estimated by one historian that the Western Reserve had a higher concentration of stops on the Underground Railroad as any other part of the nation. And the social and political history of that is very, there's also a religious aspect to that as well. Garfield's brand of Christianity, the Disciples of Christ in that region, believes wholeheartedly in, you know, implementing equality of race. But when he got into Congress halfway through the Civil War, he was described as wild a radical as ever set foot in the halls of the Capitol. That's how they described the young firebrand James Garfield, “that radical James Garfield”.

GR: One famous presidential historian has claimed that for most presidents, there's a moment in their lives, often it can be an early political victory, sometimes it's a loss that informs the way they approach their careers and particularly when they become president. Was there a moment like that for Garfield? It sounds like he had so many accomplishments that maybe he didn't have that, I don’t know.

CWG: He did. I'll tell you what, it was not the loss of an election because Garfield never lost an election. He had a perfect political record, which just adds to his resume. But there was something that really did define his style of national politics from a certain, you know, as the subtitle of my book indicates, “…From Radical to Unifier”, Garfield became distinctive and it actually was the reason he was elected to the presidency in the end anyway. He became distinctive as being this remarkably conciliatory, pragmatic, ideologically flexible legislator in an increasingly partisan era. Other Republicans as varied as Ulysses Grant to Frederick Douglass to all these other reformist Republicans, they all said the same thing about James Garfield. They all said he lacked moral backbone because he was seen as being so friendly, so kind, so open minded that he was really almost useless in a pitched partisan battle. Now, when did that emerge, when did this firebrand young radical in the post-Civil War Congress change his mind? The impeachment of Andrew Johnson. There's this great line, because Garfield, you know, he, having been one of these firebrands and who believed militantly in the need for a thorough reconstruction, when he saw the impeachment of Andrew Johnson continuing on and he anticipated the political cost the radicals would pay for pursuing a pretty weak impeachment agenda, he started to back off those principles and he had this great line. He had a few great lines, and I'll spare you the details from this period. But one of them, and he's you know, he's sitting there in the trials and he writes, “I'm trying to do two things, which, if I'm to judge by the theatrics around me, are going to be very hard to accomplish. I'm trying to be a radical and not a fool.” So you see him starting to change his tune on politics in America being not about necessarily what's ideologically right, but about but perfecting the art of the possible. And that's where that change happens.

GR: Of course, that has no relevance to anything today.

CWG: (laughter)

GR: I'm Grant Reeher. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations, and my guest is C.W. Goodyear and we're discussing his new biography of James Garfield titled, “James (President) Garfield: From Radical to Unifier”. So he was also known as a political reformer of the spoils system. So tell us a little bit about that.

CWG: Yeah, he was. So, it's really interesting because the term civil service reform, you say that to a modern audience and you think it's designed to put them to sleep. But in fact, civil service reform was the blazing grassroots political movement of the second half of the 19th century. And what it involved, the Federal Bureaucracy, our civil service system on the federal level, it was not professionalized. In fact, most wings of the federal government from clerks in local courts to local sheriffs to local tax collectors and even post office workers, these were not professional civil servants, they were political appointees. So you had political control by local congressmen of federal jobs. And that was a recipe for corruption and machine politics on a grand industrializing scale. And you saw civil servants legally and then not legally taking public money for private use, rigging elections, paying bribes to senators and congressmen in exchange for jobs. And so this idea of reforming our federal government to make federal jobs awarded, not based on politics, but just competitive examination. That was a massive movement and a very important one and a very frustrating one and Garfield was part of that. He was though, I'll say this, he was not a militant reformer during his life. He became critical to the passage of civil service reform, but during his life, he tried to, like with many issues, he tried to split between these very polarizing factions. He believed that there needed to be some standard of competitive depoliticization and professionalization of the federal government. But he also awarded cushy federal jobs to close friends of his. And whenever these clean government activists would get too up in arms and they would give him grief, Garfield would chide them for being too militant. He was somebody who believed in working with the corrupt bosses of his party rather than entirely antagonizing them. So in that shows you his type of politics in general on a very small scale, but a very important issue that he became critically connected to by virtue of how his life ended.

