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Richard Garfield Luck Vs Skill Essay

Today I’m following-up on a twitter discussion I recently had with Kory Heath, inventor of the miraculous game-cum-teaching-tool Zendo, among others.

The question under debate: does randomness in games limit skill?

Kory, who voted nay, cited a talk by Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield in which he uses a toy game called Rando-Chess to argue randomness doesn’t limit skill (relevant part starts at 2:39):

Rando-Chess is the same as normal Chess, except after the game is over, the players roll a die and if it comes up “1”, the winner becomes the loser and vice-versa. Though Rando-Chess has more randomness than Regular Chess, it has equal skill, since you can apply all your Chess knowledge to improve your chances of winning Rando-Chess. This seems to demonstrate randomness doesn’t limit skill.

I told Kory wasn’t so sure. He asked where my doubts lay but I couldn’t explain them without writing scores of tweets, so I told him I’d reply via blog. And Lo! I’m actually following through.

Before I get to my argument, two caveats:

1. I’m not sure what camp I’m in and my argument below could be bunk. I just want to explore the possibility that Garfield’s argument papers over some complexity.

2. For soon-to-be apparent reasons, my argument only applies to strategy games, by which I mean games whose first aim is to get players grappling with interesting strategy/tactics stuff in an attempt to win. It’s not a universal argument about the role of randomness in games, or even in orthogames (the games about which Garfield made his claims).

Randomness Limits Skill…Sometimes

Let’s start with the following claim: Rando-Chess is bad. Including randomness in the way Rando-Chess does makes the game worse than normal Chess (a claim Garfield himself makes in his talk).

If I played Rando-Chess, and won the Chess game but lost on the die-roll, I’d be frustrated I outplayed my opponent but lost anyway on a single random event which negated in one instant all my prior decisions.

If that’s not frustrating enough for you, let’s replace Rando-Chess with Super-Rando-Chess. In Super-Rando-Chess, we use a 100-sided die. If the die lands on any number from 1 to 49, the winner becomes the loser and vice-versa. All arguments that apply to Rando-Chess also apply to Super-Rando-Chess, and the two games are bad in the same way. One is just more bad in that way than the other.

But why should it matter if these games are bad? The Rando-Chess’ quality should have no bearing on the logic of Garfield’s argument regarding skill, right? Alas, I think it might!

What if, to make a good strategy game that includes randomness, it must be incorporated in such a way that it does limit skill? Below I explain why I think it could be true. My case consists of two contentions:

Contention #1: for randomness to make a strategy game better rather than worse, it must be difficult for a player to determine the respective extents to which random events and her own choices determine the outcome of each game.

Why? Imagine losing a game which conforms to this requirement. When you lose, since you’re unsure what led your loss, instead of getting frustrated, you think about what you could have done differently, and to tease apart the factors involved. The game gets you thinking about strategy, which is the the point of a strategy game.

On the other hand, if you know why you lost, you have the same problem as in Rando-Chess: when you lose due to some random event(s), you’ll know it, and it’ll be frustrating for the same reason Rando-Chess is frustrating: it negated your choices and you know it.

This is why my argument only applies to strategy games: if strategy isn’t the main focus of a game, the quality isn’t necessarily hurt if randomness diminishes the importance of strategy. Many games focus more on the “thrill of finding out what happens”, to create a vivid story or a gambling atmosphere, etc, where that’s the case. Contention #1 therefore doesn’t apply there. 

Contention #2: the harder it is to distinguish the effects of your own choices from those of random events on a game’s outcome, the harder it is to accrue skill. 

The harder it is to know how your choices affected a game’s outcome, the harder it is to know how to change them in the future, and thus the harder it is to improve. If I’m examining the choices I made in a game I lost, how do I know if I made bad choices or if I got unlucky? If I can’t distinguish the effects of randomness from my own choices on the outcome, I’m stuck.

As a result, the rate at which I can accrue skill is limited and that limits the ceiling on the skill I can reach for a game with the time I have to play and study it. The difference in skill between the best players and average players will not be as large as it is for games where it’s easier to distinguish the effects of random events and choice, or for games without randomness.

Put contentions #1 and #2 together, and you get this:

Good strategy games incorporate randomness such that it’s hard to distinguish the effects of player choice vs. randomness, which limits the rate at which players can accrue skill, which limits skill. Ergo, randomness limits skill in good strategy games.

I wonder if Garfield would agree. There’s another essay on the same topic where he says “The reward for skill depends on how much luck there is in a game…“, which suggests he might be open to my feedback-centric argument.

