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.

An Atlantic article published before the opening of the recent campaign said that the solidity of the South would be broken in one of two ways: by its success in getting control of the government, which would lead to dissatisfaction and quarrels about the distribution of patronage; or by its becoming convinced, through repeated failures, that it could never succeed in its ambitious dream of power. It now looks as if the defeat of the Democratic Party in the recent election has started the process of disintegration. Many of the leading Southern journals are disposed to give up the fight, and hint at the wisdom of abandoning the alliance with the Northern democracy. Wise politicians in every Southern State see that a political scheme based upon the unity of the weaker section of the country is a mistake, because its inevitable result is to unify the stronger section in opposition to it. The new administration will be able to do much towards stimulating the growth of this sentiment. First, it can let it be understood that there is to be complete amnesty for past political action in the South, and that men of character who are now willing to come forward and help build up a new Republican Party in that section are to be treated with cordiality, and are not to be distrusted because of the former party connection. There will be trouble in taking this course, because old Republicans, who have borne hostility and ostracism for their opinion’s sake for many years, will want to monopolize the favors of the president, and will naturally object to the immediate recognition of new converts; but the necessity of bringing new elements into the Republican Party in order to create a strong opposition to democracy in the South will doubtless be fully understood by the president. Gratitude to heroic men who have been faithful to their principles in the face of personal loss and danger must not stand in the way of the accomplishment of the great end of bringing the South up to the Northern level of political tolerance.

It may be that something more will have to be done than giving hearty welcome and recognition to all elements willing to help in a new order of things at the South; it may be that a substantial earnest of Northern good-will towards the beaten and baffled section will have to be given in the form of internal improvements, carried on with money appropriated from the national treasury by Republican votes. Not that the South wants to be bribed to divide into two parties, but because it is distrustful of Northern feelings, and needs to be convinced by some conspicuous act of generosity that the stronger section cherishes no hostile sentiments. The Democrats, since they obtained the control of the appropriations, have expended a great deal of money on petty river and harbor improvements in the South, but they have inaugurated no important work, like the Mississippi jetties and the Texas Pacific Railway, both of which are the fruits of Republican legislation.

It is not difficult to say what works yet remain to be undertaken, that are essentially national in their character, and yet would be especially beneficial to the South. One, at least, will at once occur to mind, namely, the improvement of the channel of the Mississippi, and the reclaiming of the vast area of swampland now rendered worthless by the overflow of its waters. This work would take a long period of time and cost a very large amount of money, but in the end it would enable vessels of heavy draught to go up to St. Louis, and it would gain for agriculture an area of exceedingly rich territory, capable of supporting five millions of people. To plan and carry on an undertaking of such gigantic magnitude would be a task worthy of the highest statesmanship. Another project might be mentioned, which, thought not ranking in importance with the Mississippi improvement, would still be of far more than local value: it is a ship canal across the Florida peninsula, which would save six or seven hundred miles of navigation between New York and New Orleans, Mobile and Galveston.

Next to the Southern question, financial matters are likely to be the most important subjects occupying the new administration. The public debt is in excellent shape now, and the policy of Secretary Sherman will no doubt be substantially the policy of his successor. Some legislation will be needed to meet loans falling due and to carry on the work of refunding, but all will be plain sailing. The principals governing the management of the debt—a scrupulous fulfillment of all obligations, and a reduction of the interest rate to as low a point as will command a market for the bonds at par—have been fixed with the cooperation of General Garfield as a member of Congress, and will of course suffer no change during his presidential term. The future of the greenbacks is a question not so easy to determine, and one which may lead to a great deal of controversy. In the absence of other financial issues, this may come to the front of political discussion. We may be tolerably sure that the republican victory in November disposed of the project for the destruction of the banks, which was advocated by the greenbackers and by a considerable majority of the Democrats but the question of the permanency of the present system of a mixed currency of treasury notes and bank notes is still an open one. The Republican Party is divided upon it. A considerable portion believes that the government should always keep afloat a large volume of redeemable notes, “ to steady the currency,” as they express it. Another portion believes that treasury notes are a positive evil, and that the government should wholly retire from the business of  furnishing the country with a paper circulation. General Garfield’s action in Congress has been in the direction of an ultimate withdrawal of the greenbacks, but it is very doubtful whether a majority can be got in Congress for the passage of any measure of the sort. The new administration may not be required to face the question from the want of significant force in Congress, and thus it may drift over another four years’ period.