GR: So, I've intimated this a couple of times now, once in kind of a sarcastic way, but do you think that Garfield's relevance for today as a political figure, is it this quality of having these very deep passions, but also being a unifier, being someone that could listen to everyone and try to find compromise if that's what we want to call it, or middle ground? Is that what we take from him today, you think?

CWG: Yeah, I think his life, because I've you know, you get asked this a lot on the book tour. I think his life is a long, in part, a long, long, protracted meditation on political pragmatism. Because he is somebody who makes this shift, who changes with the political tides of the country and who becomes, as he gets older and more experienced, he becomes somebody who embodies, in both good ways and bad, what it looks like to be a pragmatic powerbroker in Washington, fighting against partisan forces who are not entirely, you know, morally clean in many cases. He, as I've described it, I didn't put this in the book, I didn't put this line in the book, which I kind of regret, but he's a great case study of what it looks like when a pathologically reasonable person is in power in Washington. Somebody who defines the desired outcome of a political or impasse or a crisis, a constitutional crisis based on how do we give everybody at the table something to walk away with and how do we keep the gears of our government turning? How do we keep the basic processes rolling on? A very patient, man, and that's not a clean story either, by the way, he is a very grey figure politically. But also, his life is a very good reminder, because he dealt, the crisis he saw in his career from Congress through the White House, it's that Mark Twain line: History doesn't repeat itself, but it sure rhymes a lot. So he's also a reminder, and I’ll end this answer on this, he is a reminder that a lot of the things that we're going through today that we call unprecedented are never entirely so, not in the history of our nation.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with C.W. Goodyear. He's a historian who's published a new biography of James Garfield titled, “President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier”. So you mentioned at the beginning he was shot early in his presidential career. How and why was he shot?

CWG: Oh, yes, okay. Well, so he was, the important background is that Garfield was catapulted to the White House half unwillingly. He was nominated spontaneously from the floor of the nominating convention for the Republican Party in 1880 because all the different factions of the Republican Party, their candidates, their declared candidates who were gunning for the presidency couldn't get a majority support. So the Republican Party was so factionalized that it needed this dark horse candidate to come out of nowhere and take the leadership post. And that might sound familiar to a lot of listeners right now. But Garfield's immediate problem, immediate, and it carried through the campaign and into his presidency, was how do you balance these factions? And there was a faction called The Stalwarts who were supreme practitioners of the spoils system. They loved manipulating and profiting those federal jobs, the civil service jobs. The Stalwarts wanted a big chunk of the federal government to control themselves. Garfield did not, and despite what he said in the campaign, he did not end up giving them as much as they expected when he became president and it led to this massive falling out. And after that fallout ended, Garfield ended up winning that fight with the Stalwarts. A mentally ill man who wanted one of these jobs and who identified as a Stalwart, came up with this kooky idea that if he shot Garfield, the new president who was a Stalwart, Chester Arthur, would be so grateful that President Arthur would give the assassin whatever job in the federal system the Stalwart assassin wanted. So it was this mix of toxic political climate, this corrupting federal patronage system, and then good old fashioned timeless mental illness. Which combined to result in Garfield being shot in downtown D.C. He was stopped for weeks by this assassin and then finally killed as he was about to get on board a train or shot as he was about to get on board a train.

GR: Wow, yeah. And ironic, really, as I think about it, that you take Abraham Lincoln, who was a martyr to the Civil War, I mean, shot because of that by John Wilkes Booth. And then Garfield, who had stronger views, ends up being shot by someone who's concerned about the spoils system. And that's this crazy idea, it's an interesting comparison about that.