Anyway I sense I haven’t fully thought this through and may be problematic assumptions lurking. For example:

Maybe knowing you got screwed by randomness isn’t the problematic as I’ve claimed. Maybe I’m overgeneralizing from my own preferences. In fact, in Garfield says randomness should make you feel that, when you lose, you’re unlucky, but when you win, it’s due to skill. On the other hand, while that may be true for many sorts of players, I doubt it’s true for strategy lovers. After all, it’s this “knowing you got screwed” quality that makes Rando-Chess a bad game.

Another assumption is, when I say skill, I’m referring to skill real humans can acquire in practice, not skill “in the game” but out of human reach. For example the best Chess engines now play more than 500 ELO points better than the best humans, and some of that extra skill may be impossible for humans to acquire. My contention #2 above doesn’t apply to this sort of theoretical skill. Which kind of skill should we be talking about?

If you can bring other such assumptions to light in the comments I’d be grateful.

Side note: Everyone knows Reiner Knizia is one of the great game designers. What makes his games so good? One feature of many is they make it very hard to know where skill ends and luck begins. In fact Knizia’s games inspired my idea that games should exhibit this quality. Tip o’ the old hat to the master.

Nick Bentley

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Published by Nick Bentley

With Great Hair Comes Great Responsibility. Former cofounder of Move 38. Current game designer/developer/marketer at North Star Games. Terrified of Bears. View all posts by Nick Bentley


"James Garfield" redirects here. For other uses, see James Garfield (disambiguation).

James A. Garfield

Brady-Handy photograph of Garfield, taken between 1870 and 1880

20th President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1881 – September 19, 1881
Vice PresidentChester A. Arthur
Preceded byRutherford B. Hayes
Succeeded byChester A. Arthur
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 19th district
In office
March 4, 1863 – November 8, 1880
Preceded byAlbert G. Riddle
Succeeded byEzra B. Taylor
Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations
In office
March 4, 1871 – March 4, 1875
Preceded byHenry L. Dawes
Succeeded bySamuel J. Randall
Chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services
In office
March 4, 1869 – March 4, 1871
Preceded byTheodore M. Pomeroy
Succeeded bySamuel Hooper
Chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs
In office
March 4, 1867 – March 4, 1869
Preceded byRobert C. Schenck
Succeeded byJohn A. Logan
Personal details
BornJames Abram Garfield
(1831-11-19)November 19, 1831
Moreland Hills, Ohio, U.S.
DiedSeptember 19, 1881(1881-09-19) (aged 49)
Elberon, New Jersey, U.S.
Cause of deathAssassination
Resting placeJames A. Garfield Memorial, Cleveland, Ohio
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Lucretia Rudolph (m. 1858)
Children7, including Eliza Arabella ("Trot"), Harry Augustus ("Hal"), James Rudolph, and Abram
ParentsAbram Garfield
Eliza Ballou
Military service
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1861–1863
RankMajor General
Commands42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry
20th Brigade, 6th Division, Army of the Ohio

American Civil War

James Abram Garfield (November 19, 1831 – September 19, 1881) was the 20th President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1881, until his assassination later that year. Garfield had served nine terms in the House of Representatives, and had been elected to the Senate before his candidacy for the White House, though he declined the Senate seat once he was elected president. He is the only sitting House member to be elected president.[1]

Garfield was raised by his widowed mother in humble circumstances on an Ohio farm. He worked at various jobs, including on a canal boat, in his youth. Beginning at age 17, he attended several Ohio schools, then studied at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, graduating in 1856. A year later, Garfield entered politics as a Republican. He married Lucretia Rudolph in 1858, and served as a member of the Ohio State Senate (1859–1861). Garfield opposed Confederate secession, served as a major general in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and fought in the battles of Middle Creek, Shiloh, and Chickamauga. He was first elected to Congress in 1862 to represent Ohio's 19th District. Throughout Garfield's extended congressional service after the Civil War, he firmly supported the gold standard and gained a reputation as a skilled orator. Garfield initially agreed with Radical Republican views regarding Reconstruction, but later favored a moderate approach for civil rights enforcement for freedmen.

At the 1880 Republican National Convention, Senator-elect Garfield attended as campaign manager for Secretary of the TreasuryJohn Sherman, and gave the presidential nomination speech for him. When neither Sherman nor his rivals – Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine – could get enough votes to secure the nomination, delegates chose Garfield as a compromise on the 36th ballot. In the 1880 presidential election, Garfield conducted a low-key front porch campaign, and narrowly defeated Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock.

