James Garfield: A Look Ahead

"He is a scholar who for thoroughness and breadth of culture has had no equal in the White House since the younger Adams. ... He is a closer student of political economy than any president the country has ever had." As James Garfield entered the White House, an Atlantic contributor made cheerful predictions for the upcoming four years—not knowing that the new president would be assassinated after just six months in office.

PROBABLY the uppermost thought now in the mind of the American people concerning national politics might be represented by an interrogation point. They are asking a question, and are asking it of themselves, because pending the incoming and organization of the new government they cannot properly put it to anybody else. The question is: What is likely to be the course of General Garfield’s administration, and what results may it be expected to produce? President Hayes once wisely said that every administration leaves its mark on the institutions of the country. In the interval between the election and the inauguration of the new president it is only natural that people should indulge in speculation as to what the character and direction of the next mark is going to be. No administration resembles another. Each has it own individuality. Not to go back beyond the memory of comparatively young men, think how great was the difference between the administration of Lincoln and that of Johnson, and then how marked was the change from Johnson to Grant! It is not always a change of political principles which makes the difference. Mr. Hayes and his surroundings and tendencies differ radically from General Grant and the peculiarities of his administration, though there was no break in the continuity of party ascendancy when one went out and the other came in. The truth is, our presidents are not mere gilded figure-heads, typifying executive power, like some European monarchs, but are themselves living fountains of power, and can exert a potent, pristine influence upon legislative and public sentiment. They can be negative if they choose, and drift with the stream; but if they possess strong characters and well-defined purposes, there are few crowned heads in the world who can shape the national will and mould the national institutions to so great an extent as they.

Therefore people ask, What is the new government which comes in on the 4th of March going to do? Being a young people, we are a hopeful people. We always look forward to a new administration with ardent anticipations. We think the new president is going to set the country forward a long way, and we have a right to expect a great deal of General Garfield. He is a man of real force of character, and a more thorough training in statesmanship than any previous president ever brought to the duties of his office. We know that he is a man of both thought and action,—a close student of other men’s ideas, and a vigorous original thinker. We remember how early he began to make a thorough study of government; how, when elected to the Ohio legislature, he set out to trace a dollar from the pocket of the taxpayer to the state treasury, and thence out into all the possible forms of public expenditure; studying the laws that authorized each transfer, and the purposes for which the money was applied. We know that he carried this method of research up to the national government, and during seventeen years in Congress became thoroughly familiar with all its ramifications. He knows every pin, wheel, and lever in the government machine. He will not have to spend half his term getting acquainted with the apparatus he is to manage. His energies will be free from the first to give it right direction. Then, Mr. Hayes leaves no rubbish for him to clear away. The public offices are filled with trained, competent, and honorable men. The machinery is clean, well oiled, and in good working order. There are no loose screws, or rusty wheels, or clogged bearings.

The most important problem which will fall to the new administration will be the Southern question,—modified a good deal by Mr. Hayes’s course, it is true, but nevertheless essentially the same problem with which General Grant struggled for eight years, and which he received as a legacy from his predecessor. How shall the people of the old slave States be brought fully to accept the results of the war; to look upon the black man’s right to vote as just as good as the white man’s; to respect the right of every man to his own judgment in politics and to the expression of his own views; to cultivate tolerance, that fine flower of a high civilization; to permit the national division of the voting elements into two parties, which is the only healthful and safe condition of things in a popular form of government? The state of the country cannot be regarded as satisfactory until it is just as safe, respectable, and comfortable for a man to be a Republican in the South as it is for a man to be a Democrat in the North. There must be an end to all forms of proscription and unfriendliness on account of political opinion. A member of the party which saved the Union must no longer be made to feel that he is an alien in a part of the country he helped rescue from destruction. It is a national disgrace if in any portion of the Union a citizen is forced to conceal his sympathy with one of the great political organizations in order to succeed in his business, or enjoy pleasant social relations, or enter upon a public career. This sort of thing has got to stop, and General Garfield’s administration will no doubt do all that it can wisely and constitutionally do to bring it to an end. It will be aided in this work by the conditions developed under President Hayes. The so-called let-alone policy of Hayes has favored the fading out of old animosities and prejudice in the South, and the growth of a desire in the more intelligent classes of the population for tolerance, honest elections, and the manly strife of well-balanced political organizations. Probably it was the best possible preparation for the ultimate solution of the problem. The ground had to be left fallow for a time. Now it seems ready for plowing and sowing. A more positive policy can be tried, with hopes of success. By this I do not mean a forcing process by harsh laws. The attempt to reform the South by an act of Congress was a dead failure. There are people who want to try it again,—narrow-minded but perfectly honest people, who will urge their views upon the new president with pertinacity,—but it is safe to say that General Garfield will not be moved by them. The influence he will exert for good will be persuasive rather than oppressive. His attitude towards the South has always been friendly, sensible, and conservative, while thoroughly Republican. The election laws may perhaps be strengthened by making them applicable to country districts as well as to the towns, which would be in harmony with the principle upon which they are based; but no political legislation specially aimed at the South is likely to be adopted.

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