Jeff Jacoby reaches into the trough of 19th century mediocrity of Polks and Fillmores and plucks for our consideration a great president—perhaps—given half a chance:
NEARLY 1,000 days stretch between this Presidents’ Day and the next presidential election. Yet already it is impossible to escape the maneuvers, machinations, and media coverage of men and women so consumed with winning the highest office in the land that the lust for power all but oozes from their pores. For as long as most of us can remember, the obsessive quest for the presidency has been an indelible feature of American politics. Try to envision successful candidates for the White House who don’t have that “fire in the belly”: candidates prepared to accept the job if it seeks them out, but not driven by such insatiable ambition for it that everything else pales by comparison. It would be easier to envision a team of unicorns.
And yet America once had such a president. He was James A. Garfield of Ohio, a remarkable individual who rose from grinding poverty to the presidency of the United States without ever thrusting himself forward as a candidate for election to anything. It is a shame that Americans don’t know more about this gifted yet modest leader, as they doubtless would had he not been shot by an assassin just four months after becoming president.
Garfield was nominated with 399 votes. As the convention erupted in cheers and song, a “shocked and sickened” Garfield was beset by well-wishers. To one delegate’s congratulations, he replied: “I am very sorry that this has become necessary.”
Five months later, he was elected president. On March 4, 1881, he was sworn in, and delivered an inaugural address passionate in its emphasis on the rights of freed blacks. “Former slaves in the crowd openly wept,” Millard recounts. Many more Americans wept six months later, when Garfield died of the gunshot wound he had received on July 2, 1881.
A few keystrokes brought up Garfield’s Inaugural Address:
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. It has freed us from the perpetual danger of war and dissolution. It has added immensely to the moral and industrial forces of our people. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both. It has surrendered to their own guardianship the manhood of more than 5,000,000 people, and has opened to each one of them a career of freedom and usefulness. It has given new inspiration to the power of self-help in both races by making labor more honorable to the one and more necessary to the other. The influence of this force will grow greater and bear richer fruit with the coming years.
No doubt this great change has caused serious disturbance to our Southern communities. This is to be deplored, though it was perhaps unavoidable. But those who resisted the change should remember that under our institutions there was no middle ground for the negro race between slavery and equal citizenship. There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States. Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessings so long as the law or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous citizen.
The emancipated race has already made remarkable progress. With unquestioning devotion to the Union, with a patience and gentleness not born of fear, they have “followed the light as God gave them to see the light.” They are rapidly laying the material foundations of self-support, widening their circle of intelligence, and beginning to enjoy the blessings that gather around the homes of the industrious poor. They deserve the generous encouragement of all good men. So far as my authority can lawfully extend they shall enjoy the full and equal protection of the Constitution and the laws.
The free enjoyment of equal suffrage is still in question, and a frank statement of the issue may aid its solution. It is alleged that in many communities negro citizens are practically denied the freedom of the ballot. In so far as the truth of this allegation is admitted, it is answered that in many places honest local government is impossible if the mass of uneducated negroes are allowed to vote. These are grave allegations. So far as the latter is true, it is the only palliation that can be offered for opposing the freedom of the ballot. Bad local government is certainly a great evil, which ought to be prevented; but to violate the freedom and sanctities of the suffrage is more than an evil. It is a crime which, if persisted in, will destroy the Government itself. Suicide is not a remedy. If in other lands it be high treason to compass the death of the king, it shall be counted no less a crime here to strangle our sovereign power and stifle its voice.
It has been said that unsettled questions have no pity for the repose of nations. It should be said with the utmost emphasis that this question of the suffrage will never give repose or safety to the States or to the nation until each, within its own jurisdiction, makes and keeps the ballot free and pure by the strong sanctions of the law.
But the danger which arises from ignorance in the voter can not be denied. It covers a field far wider than that of negro suffrage and the present condition of the race. It is a danger that lurks and hides in the sources and fountains of power in every state. We have no standard by which to measure the disaster that may be brought upon us by ignorance and vice in the citizens when joined to corruption and fraud in the suffrage.
But the responsibility for the existence of slavery did not rest upon the South alone. The nation itself is responsible for the extension of the suffrage, and is under special obligations to aid in removing the illiteracy which it has added to the voting population.
That is more than a passing reference. It puts into perspective the true shame of the United States: not slavery (which nearly every country practiced), but the century of Jim Crow that followed its abolition. Garfield saw it for what it was—a national stain, born of ignorance—and was determined (at least in words) to stop it in its tracks.
Garfield is not the only revelation to us since we started blogging. Perhaps no one has grown in our estimation more than Calvin Coolidge. If he seemed small of voice, it wasn’t from smallness of his beliefs. His vision of government—and the Executive’s role—stands in the starkest of contrasts to today’s model. More’s the pity.