Garfield's accomplishments as president included a resurgence of presidential authority against senatorial courtesy in executive appointments, energizing American naval power, and purging corruption in the Post Office, all during his extremely short time in office. Garfield made notable diplomatic and judiciary appointments, including a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He enhanced the powers of the presidency when he defied the powerful New York senator Roscoe Conkling by appointing William H. Robertson to the lucrative post of Collector of the Port of New York, starting a fracas that ended with Robertson's confirmation and Conkling's resignation from the Senate. Garfield advocated agricultural technology, an educated electorate, and civil rights for African Americans. He also proposed substantial civil service reform, eventually passed by Congress in 1883 and signed into law by his successor, Chester A. Arthur, as the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.

On July 2, 1881, he was shot at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington D.C. by Charles J. Guiteau, a lawyer and writer with a grievance. The wound was not immediately fatal for Garfield, but his doctors' uncleaned and unprotected hands are said to have led to infection that caused his death on September 19. Guiteau was convicted of the murder and was executed in June 1882; he tried to name his crime as simple assault by blaming the doctors for Garfield's death. With his term cut short by his death after only 200 days, and much of it spent in ill health trying to recover from the attack, Garfield is little-remembered other than for his assassination. Historians often forgo listing him in rankings of U.S. presidents due to the short length of his presidency.


James Garfield was born the youngest of five children on November 19, 1831, in a log cabin in Orange Township, now Moreland Hills, Ohio. Orange Township had been in the Western Reserve until 1800, and like many who settled there, Garfield's ancestors were from New England, his ancestor, Edward Garfield immigrating from Hillmorton, Warwickshire, England, to Massachusetts in around 1630. James' father Abram had been born in Worcester, New York, and came to Ohio to woo his childhood sweetheart, Mehitabel Ballou, only to find her married. He instead wed her sister Eliza, who had been born in New Hampshire. James was named for an older brother, dead in infancy.

In early 1833, Abram and Eliza Garfield joined the Church of Christ, a decision that would help shape their youngest son's life. Abram Garfield died later that year; his son was raised in poverty in a household led by the strong-willed Eliza. James was her favorite child, and the two remained close for the rest of his life. Eliza Garfield remarried in 1842, but soon left her second husband, Warren Belden (possibly Alfred Belden), and a then-scandalous divorce was awarded against her in 1850. James took his mother's side and when Belden died in 1880, noted the fact in his diary with satisfaction. Garfield enjoyed his mother's stories about his ancestry, especially his Welsh great-great-grandfathers and his ancestor who served as a knight of Caerffili Castle.

Poor and fatherless, Garfield was mocked by his fellow boys, and throughout his life was very sensitive to slights. He escaped through reading, devouring all the books he could find. He left home at age 16 in 1847. Rejected by the only ship in port in Cleveland, Garfield instead found work on a canal boat, responsible for managing the mules that pulled it. This labor would be used to good effect by Horatio Alger, who penned Garfield's campaign biography in 1880.

After six weeks, illness forced Garfield to return home and, during his recuperation, his mother and a local education official got him to promise to postpone his return to the canals for a year and go to school. Accordingly, in 1848, he began at Geauga Seminary, in nearby Chester Township. Garfield later said of his childhood, "I lament that I was born to poverty, and in this chaos of childhood, seventeen years passed before I caught any inspiration ... a precious 17 years when a boy with a father and some wealth might have become fixed in manly ways."

Education, marriage and early career[edit]

At Geauga Academy, which he attended from 1848 to 1850, Garfield learned academic subjects he had not previously had time for. He shone as a student, and was especially interested in languages and elocution. He began to appreciate the power a speaker had over an audience, writing that the speaker's platform "creates some excitement. I love agitation and investigation and glory in defending unpopular truth against popular error." Geauga was co-educational, and Garfield was attracted to one of his fellow students, Lucretia Rudolph, whom he later married. To support himself at Geauga, he worked as a carpenter's assistant and as a teacher. The need to go from town to town to find a place as a teacher disgusted Garfield, and he thereafter developed a dislike of what he called "place-seeking", which became, he said, "the law of my life." In later years, he would astound his friends by letting positions pass that could have been his with a little politicking. Garfield had attended church more to please his mother than to worship God, but in his late teens underwent a religious awakening, and attended many camp meetings, at one of which he was born again. The next day, March 4, 1850, he was baptized into the Disciples by being submerged in the icy waters of the Chagrin River.[a]

