TRIBUTE TO A GREAT REPUBLICAN PRESIDENT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Presidents’ Day 2016
Presidents’ Day always reminds me of President James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States. I had the pleasure of working in New York City with Jon Garfield, one of his descendants, which piqued my interest in the President and led me to conduct considerable research of his life while I was at the University of Hawaii in 2000.
James A. Garfield was extraordinarily famous at the time of his death for the promise he embodied of equal civil rights for everyone, yet the public barely knew him when I researched his papers. And still today the general public knows little of his rise from log cabin to White House, including his remarkable career as a Civil War general and Radical Republican Congressman.
He served the nation as President for a mere 200 days before he died of the unsanitary treatment of a gunshot would from an assassination attempt 80 days prior. He is mostly known today but for that tragic event, popularized by Candace Millard’s award-winning Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (2011), the basis for the 2016 PBS American Premier of ‘Murder of a President.’ Another popular biography published in 2011 is Kenneth Ackerman’s Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield .
A great deal more can and should be said about this great republican in a biography of biographies after a careful research of original documents. He hewed to the Republican Party of his day although he believed both it and the Democratic Party were moribund:
“The death of both parties is all but certain; the Democrats, because every idea they have brought forward in the past twelve years is dead; and the Republicans, because its ideas have been realized.”
It is taking both parties a long time to expire. One might say that the Republic Party died some time ago when it became the very antithesis of the republican principles its founders stood for.
What made President Garfield great to the people of his day were Great Expectation based on his valiant participation in the humanitarian struggle for the realization of a true democracy. For all they knew, the promise he represented might have been broken by Congress and the Supreme Court, and by the accidents of circumstance and time during his presidency, if he had lived to complete his term of office. We have since then often been promised change, yet wound up with so-called reform, a mere tweaking of the status quo.
It is with the Promise of Life, Liberty, and Happiness that I republish the article I published in Kansas City, Missouri, on President’s Day 2003.
TRIBUTE TO PRESIDENT JAMES ABRAM GARFIELD
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
DOWNTOWN KANSAS CITY JOURNAL
Presidents’ Day 2003
Today is a special political holiday that brings to my feeble mind the 20th president of the United States, James Abram Garfield. For some years now I have been inclined to write about this great American man, but each time I pick up my pencil, I soon lay it back down again, discouraged by the breadth and gravity of the task before me. In comparison to the life of President Garfield, my life is trivial. His deeds serve to prove that I am a moral cripple. Given my debility and creeping experience, how can I possibly understand this courageous man? And given what has already been written about him by far greater authors than me, what can I possibly add to his stature?
Yet on this President’s Day I must say something about President Garfield, no matter how slight it may be, perchance to jog the memories of all those who already know of his greatness and to prompt others to make some further inquiry into the history books. My small start may forever remain small, or I might continue at a later date with this as my foundation. However that may be, I am moved to say here and now that our past is indeed of value if we approach it rightly, not to relive it, but, when we think we have gone astray, to return to the crossroads and evaluate the forgotten paths we did not tread.
General Garfield delivered his inaugural address on the Capitol steps on March 4, 1881, and these words still ring true: “The elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people.” Alas, on July 2, 1881, President Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a deranged office seeker, while passing through the railroad depot at Washington, D.C. He died on September 19, 1881 from the effects of his wounds and the medical procedures of the day. [Not even Florence Nightingale believed in germs, but she did believe in cleanliness, drastically reducing the mortality rate at hospital in Crimea].
Since President Garfield was in office only four months, how durst I say he was one of our greatest presidents? I say so because of the promise he offered us then and which he still offers to us now, if only we would go back and pick up where he left off. By no means do I intend to discount the greatness of his life prior to taking office: indeed, that is the basis of the promise that he brought with him. That promise was not his alone, but was felt by his contemporaries as well, by American people who had in civil crisis forged their reunion in battle, then found themselves at a critical juncture in the continuing world revolution – the scientific industrial revolution. Please mind you that Garfield, like Lincoln, went from Log Cabin to White House, and you will better appreciate his times. Now, then, what better way may we proceed to understand the promise of President Garfield than with the eulogies expressed after his demise?
“Would you be beloved by your fellow citizens and your death mourned by a nation? Then imitate the illustrious dead. Be a man, good and true and without reproach, and the end shall be a glorious one,” spoke Reverend J.P. Bodfish in Boston on 25 September.
“Not even when Lincoln was slain was there such universal sympathy,” said Henry Ward Beecher on 23 September in Peekskill, New York. “Four names in the line of presidents will stand conspicuous in history: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Garfield.” And in Brooklyn on 25 September: “He was a man who united the best elements of his countrymen. He was firm, yet gentle, and in him the lion and the lamb seemed to lie down together; he was not an empty partisan, but he looked at all questions with a calm and unbiased man. He had a love for learning, and he had acquired it by hard and incessant labor. He had been bred on hardship and poverty, and he had lived by he sweat of his brow; moreover, he had been a preacher of righteousness.”
“One could see that he was poor,” reminisced Dr. Franklin Noble, an old class-mate of Garfield’s. “He began poor, and never had time to grow rich. With his talents and opportunities he remained poor, only because he would not make money corruptly.”
Elder J.Z. Taylor, at the 26 September memorial held in Kansas City, Missouri, said: “We come to express this tribute to the greatest man of all ages…. The history of this man and his success lies in the fact that he was the embodiment of all that was grand, noble and pure in human life. Around his suffering he gathered the hearts of fifty-million people.”
And Congressman Hayes remembered, “He was the most laborious man in the halls of Congress. He was a man characterized by virtues and upright habits. He carried these habits throughout his life. He was, however, a man of deep conviction. He said, ‘There is one with whom I must always be on good terms. I am compelled to walk with him, eat with him, sleep with him – I mean myself.’ James A. Garfield’s life demonstrates the fact that a man may be a Christian and a politician and a statesman at the same time. We may learn that the American people will hold in their hearts a noble aim and an honorable life. It will teach future aspirants that if they would attain to the highest place of honor they must be men of virtue and integrity. We learn further the lesson that it is in the power of the humblest to attain positions of honor. This great country offers such hopes to every young man in the United States.”
In England, when the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked why so many English had taken to mourning Garfield’s death, he answered that they did so because they had learned of his wonderful career cut short, how great men were formed in America, and how a boy, raised by his mother, had by hard work and adventures come to lead his country.
After he was shot, Garfield asked, “He must be insane. Why should he want to kill me?” A woman said she imagined that it was a disappointed office-seeker. “I expected he supposed that ‘it was a glorious thing to be a pirate king'”, Garfield responded, quoting Penzance.
Why, indeed, was this promising man, the pride of Lincoln’s party and the hope of Americans, shot down in his prime? Perhaps some people were in want of a better moral education. As a teacher Garfield often spoke of the promise the young hold out in contrast to those already set in their ways. Perhaps this humble little President’s Day essay of mine might cause some teacher to present James Abram Garfield to her young students. Therefore I shall close with something he said during a speech at Hiram College:
“If the Superior Being of the universe would look down upon the world to find the most interesting object, it would be the unfinished, unformed character of the young man or young woman. Those who have passed into middle manhood and middle womanhood are about what they shall always be and there is but little left of interest, as their characters are all developed.”