Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stirring the Boiling Pot

James A. Garfield. White House Historical Association.

Republican James A. Garfield faced a dilemma as the Forty-sixth Congress convened in the late winter of 1879.

Called into an early special session by President Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield and other lawmakers faced a closely and bitterly divided House. In the Senate, Democrats remained in control.

Garfield, an Ohio congressman and Civil War veteran, led the GOP caucus in the House. The Republicans were in the minority, but a wild card from the 1878 elections offered the prospect of putting the GOP in control of the House with a little back-room deal making.

The wild card was the election of a number of Greenback members of Congress. The small Greenback caucus – whose exact size also remained unclear – included members from Alabama to Iowa pledged to the third party and an unknown number of sympathetic Democrats and Republicans. A handful of votes from the third party and its allies could help determine which party controlled the House.

“The political pot in the city is boiling fiercely over organization of the House,” Garfield wrote in his diary. Nevertheless, Garfield was clear in his instructions to his lieutenants: he would countenance no deal of any kind with the Greenbacks. Better to remain in the minority, Garfield decided, than do anything that might elevate the influence of the insurgent party.

When the House convened, lawmakers elected Samuel Randall of Philadelphia as speaker, and members divided thusly: Democrats 148, Republicans 130, Greenbacks, 15. Garfield noted with relief that “the boast of any strength in the New Organization calling itself the Greenback Party amounted to but little.”

Randall shared his sentiments. When Garfield met with the speaker to go over committee assignments, the speaker offered thanks “for keeping our people aloof from the Greenbackers.”

The backroom confidences shared by Randall and Garfield confirmed one of the allegations made by Rep. James B. Weaver and other Greenbacks – that Democrats and Republicans preferred to battle over Reconstruction and related issues rather than address the economic and political problems that plagued the nation’s farms and factories.

Chief among these, in the view of the Greenback Party, was the federal government’s move toward tight money. Hayes and the Republicans supported reducing the amount of paper greenback dollars in circulation and planned to resume backing them with gold.

Greenbacks and an unknown number of Democrats and Republicans opposed this policy on the grounds that it raised the value of the dollar and made it more difficult for farmers and others struggling with debt to make ends meet.

Garfield was a principled financial conservative who was nonetheless not above seizing an opportunity when it presented itself. In the early 1870s his name came up in the Credit Mobilier scandal and again in connection with allegations of influence-peddling involving a street-paving contract in Washington D.C. As agitation for easing tight money culminated in the Bland-Allison Silver bill that restored a limited supply of money into circulation, Garfield stood out as the only GOP member from Ohio to vote against the bill.

In the early months of 1880, however, as Weaver campaigned for a vote on resolutions endorsing the Greenback monetary program, Garfield’s unwillingness to deal with the Greenbacks began to change. He joshed with Weaver on the floor of the House when Thomas Nast lampooned the Iowa congressman on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. At the beginning of April, when Weaver sought out Garfield’s aid in securing a recorded vote on the resolutions, the Ohio Republican proved willing to listen.

“We stated that the Republican party was already on record against every proposition contained” in the resolution, Weaver recounted in his memoir and manifesto, A Call to Action. Democrats, on the other hand, claimed to support Greenback positions back home but resisted them in Washington.

“We asked him if he could not, in view of these facts, secure a yea or nay vote?” Weaver recalled. Garfield consulted with his Republican colleagues. “In the course of an hour,” Weaver wrote, “he reported that his side of the House would join in the demand for a record of the vote.”

On April 5, when Weaver rose to present his resolution and faced objections from Democrats, Garfield came to his aid and helped the Greenbacks get the recorded vote they wanted. In the end, the Ohio Republican decided that it served his purposes to stir the boiling pot after all.


Ackerman, Kenneth D. Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.

Mitchell, Robert B. Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver. Roseville, Minn.: Edinborough Press, 2008.

Weaver, James B. A Call to Action. Des Moines, Iowa, 1892.

McPherson, Edward. A Handbook of Politics for 1880: Being a Record of Important Political Action, National and State, from July 1, 1878, to July 1, 1880. Washington D.C.: James J. Chapman, 1880.

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