After leaving Geauga, Garfield worked for a year at various jobs, including teaching. Finding that some New Englanders worked their way through college, Garfield determined to do the same, and first sought a school that could prepare him for the entrance examinations. From 1851 to 1854, he attended the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later named Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio, a school run by the Disciples. While there, he was most interested in the study of Greek and Latin, but was inclined to learn about and discuss any new thing he encountered. Securing a position on entry as janitor, he was hired to teach while still a student. Lucretia Rudolph had also enrolled at the Institute, and Garfield wooed her while teaching her Greek. He developed a regular preaching circuit at neighboring churches, in some cases earning a gold dollar per service. By 1854, Garfield had learned all the Institute could teach him and was a full-time teacher. Garfield then enrolled at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, as a third-year student, given credit for two years' study at the Institute after passing a cursory examination. Garfield was impressed with the college president, Mark Hopkins, who had responded warmly to Garfield's letter inquiring about admission. He said of Hopkins, "The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log with a student on the other." Hopkins later stated about Garfield in his student days, "There was a large general capacity applicable to any subject. There was no pretense of genius, or alternation of spasmodic effort, but a satisfactory accomplishment in all directions." After his first term, Garfield was hired to teach penmanship to the students of nearby Pownal, Vermont, a post whose previous incumbent was Chester A. Arthur.

Garfield graduated from Williams in August 1856 as salutatorian, giving an address at the commencement. Garfield biographer Ira Rutkow pointed out that the future president's years at Williams gave Garfield the opportunity to know and respect those of different social backgrounds, and despite his origin as an unsophisticated Westerner, he was liked and respected by socially conscious New Englanders. "In short", as Rutkow later wrote, "Garfield had an extensive and positive first experience with the world outside the Western Reserve of Ohio."

On his return to Ohio, the degree from a prestigious Eastern school made Garfield a man of distinction. He returned to Hiram to teach at the Institute, and in 1857 was made its president. He did not see education as a field that would realize his full potential. At Williams, he had become more politically aware in the intensely anti-slavery atmosphere of the Massachusetts school, and began to consider politics as a career. In 1858, he married Lucretia; they would have seven children, five of whom survived infancy. Soon after the wedding, he formally entered his name to read law at a Cleveland firm, although he did his studying in Hiram. He was admitted to the bar in 1861.

Local Republican Party leaders invited Garfield to enter politics upon the death of Cyrus Prentiss, the presumptive nominee for the local state senate seat. He was nominated by the party convention on the sixth ballot, and was elected, serving until 1861. Garfield's major effort in the state senate was a bill providing for Ohio's first geological survey to measure its mineral resources, though it failed.

Civil War[edit]

After Abraham Lincoln's election as president, several Southern states announced their secession from the Union to form a new government, the Confederate States of America. Garfield read military texts while anxiously awaiting the war effort, which he regarded as a holy crusade against the Slave Power. In April 1861, the rebels bombarded Fort Sumter, one of the last federal outposts in the South, beginning the Civil War. Although he had no military training, Garfield knew that his place was in the Union Army.

At Governor William Dennison's request, Garfield deferred his military ambitions to remain in the legislature, where he helped appropriate the funds to raise and equip Ohio's volunteer regiments. Afterward, the legislature adjourned and Garfield spent the spring and early summer on a speaking tour of northeastern Ohio, encouraging enlistment in the new regiments. Following a trip to Illinois to purchase muskets, Garfield returned to Ohio and, in August 1861, received a commission as a colonel in the 42nd Ohio Infantry regiment. The 42nd Ohio existed only on paper, so Garfield's first task was to fill its ranks. He did so quickly, recruiting many of his neighbors and former students. The regiment traveled to Camp Chase, outside Columbus, Ohio, to complete training. In December, Garfield was ordered to bring the 42nd to Kentucky, where they joined the Army of the Ohio under Brigadier GeneralDon Carlos Buell.

Buell's command[edit]

Buell quickly assigned Garfield the task of driving Confederate forces out of eastern Kentucky, giving him the 18th Brigade for the campaign, which, besides his own 42nd, included the 40th Ohio Infantry, two Kentucky infantry regiments and two cavalry units. They departed Catlettsburg, Kentucky, in mid-December, advancing through the valley of the Big Sandy River. The march was uneventful until Union forces reached Paintsville, Kentucky, on January 6, 1862, where Garfield's cavalry engaged the rebels at Jenny's Creek. Confederate troops under Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall held the town in numbers roughly equal to Garfield's own, but Garfield positioned his troops so as to deceive Marshall into believing that rebel forces were outnumbered. Marshall ordered his troops to withdraw to the forks of Middle Creek, on the road to Virginia; Garfield ordered his troops to pursue the Confederates. They attacked the rebel positions on January 9, 1862, in the Battle of Middle Creek, the only pitched battle Garfield personally commanded. At the end of the fighting, the Confederates withdrew from the field, and Garfield sent his troops to Prestonsburg to reprovision.