The tariff question is not likely to be a troublesome one. The Republicans made protection a leading issue in the recent canvas, and their victory is an assurance that the existing system of customs duties will undergo no radical change. Defects in it may be corrected, but whatever new tariff legislation is adopted will be in the direction of extending the protective system and remedying its abuses, rather than in that of setting it aside. We shall see no “tariff for revenue only” during the next four years. So far as the influence of the administration is brought to bear upon this question, it will be to favor duties high enough to protect all important national industries, but not so high as to foster monopolies.

A question of very grave importance remains to be mentioned,—that of making a radical change in the method of choosing the president and vice-president, so as to avoid the danger of a disputed election. The views of the present system brought the country close to the brink of civil war in 1877. Awkward and indefinite in the first place, this system is outworn, and is wholly out of gear with our modern political methods. The electors are mere voting machines. There is no provision for settling a controversy as to who are really entitled to act as electors in any State. It is an open question whether the vice-president should count the electoral votes, or whether he is a mere clerk to open the returns, while the power of counting or rejecting rests in the two houses. If the latter position be assumed, it is an open question whether the concurrence of the two houses is necessary to count a return, or whether a rejection can be effected by the action of one of the bodies.

After we had got safely over the rocks in that dangerous winter of 1877, all thoughtful men believed that the electoral systems would be changed before another election came around. A number of the best minds in Congress addressed themselves to the task of maturing measures for reforming a plan which everybody saw to be faulty and perilous. Several valuable bills and constitutional amendments were drawn, but nothing came of them. The reason was that the Democrats, who had control of Congress, believed that the old system would work for their advantage in the election of 1880, because, having the count in their hands, by virtue of their majority in the senate and house, they could settle all disputed points in their own favor. This is not an unfair statement. Everybody who is familiar with the recent course of events in Washington knows it is true. And the Democrats cannot be blamed for being peculiarly selfish and unpatriotic. They did what most parties would have done in a like case. They wanted to win in 1880, and were not disposed to sacrifice any point in the game. If the Republican majority in New York had been twenty-five hundred, instead of twenty-five thousand, they might have found reasons to satisfy their own consciences for throwing out the returns of that State, and declaring General Hancock elected.

Constitutional changes and legislative enactments in the direction of a less complicated, more direct, and less perilous system of electing the chief magistrate and his possible successor must of course originate in Congress, but a president who is strongly convinced of the wisdom of a change can do much towards encouraging and molding such measures. We may take it for granted, from General Garfield’s public utterances and from the experience he gained as a member of the electoral commission, that he will do all that he can properly do to bring about this very important reform. The times are ripe for it. One house of the new Congress will be controlled by the Republicans by a narrow majority, and the other by the Democrats by a majority still narrower. A measure for the partisan advantage of either party will have no chance of getting through. The question of changing the method of electing presidents can therefore be treated as a non-partisan affair, and can command the attention of the most statesman-like intellects on both sides.

Leaving the field of speculation about the measures likely to be favored by the new administration, let us, in conclusion, look for a moment to its probable general character. General Garfield is eminently a practical politician, and we need not fear that he will make a visionary administration, reaching out after the impossible, or trying to take ten steps at once. He knows the politicians perfectly, understands the temper of the people and will neither overleap his mark nor fall short of it. He is a scholar who for thoroughness and breadth of culture has had no equal in the White House since the younger Adams. We may therefore expect a dignified, scholarly administration, which will command the cordial assistance and support of the journalists, men of letters, and institutions of learning. He is a closer student of political economy than any president the country has ever had, and we may expect that the industrial and commercial interests of the country will enjoy the advantage of intelligent consideration at his hands. He is a home man, devoted to his family, and we may look for a continuation of the pleasant, wholesome, unpretentious home life which has made the White House a centre of good social influences during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes.