Like most Ephs, I came into Williams knowing almost nothing about our presidential alumnus, James A. Garfield (Class of 1856). But during my first Winter Study, I read a book called Destiny of the Republic, which chronicles the lives of Garfield, his assassin and Alexander Graham Bell, interweaving them into an incredibly compelling narrative. It may not sound like a page-turner, but it was, and I’m not someone who reads outside of classes. Garfield is best known for being assassinated in his first year in office, and while that makes for an interesting story on its own, he should be recognized among Ephs for his accomplishments during his life.
In general, I would argue that too much attention is paid to presidents in American history, often at the expense of understanding this country’s social foundations. But Garfield was different from many leaders of his day. He understood the social context of post-Civil War America and recognized the barriers that inhibited millions from succeeding. At his inauguration, Garfield paraded down the streets of the capital with his mother on one side of him and Frederick Douglass on the other. His mother, who had raised him alone in poverty, represented the struggle of the everyday poor American, while Douglass represented the progress of the millions of Americans who had been held in slavery less than two decades earlier.
Garfield’s inaugural address was revolutionary by 1881 standards. An editorial in The Washington Post from this past Presidents’ Day noted it as an “impassioned defense of civil rights, the likes of which was not to be made by another American president for nearly a century.” Indeed, Garfield made it clear that he would do everything in his power to destroy the emerging laws and practices that would later be known as Jim Crow. In particular, he spoke of the importance of ensuring black suffrage. Garfield, known as a scholar-president who worked a series of odd jobs to finance his own studies, stressed universal education as the best way to bring about racial equality and promote social mobility for all. In this, he was also ahead of his time.
James Garfield was the embodiment of the values we share as a community at the College. He held education as a fundamental tool for social liberation and advocated equality and reconciliation to heal a broken nation. Had he acted on the sentiments expressed in his inaugural address, Garfield may well have been remembered on par with Lincoln. And unlike Lincoln, Garfield never sought the presidency; his party nominated him against his will and he did not campaign. When he won, he lamented the loss of his private life in Ohio. He was a public servant, not a politician.
But how is Garfield remembered here at Williams? You may think of Garfield House as evidence of his legacy. However, it is ambiguous whether the building was named for him or for his son, who was later President of Williams. A plaque put up in 2010 by College Council (CC) calls it the “James A. Garfield House,” but the Facilities website states clearly, “Garfield House… was named after the ninth President of Williams College, Harry Augustus Garfield, Class of 1885.” Even the current plaque devotes equal time to discussing Harry and James Garfield. I would guess that the Facilities record is accurate because its website lists the namesake for every campus building and because it predates CC’s plaque. Regardless, Garfield’s legacy at Williams is, at most, the name of one of the least desirable dorms on campus.
From a comparative perspective, Williams gives less attention to its presidential alumnus than any other institution I could find. For example, before he came to Williams, Garfield studied at Hiram College, which established the Garfield Institute for Public Leadership “to exemplify Garfield’s dedication to public service.” Even the alma mater of the one president who served a shorter term than Garfield has a page on his college’s website devoted to his legacy – and he didn’t even graduate. And the presidents we often remember as some of the worst in history, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, are recognized by their alma maters in the form of a museum and library and a residence hall, respectively (and the website for this residence hall has a paragraph devoted to discussing Buchanan’s accolades). Meanwhile, Amherst has two buildings named for Calvin Coolidge. Are we really going to let Amherst beat us on this? I mean, our president is way cooler than Silent Cal.
Samuel Green ’15 is a political economy major from Cohasset, Mass. He lives in Morgan.