In recognition of his success, Garfield was promoted to brigadier general, at the age of 30. After Marshall's retreat, Garfield's command was the sole remaining Union force in eastern Kentucky, and he announced that any men who had fought for the Confederacy would be granted amnesty if they returned to their homes and lived peaceably and remained loyal to the Union. The proclamation was surprisingly lenient, as Garfield now believed the war was a crusade for eradication of slavery. Following a brief skirmish at Pound Gap, the last rebel units in the area were outflanked, and they retreated to Virginia.

Garfield's promotion gave him command of the 20th Brigade of the Army of the Ohio, which was ordered in early 1862 to join Major GeneralUlysses S. Grant's forces as they advanced on Corinth, Mississippi. Before the 20th Brigade arrived, however, Confederate forces under General Albert Sidney Johnston surprised Grant's men in their camps, driving them back. Garfield's troops got word of the battle and advanced quickly, joining the rest of the army on the second day to drive the Confederates back across the field and into retreat. The action, later known as the Battle of Shiloh, was the bloodiest of the war to date; Garfield was exposed to fire for much of the day, but emerged uninjured. Major General Henry W. Halleck, Grant's superior, took charge of the combined armies and advanced ponderously toward Corinth; when they arrived, the Confederates had fled.

That summer Garfield suffered from jaundice and significant weight loss.[b] He was forced to return home, where his wife nursed him back to health. While he was home, Garfield's friends worked to gain him the Republican nomination for Congress, although he refused to politick with the delegates. He returned to military duty that autumn and went to Washington to await his next assignment. During this period of idleness, a rumor of an extra-marital affair caused friction in the Garfield marriage until Lucretia eventually chose to overlook it. Garfield repeatedly received tentative assignments that were quickly withdrawn, to his frustration. In the meantime, he served on the court-martial of Fitz John Porter for his tardiness at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He was convinced of Porter's guilt, and voted with his fellow generals to convict. The trial lasted almost two months, from November 1862 to January 1863, and by the end of it, Garfield had at last procured an assignment as Chief of Staff to Major General William S. Rosecrans.

Chief of staff for Rosecrans[edit]

The position of Chief of Staff for a general was usually held by a more junior officer, but Garfield's influence with Rosecrans was greater than usual, with duties extending beyond mere communication of orders to duties that involved actual management of his Army of the Cumberland. Rosecrans had a voracious appetite for conversation, especially when he was unable to sleep; in Garfield, he found "the first well read person in the Army" and the ideal candidate for discussions that ran deep into the night. The two became close in spite of Garfield's being twelve years junior to Rosecrans, and their talks covered all topics, especially religion; Rosecrans, who had converted from Methodism to Roman Catholicism, succeeded in softening Garfield's view of his faith. Garfield recommended that Rosecrans replace wing commanders Alexander McCook and Thomas Crittenden, whom he believed ineffective, but Rosecrans ignored the suggestions. With Rosecrans, Garfield devised the Tullahoma Campaign to pursue and trap Confederate General Braxton Bragg in Tullahoma. After initial Union success, Bragg retreated toward Chattanooga, where Rosecrans stalled and requested more troops and supplies. Garfield argued for an immediate advance, in line with demands from Halleck and Lincoln. After a council of war and lengthy deliberations, Rosecrans agreed to attack.

At the ensuing Battle of Chickamauga on September 19 and 20, 1863, confusion among the wing commanders over Rosecrans's orders created a gap in the lines, resulting in a rout of the right flank. Rosecrans concluded that the battle was lost and fell back on Chattanooga to establish a defensive line. Garfield, however, thought that part of the army had held and, with Rosecrans's approval, headed across Missionary Ridge to survey the scene. Garfield's hunch was correct. His ride became legendary, while Rosecrans' error reignited criticism about his leadership. While Rosecrans's army had avoided disaster, they were stranded in Chattanooga, surrounded by Bragg's army. Garfield sent a telegram to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton alerting Washington to the need for reinforcements to avoid annihilation, and Lincoln and Halleck delivered 20,000 troops by rail within nine days. In the meantime, Grant was promoted to command of the western armies, and quickly replaced Rosecrans with George H. Thomas. Garfield was ordered to report to Washington, where he was promoted to major general, a commission he would resign before taking a seat in the House of Representatives. According to historian Jean Edward Smith, Grant and Garfield had a "guarded relationship", since Grant promoted Thomas to command of the Army of the Cumberland, rather than Garfield, after Rosecrans was dismissed.