CWG: In those two snapshots they show you how much the country had changed in those times and the issues that they regarded. You know, it shows you where the priorities of the country are shifting towards. It's from, you know, the winning of the civil war and civil rights, that was Booth's motivation to corrupting, you know, federal power.

GR: And you know, I saw a documentary several years ago about Garfield's assassination. I think it was a documentary, as I recall, and it focused on his medical care after the shooting. And the argument in the documentary was that the medical care was what basically killed him. I mean, if he'd have gotten good, if his doctor hadn't made all the mistakes about infection that that he made, he would have survived the shooting. Is that correct? And tell us about the aftermath.

CWG: Yes. Yes, that's generally correct. I will say a lot of these doctors did not know any better. The idea of germ theory, because Garfield, for listeners who might not know, he didn't die of the shooting per se, he actually died of the infection that developed in his body afterward. American physicians were slow converts to the idea of germ theory. They still believe that infections were caused, not by outside microorganisms, but by internal fluidic balances and that pus was actually a sign of healthy healing. So with that topsy-turvy medical knowledge, that is not a foundation for good infection care. So you did have this, he, Garfield died just awful, you know, the details are in this book. One, you know, I've gotten a lot of good reviews, but one of the ones that had a little bit of reservations was like it was a little bit too grisly when you get into how Garfield died.

GR: (laughter)

CWG: But, you know, what are you going to do? But you know, when he's shot, when he's shot in the station in D.C., the doctors on the scene, they flip him over and they immediately start burrowing into his back with unwashed fingers. They didn't believe in washing their hands. And so you have about 80 days it takes for him to, that infection to run its course. And he has great resilience throughout it. He has ups and he has downs and the country is hooked on news of how he's doing. But ultimately and tragically and it's this long, protracted drama for not just the president, but the whole nation.

GR: So you kind of go a little Cormac McCarthy there in the end of your book it sounds like.

CWG: Ah, that's interesting. You're the first person to say that.

GR: (laughter)

CWG: I disavow any comparisons. I just don't want to bring Cormac McCarthy to my level. That would be unfair to him.

GR: (laughter) If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher, and my guest is C.W. Goodyear, and we've been discussing his new biography of President James Garfield. It's titled, “President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier”. So you have the Pendleton Act, which comes after this, right?

CWG: Yes.

GR: Did his assassination lead to changes in government in the same way that, you know, Johnson was able to draw on Kennedy's assassination to push through civil rights legislation?

CWG: Yeah, absolutely. That's a really interesting comparison. So we mentioned earlier how Garfield, in life, was kind of a, he was a half-hearted reformer, not half-hearted, but a moderate one. When he died, he was immediately canonized as this martyr to the spoils system. That was the phrase that a lot of the commentators used at the time, because his assassination was seen as a product of this corrupt way federal jobs are awarded between political factions. And, you know, this assassin’s mental illness was seen as also a product of that. So he became in death an invaluable symbol to the civil service reform movement. And the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which you mentioned right there, that was signed into law by President Arthur's administration and it was a direct result of Garfield's death. And what it did was it introduced the idea of merit into the awarding of public jobs, or sorry, federal jobs for the first time. It introduced competitive examinations for Americans trying to get these federal civil service jobs. It freed federal civil servants from being forced to contribute to political campaigns in exchange for jobs and it excused them from being forced to actually participate in campaigns themselves. So they were, walls began to go up between, you know, wings of the federal government and political activity. That's all incredibly valuable in terms of the yields that's paid and is still paying to our government. Civil service reform historians have said that Garfield's death accelerated the cause by about 30 years and actually a less charitable historian has written that Garfield dead was more useful than Garfield alive to the civil service reformers.

GR: Ouch.

CWG: That might not be totally fair but the great surprise was that Chester Arthur was supporting of civil service reform after. Because Arthur was a Stalwart, he was a corrupt boss. His story is very interesting, but I won't go down that rabbit hole quite yet.

