Thoughts On Humans #17 : Greatness, Interrupted

James A Garfield (1831-1881)

It’s easy to paint the presidency between Lincoln and McKinley’s assassinations as feckless and corrupt.  It’s largely true.  Ulysses S Grant tried, but even his administration was plagued with corruption that Grant failed to notice.  This is when Jim Crow laws were allowed to raise their heads, and when profit became one of the driving forces of the chief executive.  But there had been a promising star in the middle of it all, our 20th president James A Garfield.

Garfield almost certainly would have become one of America’s greatest presidents.  Everything that should take existed in him.  He was born into poverty, and understood it in ways that seem to have informed his politics.  He was well-read and well-educated, and supported himself through teaching and carpentry.  Garfield was ashamed to have grown up without a father, but ultimately it may have been one of the things that drove him to become his own man, and almost certainly gave him a foundation of compassion for others.  James Garfield was not only a Civil War colonel, but had spent time before his post securing funds in the Ohio legislature and recruiting soldiers to fight for the Union.

If Garfield’s presidency is overlooked because it was brief, his tenure in the House of Representatives should not be.  He was a congressman for 17 years, and spent those years working to combat the corrupting influence of money, and opposing letting the South off the hook too much for the Civil War.  His time was not without scandals of its own, but they are comparatively minor for his contemporaries.

Where James Garfield really shines is in his belief that black Americans, newly freed after the war, were owed equality by the Constitution, a belief that was increasingly unpopular at the time.  He believed that those who had taken up arms against the United States, Southern traitors, had forfeited their rights.  These sentiments followed him to the presidency, where during his inauguration he gave what was not considered a very good speech.  What is important about his speech to me was how inclusive he was about African Americans.  “Freedom can never yield its full blessings so long as the law or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous citizen.”  James A Garfield had unknowingly predicted the future.  His presidency started well.  He appointed African Americans to important positions, and pushed for universal education, which failed.  He also kept pressing forward on civil rights, even as the country had tired of the subject.

On July 2, 1881 James A Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau.  On September 19th, he died.  The incident had taken place during a Congressional recess, leading to one of the saddest parts of his story.  It caused almost no disruption to the running of the country.  He had been president for 200 days, and it seems like we would have gotten so much from his time in office.  Now we are left to wonder.

History isn’t necessarily fair to the memory of James Garfield.  He is remembered as the president who was assassinated just as he was getting started, and his time in the House is not seen as particularly groundbreaking.  That is certainly all true, but it also seems clear that he was a man with great character and compassion.  He was good, and that can be hard to come by in a politician.