Congressional career[edit]

Election in 1862; Civil War years[edit]

While serving in the army in early 1862, Garfield was approached by friends about running for Congress from Ohio's newly redrawn, heavily Republican 19th district. He was worried that he and other state-appointed generals would get obscure assignments, and running for Congress would allow him to resume his political career. The fact that the new Congress would not hold its first regular session until December 1863[c] would allow him to continue his war service for a time. Home on medical leave, he refused to campaign for the nomination, leaving that to political managers who secured it at the local convention in September 1862, on the eighth ballot. In October, he defeated D.B. Woods by a two-to-one margin in the general election for a seat in the 38th Congress.

Soon after the nomination, Garfield was ordered to report to War Secretary Edwin Stanton in Washington to discuss his military future. There, Garfield met Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, who befriended him, seeing him as a younger version of himself. The two men agreed politically, and both were part of the Radical wing of the Republican Party. Once he took his seat in December 1863, Garfield was frustrated that Lincoln seemed reluctant to press the South hard. Many radicals, led in the House by Pennsylvania's Thaddeus Stevens, wanted rebel-owned lands confiscated, but Lincoln threatened to veto any bill that would do that on a widespread basis. Garfield, in debate on the House floor, supported such legislation and, discussing England's Glorious Revolution, hinted that Lincoln might be thrown out of office for resisting the bills. Although Garfield had supported Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the congressman marveled that it was a "...strange phenomenon in the world's history, when a second-rate Illinois lawyer is the instrument to utter words which shall form an epoch memorable in all future ages."

Garfield not only favored abolition of slavery, but believed that the leaders of the rebellion had forfeited their constitutional rights. He supported the confiscation of southern plantations and even exile or execution of rebellion leaders as a means to ensure the permanent destruction of slavery. Garfield felt Congress was obliged "to determine what legislation is necessary to secure equal justice to all loyal persons, without regard to color." Garfield was more supportive of Lincoln when Lincoln took action against slavery. Early in his tenure, he differed from his party on several issues; his was the solitary Republican vote to terminate the use of bounties in recruiting. Some financially able recruits had used the bounty system to buy their way out of service (called commutation), which Garfield considered reprehensible. Garfield gave a speech pointing out the flaws in the existing conscription law: that of 300,000 called upon to enlist, barely 10,000 had, the remainder claiming exemption or providing money or a substitute. Lincoln appeared before the Military Affairs committee on which Garfield served, demanding a more effective bill; even if it cost him re-election, Lincoln was confident he could win the war before his term expired. After many false starts, Garfield, with the support of Lincoln, procured the passage of a conscription bill that excluded commutation.

Under Chase's influence, Garfield became a staunch proponent of a dollar backed by a gold standard, and was therefore a strong opponent of the "greenback"; he regretted very much, but understood, the necessity for suspension of payment in gold or silver during the emergency presented by the Civil War. Garfield voted with the Radical Republicans in passing the Wade–Davis Bill, designed to give Congress more authority over Reconstruction, but it was defeated by Lincoln's pocket veto.

Garfield did not consider Lincoln particularly worthy of re-election, but no viable alternative seemed available. "He will probably be the man, though I think we could do better." The Ohioan attended the party convention and promoted Rosecrans as Lincoln's running mate, but delegates chose Military Governor of Tennessee Andrew Johnson. Both Lincoln and Garfield were re-elected. By then, Chase had left the Cabinet and had been appointed Chief Justice, and his relations with Garfield became more distant.

Garfield took up the practice of law in 1865 as a means to improve his personal finances. His efforts took him to Wall Street where, the day after Lincoln's assassination, a riotous crowd led him into an impromptu speech to calm it: "Fellow citizens! Clouds and darkness are round about Him! His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies! Justice and judgment are the establishment of His throne! Mercy and truth shall go before His face! Fellow citizens! God reigns, and the Government at Washington still lives!" The speech, with no mention or praise of Lincoln, was according to Garfield biographer Robert G. Caldwell "...quite as significant for what it did not contain as for what it did." In the following years, Garfield had more praise for Lincoln; a year after the Illinoisan's death Garfield stated that, "Greatest among all these developments were the character and fame of Abraham Lincoln," and in 1878 called Lincoln "...one of the few great rulers whose wisdom increased with his power."


