Benjamin T. Arrington is Site Manager at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. This interview is based on his new book, The Last Lincoln Republican: The Presidential Election of 1880 (University Press of Kansas, 2020).
JF: What led you to write The Last Lincoln Republican?
BA: Well, the simplest answer is that the University Press of Kansas asked me to write it. They first approached a friend/colleague/mentor of mine, Heather Cox Richardson, to see if she’d be interested in writing it. Fortunately for me, her plate was already full, and she was kind enough to send them my way.
I was excited to take on the project for a couple of reasons. First, I knew about the University Press of Kansas’s excellent series on presidential elections and had long hoped they would get one out about 1880, when James A. Garfield ran as the Republican candidate. I’ve lived and breathed Garfield for over eleven years now while working at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.
Secondly, I was intrigued by the prospect of having a format to work out the thesis I’d been developing for a while about Garfield as the last of the original, “first generation” Republicans to be elected president and what that meant for where the Republicans were going as a party and where it might have taken the country had Garfield lived.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Last Lincoln Republican?
BA: The Republican and Democratic parties were both in transition in 1880. James A. Garfield represented the last of the original Republicans who viewed their party as one dedicated to civil rights and at least some degree of equality—racial, economic, political—for all.
JF: Why do we need to read The Last Lincoln Republican?
BA: James Garfield is, like a lot of post-Civil War presidents, considered little more than a footnote in American history. I hope people will read this book and get a better sense of who he was and what he stood for, and why he might have been a great president had he lived.
The loss of Garfield was of course tragic for his family, but I think it was tragic for the nation as well. The Democratic Party at this point was all-in on re-establishing white supremacy in the South, and voters rejected that vision for the country’s future (albeit very narrowly) in 1880. So what Garfield—vocally anti-slavery before the Civil War, a Union general during it, and a longtime advocate for the civil rights of the formerly enslaved while in Congress—might have been able to accomplish to keep the country moving forward on civil rights instead of regressing is, to me, one of the greatest “what ifs” in American history. He had all the makings of a strong and excellent president.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BA: I am an American historian, focusing on nineteenth century politics and especially the early Republican Party. I got very interested in history as a teenager because of where I grew up: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. History was the only subject in school that interested me or in which I had any talent at all. I went to college as a history major, but frankly unsure what I wanted to do for a career. In the summer of 1994, between my junior and senior years of college, I did a fulltime, unpaid internship at Gettysburg National Military Park in my hometown. From that day on, I knew I wanted a career in the National Park Service, which I’ve been lucky to have now for the past twenty-one years. For the first ten years of that career, I worked at a park in Nebraska, where I was very fortunate to have a boss who encouraged me in my effort to get a Ph.D. in history. So, while working I also attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and got my doctorate.
History is still the only academic subject that really grabs me and for which I have any aptitude. My children know that I’m of no help when they have questions about science or math homework; fortunately, my wife is much smarter than me and can help in those subjects. I’ve loved my career in the National Park Service and as an American historian and can’t imagine doing anything else.
JF: What is your next project?
BA: I’m not sure yet. I’ve been thinking about tackling a new birth-to-death biography of James A. Garfield. The last one was published over forty years ago (Garfield, by Allan Peskin) but is still quite good. I’ve also toyed with the idea of a project that explores how different parts of the country mourned Garfield after his death.
JF: Thanks, Benjamin!