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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 870

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This is the grave of Lindley Garrison.

Born in Camden, New Jersey in 1864, Garrison grew up pretty well off. His father was a prominent Episcopalian minister in the area and his brother would become a judge on the New Jersey state Supreme Court. He finished his high school education at Exeter like any good future elite and then was on to Harvard. He got a law degree at Penn and passed the bar in 1886. Basically, Garrison became a New Jersey power player. He was a leading Democrat in the state, one of the real swing states of the era. He became a partner at one of the state’s leading firms, became the state’s vice-chancellor in 1904, and was a close colleague of Woodrow Wilson.

It’s Wilson why we remember Garrison at all today. For no particularly good reason–certainly not qualifications–Wilson named Garrison Secretary of War in 1913. This was just cronyism. Garrison had no relevant experience. But hey, good thing that the world wasn’t about to blow up! Garrison himself had no idea why he was selected, though he certainly wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity. As Oswald Garrison Villard later remembered, Garrison said “he knew no more about the army than the man on the moon.”

As it turned out, whereas Wilson at least sort of wanted to keep America out of wars, at least at first, Garrison was all about using the American military to its maximum. He really wanted to invade Mexico, much more so than Wilson did. Of course, Wilson did eventually invade Mexico, sending troops to Veracruz in one of the many unjust invasions of Latin America during this era. In fact, the Wilson administration sent a lot of Marines to a lot of Latin America. Garrison was if anything more responsible for this than Wilson (though obviously the buck stops with the president). Garrison wanted to continue colonizing the Philippines for an indefinite time while Wilson wanted eventual independence. He did prove to be an effective administrator and evidently had the respect of the leading officers on this issue. Garrison was also more aggressive than Wilson in pushing for a standing army to prepare for World War I. Here he might have been right, but he was well out in front of what was politically possible in 1916. When Wilson eventually supported an alternative to his standing army plan, Garrison resigned in disgust. There was a political goal here–Garrison wanted to shake up the nation toward preparedness. It definitely got headlines. But Wilson did not miss having him around. Newton Baker replaced him, who was a more pliant Wilsonian.

Garrison went back to New Jersey and his law practice. In 1918, he became receiver of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, which ran the train lines there and in Queens. He continued doing that until 1923, when he retired. He died in 1932 in New Jersey.

It’s hard to imagine a more irrelevant Secretary of War than Garrison, especially given the times. Though the bar here is not high.

Lindley Garrison is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of War, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Newton Baker is in Cleveland and John Weeks is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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