MOST OF OUR presidents languish in a cloud of national historical vagueness, especially those who held the office in its first century. For one thing, there were so many of them, which is what happens when republics don’t grant power for more than four years at a time. And, except for Abraham Lincoln, so few of them make really good movie material. Lincoln, of course, is in theaters everywhere in this 150th anniversary year of Emancipation, but the decades that came after that glorious episode in our history don’t seem to offer much hope for an honest sequel or another admirable president to portray.
There is one, though, who’s worth a thought on this holiday, Presidents’ Day, which is usually devoted to Washington, Lincoln and blockbuster sales events. You may have passed by the memorial to him at the foot of Capitol Hill — it’s an elaborate thing that has one large standing statue of the president and three smaller ones representing earlier stages of his eventful life.
He was James A. Garfield, who may have been the best president we never had, or hardly had. Garfield was fatally wounded only months into his presidency by a deranged office seeker with a handgun, and the memorials to him — statuary, parks, streets, schools here in Washington and elsewhere — reflect not just the nation’s grief over his martyrdom but also a genuine admiration felt across a great part of the country and especially among its most downtrodden.
Garfield was a poor boy (last of the log cabin presidents) who lost his father early, worked his way through school, and went on to become a professor, Civil War general, businessman and congressman.
He was chosen for the 1880 Republican presidential nomination even though he didn’t seek it and tried to dissuade the delegates at the deadlocked convention from stampeding to him. (Talk about a story line that would test the credulity of modern American audiences.) And he took office reluctantly, sensing that he would never see his Ohio farm again.
Garfield was an upright man but human, and he made mistakes and enemies here and there. But he was a forceful and widely respected advocate for what he believed in, inspired trust among many and felt strongly on the great issue of his day — the future of newly emancipated Americans. He was also a powerful orator, and in his inaugural address he delivered an impassioned defense of civil rights, the likes of which was not to be made by another American president for nearly a century.
“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,” he said. “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.”
There was more along those lines, and it bears reading. Moreover, Garfield appointed four black men, among them Frederick Douglass, to posts in his administration. We are left to wonder today what a president of conviction and conscience such as Garfield might have done to rouse the country and lead it against the vicious new institutions of repression and virtual re- enslavement that were taking hold in the American South, with the silent acquiescence of the North.
We will never know, of course, what the limits of his leadership might have been, but it would seem, from the grief at his passing and the memorials that remain, that he was a president who left more of a mark on the people’s consciousness in a few months than some others have in four years and more.