Monday, January 29, 2024

President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier (C.W. Goodyear)

James Garfield's six month presidency is noted more for the reforms that happened after his assassination than for what had happened in the few months he was alive. The assassination brought about long-needed civil service reform in the federal government, which eliminated much of the patronage and "spoils system" that had marked federal government employment in preceding decades. Garfield's life and political career were more noted for his being a leader in the early Republican party and one that pivoted at times from progressive to pragmatic. C.W. Goodyear's book President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier highlights the life and career of a man whose political moderation helped propel him to the highest office in the United States.

The Republicans in the 1870's were divided into two roughly equal factions. The Stalwarts were a more progressive branch of the party that believed heavily in political patronage and rewarding fellow Stalwarts with plum federal jobs. Half-Breeds were the opposing faction that were more moderate but believed in civil service reform. Garfield, a member of Congress from the Civil War through 1880, drifted from the Radical camp into a more moderate position as he rose in leadership within the Republican party. The battle between Stalwarts and Half-Breeds, which had paused during the Hayes administration, exploded in the 1880 Republican Convention as factions between James Blaine and Ulysses Grant vied for over thirty ballots on becoming the party’s nominee for President. Garfield emerged as a compromise candidate and won on the 36th ballot, eventually winning the Presidency. 

Garfield was generally known for being a pragmatic moderate and a reasoned voice in the Republican party. Goodyear’s book does a great job of capturing the story of a President that many of us know little about and whose administration is known more for what happened after his death than during it.