Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Domestic Affairs

The great American novelist Thomas Wolfe, in his book From Death to Morning (1935), once referred to Garfield as one of the "lost presidents":

"Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, and Hayes, time of my father's time, blood of his blood, life of his life, . . . were the lost Americans: their gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together in the sea depths of a past intangible, immeasurable, and unknowable as the buried city of Persepolis. And they were lost. For who was Garfield, martyred man, and who had seen him in the streets of life? Who could believe that his footfalls ever sounded on a lonely pavement? Who had heard the casual and familiar tones of Chester Arthur? Where was Harrison? Where was Hayes? Which had the whiskers, which the burnsides: Which was which? Were they not lost?"

Struck down by an assassin's bullet just one hundred days after his inauguration, Garfield had little time to achieve much. A good deal of time was spent over one appointment, the collectorship of the Port of New York. The port served as the greatest patronage plum in the nation, as the city's harbor collected more revenue than all other American ports combined. Garfield replaced General Edwin A. Merritt, a reformer, with William H. Robertson, president pro tem of the New York Senate and a strong Half-Breed. Since the Stalwarts saw the collectorship as a reward for support during the campaign, they were outraged. Over the years, Conkling's machine had relied upon "senatorial courtesy" to select the individual to occupy this key position. By this practice, senators, rather than the President, could choose or veto federal officials from their states. For several months, the Senate of the United States was tied up. Only when Conkling and his senatorial colleague, Thomas C. Platt of New York, resigned their offices in protest did Garfield win the fight, thereby becoming the undisputed party leader.

Garfield was able to put his financial expertise, which was acquired through his congressional committee experience, to work by recalling government bonds that were paying 6 percent interest. The Treasury was able to refinance them at 3.5 percent, which saved $10 million annually—about 4 percent of the overall budget at that time.

Amid tremendous intraparty strife, Garfield managed to appoint his cabinet. In a most polarizing move, the new President insisted upon having James G. Blaine as secretary of state. In the important Treasury post, Garfield broke openly with Conkling when he appointed William Windom of Minnesota; Garfield insisted that he wanted someone free from the influence of eastern bankers. Garfield appointed the son of Abraham Lincoln, Robert T. Lincoln, as his secretary of war, principally because of the prestige associated with the Lincoln name. For attorney general, Garfield named Wayne McVeagh, a Philadelphia lawyer and a member of the anti-Grant faction of the party. The sixty-seven-year-old Samuel J. Kirkwood, wartime governor of Iowa, took the Interior slot while William Henry Hunt, an attorney from New Orleans, was chosen as secretary of the Navy.

Thomas L. James, postmaster of New York, assumed the postmaster general's office. James had been a Stalwart, but he was loyal to Garfield. In 1881, the Post Office Department was the largest department in the federal government, housing over half the federal bureaucracy. Not surprisingly, it was prone to much corruption. As Garfield assumed the presidency, what was known as the Star Route Scandal erupted. It centered on the granting of federal contracts to private stagecoach and wagon agencies involved in serving isolated areas of the West. The affair shocked the nation, implicating members of Garfield's own party in the sale of postal route contracts in return for payoffs.