Garfield was as firm a supporter of black suffrage as he had been of abolition, though he admitted that the idea of African Americans as political equals with whites gave him "a strong feeling of repugnance."[d] The new president, Johnson, sought the rapid restoration of the Southern states during the months between his accession and the meeting of Congress in December 1865; Garfield hesitantly supported this policy as an experiment. Johnson, an old friend, sought Garfield's backing, and their conversations led Garfield to assume that differences between president and Congress were not large. When Congress assembled in December (to Johnson's chagrin without the elected representatives of the Southern states, who were excluded), Garfield urged conciliation on his colleagues, although he feared that Johnson, a former Democrat, might combine with other Democrats to gain political control if he rejoined the party. Garfield foresaw conflict even before February 1866 when Johnson vetoed a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen's Bureau, charged with aiding the former slaves. By April, Garfield had concluded that Johnson was either "crazy or drunk with opium."

The conflict between the branches of government was the major issue of the 1866 campaign, with Johnson taking to the campaign trail in a Swing Around the Circle and Garfield facing opposition within his party in his home district. With the South still disenfranchised and Northern public opinion behind them, the Republicans gained a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress. Garfield, having overcome his challengers at his district nominating convention, was easily re-elected.

Garfield opposed the initial talk of impeaching President Johnson when Congress convened in December 1866. However, he supported legislation to limit Johnson's powers, such as the Tenure of Office Act, which restricted Johnson in removing presidential appointees. Distracted by committee duties, he rarely spoke in connection with these bills, but was a loyal Republican vote against Johnson. Due to a court case, he was absent on the day in April 1868 when the House impeached Johnson, but soon gave a speech aligning himself with Thaddeus Stevens and others who sought Johnson's removal. When the president was acquitted in trial before the Senate, Garfield was shocked, and blamed the outcome of the trial on its presiding officer, Chief Justice Chase, his onetime mentor.

By the time Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson in 1869, Garfield had moved away from the remaining radicals (Stevens, their leader, had died in 1868). He hailed the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 as a triumph, and he favored the re-admission of Georgia to the Union as a matter of right, not politics. In 1871, Garfield opposed passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act, saying, "I have never been more perplexed by a piece of legislation." He was torn between his indignation at "these terrorists" and his concern for the freedoms endangered by the power the bill gave to the president to enforce the act through suspension of habeas corpus.

Tariffs and finance[edit]

Throughout his political career, Garfield favored the gold standard and decried attempts to increase the money supply through the issuance of paper money not backed by gold, and later, through the free and unlimited coinage of silver. In 1865, Garfield was placed on the House Ways and Means Committee, a long-awaited opportunity to focus on financial and economic issues. He reprised his opposition to the greenback, saying, "Any party which commits itself to paper money will go down amid the general disaster, covered with the curses of a ruined people." In 1868 Garfield gave a two-hour speech on currency in the House, which was widely applauded as his best oratory to that point; in it he advocated a gradual resumption of specie payments, that is, the government paying out silver and gold, rather than paper money that could not be redeemed.

Tariffs had been raised to high levels during the Civil War. Afterwards, Garfield, who made a close study of financial affairs, advocated moving towards free trade, though the standard Republican position was a protective tariff that would allow American industries to grow. This break with his party likely cost him his place on the Ways and Means Committee in 1867, and though Republicans held the majority in the House until 1875, Garfield remained off that committee during that time. Garfield came to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee, but it was Ways and Means, with its influence over fiscal policy, that he really wanted to lead. Part of the reason Garfield was denied a place on Ways and Means was the opposition of the influential Republican editor, Horace Greeley.

In September 1870, Garfield, who was then chairman of the House Banking Committee, led an investigation into the Black Friday Gold Panic scandal. The committee investigation into corruption was thorough, but found no indictable offenses. Garfield blamed the easy availability of fiat money greenbacks for financing the speculation that led to the scandal.

Garfield was not at all enthused about the re-election of President Grant in 1872—until Horace Greeley, who emerged as the candidate of the Democrats and Liberal Republicans, became the only serious alternative. Garfield opined, "I would say Grant was not fit to be nominated and Greeley is not fit to be elected." Both Grant and Garfield won overwhelming re-election victories.

Crédit Mobilier scandal; Salary Grab[edit]

The Crédit Mobilier of America scandal involved corruption in the financing of the Union Pacific Railroad, part of the transcontinental railroad that was completed in 1869. Union Pacific officers and directors secretly purchased control of the Crédit Mobilier of America company, then contracted with the firm to have it undertake the construction of the railroad. The grossly inflated invoices submitted by the company were paid by the railroad, using federal funds appropriated to subsidize the project, and the company was allowed to purchase Union Pacific securities at par value, well below the market rate. Crédit Mobilier showed large profits and stock gains, and distributed substantial dividends. The high expenses meant that Congress was called upon to appropriate more funds. One of the railroad officials who controlled Crédit Mobilier was also a congressman, Oakes Ames of Massachusetts. He offered some of his colleagues the opportunity to buy Crédit Mobilier stock at par value, well below what it sold for on the market, and the railroad got its additional appropriations.

