My Friend Garfield


In 1880, Joseph Stanley Brown—there was no hyphen m the name then—just short of his twenty-second birthday, had a job that almost any young man might envy, as secretary to Ohio’s Congressman James A. Garfield. A product of Washington’s public schools, Brown was self-tutored in shorthand and typewriting, the latter a new and rare skill. His grandfather was an English fugitive from debtor’s prison named Nathaniel Stanley, who adopted the name of James Brown on arrival in Baltimore but whose male descendants kept Stanley as a middle name.

Young Joseph had found work with Major John Wesley Powell, the future director of the United States Geological Survey. One day Powell’s friend, Congressman Garfield, asked for a young man who could help him with his vast correspondence. The geologist sent Brown, who at once endeared himself when he appeared unidentified before Garfield and was asked: “Well, young man, what can I do for you?” “It’s not what you can do for me, ” answered Brown, “but what I can do for you, sir. ”

Soon thereafter, the political fates whirled Brown upward. Garfield was nominated for the Presidency by the Republicans and was elected. But only four months after the inauguration a frustrated, demented notoriety-seeker shot him. After a summer of lingering agony Garfield died. [See “Murder Most Foul,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE August, 1964]

After the tragedy Brown remained close to the Garfield family. The widow asked him to put her husband’s papers in order—a task that took him more than a year. She then helped him financially to attend Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School—and said: “Joseph, you ‘ll lose that Stanley from your name if you don’t annex it permanently.” Thereupon he had himself legally renamed Stanley-Brown. Meanwhile love had ripened between him and Garfield’s only daughter, Mary, known to her intimates as Mollie. They were married m 1888. Probably at some time m the ensuing ten years, while living in Washington, he composed an autobiographical memoir containing a poignant section that described his year with Garfield as candidate, President-elect, President, and dying man. Stanley-Brown from then on pursued a career that included service on the Bering Sea Arbitration Commission, assistance to two railroad leaders, Edward H. Harnman and William H. Baldwin, and investment banking. He died in 1941

His manuscript recollections then came into the hands of his daughter, Ruth, who was married to Herbert Feis, a well-known diplomatic historian and State Department official. Ruth Feu, herself a writer and editor, remembers childhood days spent in the Garfield home at Mentor, Ohio, poring over the black-bordered newspapers that told of her grandfather’s death. She has kindly provided A MERICAN H ERITAGE with this touching portion of the unpublished work.

Garfield’s nomination was a triumph achieved in a bruising mtraparty convention fight that left the Grand Old Party sadly weakened. The Republicans had split into factions. The issues dividing the two groups were never clear-cut, but the rivalry was bitter. One controversial question was whether to continue the vigorous espousal of Negro rights, a Republican trademark in Reconstruction, or to pursue a more cautious line, aimed at cooling sectional tensions and winning conservative northern votes from the Democrats.

In June, 1880, General Garfield received the nomination for President at the Chicago convention in a most dramatic and unexpected manner. Almost immediately after the convention closed he spent a few days in Washington to gather up the loose ends. On the fifteenth of June I was passing his old home at the noon hour when he stepped out of a carriage and I stopped to congratulate him—a thing I should have done at his hotel had not the foolish pride of youth held me back. His salutation was, “Where have you been; I need all my friends now. Please stand by, old man, and look after things as usual.” I could not refrain from asking if he had been lonesome, which brought his delightful laugh. I did as he requested for two or three days and then in a state of mind bordering on ecstasy started with him for Ohio. Without my knowledge the General had again arranged matters with the Major [Powell]. Events were certainly moving at an accelerating pace for me, and every day held a new thrill.

Caring for a Presidential nominee’s correspondence in those days was no joke. There were from one hundred to three hundred letters daily, endless details to be taken care of, and many interruptions to be endured. There was no organized staff as there would be now, with expert stenographers and typists, and no telephone—only one pair of hands to hold down the job. It was drudgery, but for an impressionable youth there was great exhilaration in this game of national politics, and besides, there were frequent games of croquet for recreation (?) in those “days of innocence.”

With the election assured, came a welcome lull, and there are delightful memories of family councils in the evenings before the winter fires, when every aspect of the future was discussed from White House decorations to Cabinets. The General’s habit of mind was to try things on the dog, and very often that position fell to me but always with the privilege of barking back. It was all vastly stimulating, and one matured with an age not measured by years.

The many serious, humorous, and even ridiculous episodes of that “campaign summer” would fill a volume. The following two stand out most sharply in my memory.