GR: (laughter) So you've kind of alluded to this a couple of times, but I've read in my limited reading about Garfield outside of your book, that many presidential historians think that Garfield could have become one of our great presidents, like the way that he was regarded in his life as you already pointed out. But that that promise was cut short by his assassination. So do you concur with that view, that there was a potential real greatness to be in the top tier of presidents?

CWG: So I'm going to stick a big old asterisks into this, and I'm going to say it's always incredibly hard to tell what could have been.

GR: Right.

CWG: And also with Garfield's legacy, the reaction to his death, the public reaction to his death was not unlike the way our nation also reacted to the Kennedy assassination. Like, the death just radically transformed the way people viewed the life. It's like setting off, as I've said, it's like setting off a firework at the end of a Broadway play. No one remembers the play, they remember the firework that went off at the end. And so the views of him, his legacy and what he could have done, I think it's always been tended to be viewed through rose colored glasses. He was widely regarded as somebody during his life who was actually not well suited for executive tendencies because he was this vacillator. He was somebody who was seen as being very easy to swing one way or another. But whether that would have led to progress or not on a lot of these key issues, I'm not entirely sure. The potential was certainly there. In his inaugural address, it just reads as a prophetic document in many ways. It's the first inaugural address that calls for universal public education in America, because education was such a transformative force in his life, in his public life, he believed in it. And so there's always going to be this worry about what would have been. But as I mentioned in the answer to your previous question, you know, reformers believe that his death was actually, he actually accomplished much more in death on that issue than he would have in life. And, you know, you can't help but wonder, he was probably going to be an incrementalist president. Whether that is the recipe for greatness or not, I don't know. But I bet he would have been somebody who had made slow progress on all these issues he still believed in.

GR: Interesting. Well, we've got a couple of minutes left. I want to try to squeeze at least two questions and if I can and the first one is more about your process of writing this and what you learned from it. Do you think there was one thing about American politics or our political history that you discovered while you were working on this book that you didn't already know before or weren't as fully appreciative of? Was there kind of an a-ha moment for you in any of this?

CWG: Yes, because the a-ha moments, there's actually a few of them, but they all regarded the exact same thing, which is in the structures of our federal system and its founding documents, in the way our legal precedent has developed over time, the recipe has held true throughout the years, since before Garfield's life, but in Garfield's life, it was especially, especially clear. You only discover loopholes when you walk through them as a nation. And one of the incidences that really brought that to light was the disputed aftermath of the election of 1876, which was the first time where in the aftermath of a presidential election, the losing side claimed fraud and threatened civil war if their candidate was not inaugurated. That was the president before Garfield, Hayes, who ended up taking the White House. But when you read the writings of these congressmen who are on the verge of, it seems an armed insurrection that's going to take Washington, inaugurate the presidential candidate by force, you know, they're saying, the questions they're asking themselves and they're debating in the Capitol is, does the vice president, you know, the president of the Senate have the right to count the votes? What exactly does that mean? Do congressmen have the right to interrupt the certification of results? And you're thinking, hmm, well, you know, so when you're you discover that not only is there precedent but, you know, in this day and age when we read the Constitution and we think creatively about what exactly it means, we've always had that problem throughout our times. And Garfield was right there front center for, you know, that election resolution and then other crises throughout that time.

GR: Fascinating. Just a few seconds left. One last question. Who or what are you working on now?

CWG: I'd like to write a biography about Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. I think he would be very interesting. And so I'm talking to his aides and I'm at his legislative center getting that stuff together. It's going to be a long, long work. But that's the next target.

GR: Oh, I hope you do that. We'll have you back on if you do that. That was C.W. Goodyear and again, his new book is titled, “President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier”. If you're looking for something a little bit different for holiday reading or for gifting, I highly recommend this book and I think you could tell from our conversation there's a lot of really interesting material in there that speaks to issues of today. Charlie, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I really enjoyed this conversation.

CWG: Oh, my pleasure. I really enjoyed it, too. Thank you so much, Grant.

GR: You've been listening to the campus conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.


Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.