The story broke in July 1872, in the middle of the presidential campaign. Among those named were Vice President (and former House Speaker) Schuyler Colfax, Grant's second-term running mate (Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson), Speaker James G. Blaine of Maine, and Garfield. Greeley had little luck taking advantage of the scandal. When Congress reconvened after the election, Blaine, seeking to clear his name, demanded a House investigation. Evidence before the special committee exonerated Blaine. Garfield had stated, in September 1872, that Ames had offered him stock, but he had repeatedly refused it. Testifying before the committee in January, Ames alleged that he had offered Garfield ten shares of stock at par value, but that Garfield had never taken the shares, or paid for them. A year had passed, from 1867 to 1868, before Garfield had finally refused it. Garfield, appearing before the committee on January 14, 1873, confirmed much of this. Ames testified several weeks later that Garfield agreed to take the stock on credit, and that it was paid for by the company's huge dividends. The two men differed over a sum of some $300 that Garfield received and later paid back, with Garfield deeming it a loan and Ames a dividend.

Garfield's biographers were unwilling to exonerate him in Crédit Mobilier, with Allan Peskin writing, "Did Garfield lie? Not exactly. Did he tell the truth? Not completely. Was he corrupted? Not really. Even Garfield's enemies never claimed that his involvement ... influenced his behavior." Rutkow wrote that "Garfield's real offense was that he knowingly denied to the House investigating committee that he had agreed to accept the stock and that he had also received a dividend of $329." Caldwell suggested that Garfield "...while he told the truth [before the committee], certainly failed to tell the whole truth, clearly evading an answer to certain vital questions and thus giving the impression of worse faults than those of which he was guilty." That Crédit Mobilier was a corrupt organization had been a secret badly kept, even mentioned on the floor of Congress, and editor Sam Bowles wrote at the time that Garfield, in his positions on committees dealing with finance, "...had no more right to be ignorant in a matter of such grave importance as this, than the sentinel has to snore on his post."

Another issue that caused Garfield trouble in his 1874 re-election bid was the so-called "Salary Grab" of 1873, which increased the compensation for members of Congress by 50 percent, retroactive to 1871. Garfield was responsible, as Appropriations Committee chairman, for shepherding the legislative appropriations bill through the House; during the debate in February 1873, Massachusetts Representative Benjamin Butler offered the increase as an amendment, and despite Garfield's opposition, it passed the House and eventually became law. The law was very popular in the House, as almost half the members were lame ducks, but the public was outraged, and many of Garfield's constituents blamed him, though he refused to accept the increase. In what was a bad year for Republicans, who lost control of the House for the first time since the Civil War, Garfield had his closest congressional election, winning with only 57 percent of the vote.[e]

Minority leader; Hayes administration[edit]

With the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in 1875, Garfield lost his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. The Democratic leadership in the House appointed Garfield as a Republican member of Ways and Means. With many of his leadership rivals defeated in the 1874 Democratic landslide, and Blaine elected to the Senate, Garfield was seen as the Republican floor leader and the likely Speaker should the party regain control of the chamber.

As the 1876 presidential election approached, Garfield was loyal to the candidacy of Senator Blaine, and fought for the former Speaker's nomination at the 1876 Republican National Convention in Cincinnati. When it became clear, after six ballots, that Blaine could not prevail, the convention nominated Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. Although Garfield had supported Blaine, he had kept good relations with Hayes, and wholeheartedly supported the governor. Garfield had hoped to retire from politics after his term expired to devote himself full-time to the practice of law, but to help his party, he sought re-election, and won it easily that October. Any celebration was short lived, as Garfield's youngest son, Neddie, fell ill with whooping cough shortly after the congressional election, and soon died.

When Hayes appeared to have lost the presidential election the following month to Democrat Samuel Tilden

Replica of the log cabin where Garfield was born
Garfield as a brigadier general during the Civil War
Middle Creek battlefield; Garfield commanded from the distant hill in the center of the photo.
General William S. Rosecrans
Salmon P. Chase was Garfield's ally until Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial.
The greenback so despised by Garfield
Garfield's handwriting on evidence used during the Gold Panic investigation in 1870
Editorial cartoon: Uncle Sam directs U.S. Senators and Representatives implicated in the Crédit Mobilier scheme to commit Hara-Kiri.

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