The Attempt on the President's Life

A reflection on the assassination of President James Garfield, published as he lay on his deathbed

The horror excited by the attempt on the President’s life was, of course, in the main the ordinary human civilized horror of assassination. This is always deepened when the victim is assailed at his post, and when the post is a conspicuous one, and when death seems to come because he has been faithful to his duty. Society has more than usual tenderness for what may be called its sentinels, — that is, for the persons who expose themselves in its service, — and the more responsibility it puts on them the greater the tenderness becomes. Nobody, on hearing that General Garfield had been stricken down, probably thought for one moment of his faults or short-comings. Democrats were as much impressed by the tragedy as republicans, and the reason was that all felt that it was holding a high place in the public service which had made him the victim. Sympathy of this kind, too, was not confined to the United States. It was felt all over the civilized world, felt by millions, probably, who knew little or nothing of the President’s past career, and knew as little of his duties or responsibilities. They did know, however, that a nation had raised him to great eminence, and that it was because he was eminent that Guiteau’s pistol was leveled against him; and they felt for him, accordingly, that sorrow which has become almost instinctive with the civilized man, for the misfortunes of those who keep watch and ward while others sow or reap, and spin or weave.

But no one who observed the expressions of popular feeling during the month of July could help seeing that there was in the general indignation and regret a good deal of mortification and humiliation. Of these there was not much trace when Lincoln was assassinated. That seemed like a not unnatural sequel of the civil war. It had been feared from the day on which he was inaugurated. He acknowledged the existence of the danger himself, in his simple way, when he put a soldier with a musket beside him in the carriage. Then, too, the country was familiar with deeds of violence. It had seen tens of thousands, during the previous five years, come to a bloody end. Lincoln, to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, represented aggression, lawlessness, conquest, and oppression. When one reads, in fact, of the ferocious language towards him, and towards the whole Northern people, in which Southern politicians, from Jefferson Davis down, and the leading Southern newspapers were in the habit of indulging, and the readiness of the Southern mind at that period to think of the killing of an enemy even in cold blood as, somehow, not murder, the wonder is that Booth’s attack should have been the first. The generation of Southerners which began the war had never known a Southern jury to refuse to accept a previous quarrel as justification of a homicide, or, in other words, had never seen malice prepense treated as of the essence of blood-guiltiness. That Lincoln should have gone unscathed for one whole term seems in these quiet times even stranger than it did then.

When General Garfield was elected, however, the peaceful habit of mind was probably more widely diffused through the country than it had been since the foundation of the government. There have been assassinations enough, Heaven knows, during the past fifteen years, but there never has been, heretofore, the dislike of bloodshed as a remedy for private wrongs which now exists in all parts of the Union. There are unmistakable signs at the South of the growth of a public opinion hostile to dueling, and a fortiori hostile to all violent modes of redress for either real or fancied wrongs. No President, since the antislavery agitation began, had as much reason to think himself safe as President Garfield had, or less reason to suppose that it would be prudent to make access to Presidents more difficult. There had been no dispute about his election. He was a man of singularly genial temper. There was nothing in his career to excite envy, hatred, or malice. He had won his way to prominence by arts which nearly every American admires, and there was a large element of pathos, which everybody felt, in his final triumph.

Not only, then, did he seem, in the popular eye, to be protected by the immunity which republican Presidents, as distinguished from sovereigns, are supposed to enjoy, but by the peculiar immunity which in the United States is always enjoyed by the poor boy who fights his way up to distinction, and is not ashamed of his beginnings. It appeared easy enough to account for the attempts on the lives of the emperors of Russia and Germany and the king of Italy. They represented a system which existed, to all outward appearance, for the benefit of a particular family, and to destroy the head of the family was to shake the system. Then, also, there is in all monarchical governments wide room for the play of the monarch’s discretion. He has so many honors or privileges to bestow or refuse; so many pardons or promotions always ready to his hand; can do so much to make or mar a man’s fortune; can inflict so much misery without ever having to answer for it, — without even having to allow the victim the comfort of remonstrance or criticism. A king lives so long, too. He may be on the throne forty or fifty years, during which those who think he has wronged them know there will be no am peal from him, and that all men in power will make it their duty not to question the justice of his decrees. In fact, it needs no deep examination of the nature and function of royalty to see that some of its traits must readily suggest assassination to men with a grievance, and either not afraid of death, or very confident of the efficacy of their means of escape. The sentiment of loyalty is the one moral defense which it possesses which the presidency does not; but this is comparatively feeble in our time, and never was strong in more than a very small circle. It has a dangerous tendency to rouse a sort of reactionary hatred among persons who do not feel it, and yet are called on to acknowledge it as a political agency. The very idea of a man raised above the law, and claiming reverence without regard to his personal merits, has become to hundreds of thousands, in our day, a highly inflammatory idea, which kindles fanaticism of protest, before which loyalty, even in its best days, would have to pale its ineffectual fires. There is less discussion now than there used to be, even among speculative writers, about the lawfulness of tyrannicide, but there has probably never been a time when so many fairly moral and rational men would think so little of killing a king as a means of promoting a much desired political change. There is no doubt that monarchs owe their safety, such as it is, far more to the growth of belief in the possibility of bringing about desired political changes by peaceable means than to increased mildness of manners or increased horror of assassination. The Nihilistic atrocities in Russia are not simply proofs of the ferocity of Russian conspirators. They show also that the Czar is more of a political obstacle than the sovereign in any other civilized country.

The mortification felt in this country when President Garfield was shot was therefore, in large part, the product of surprise that the differences between the office of President and that of king, even of constitutional king, did not in a time of profound peace secure his safety. Most Americans had no doubt that it did secure it; that he was in no more danger of assassination as President than any other person in the community. Everybody had these differences at his tongue’s end, when he heard of attempts on the life of the Czar, or of the Kaiser. The presidential office is not hereditary; it can only be filled by a man whom, whether worthy or not, the majority thinks worthy. It is elective, and nobody can enter on it with any glamour of divine light about him, or with any special claim to “the grace of God.” The President is always a man taken from the people, and destined to return to the ranks of the people as one of themselves. His term is short. Even the most impatient of his enemies has not long to wait before seeing him lose his power, and securing an appeal from his decisions to his successor. Everybody whom he offends has the relief, and indeed luxury, of abusing him. The law puts no restraint on the terms in which he may be assailed, and even lying about him has in practice an impunity which does not attend it in the case of any other man in the nation.

These are all important vents for the feelings which in monarchical countries are likely to lead to attempts to assassinate the chief executive officer. But the most important difference of all between the President and a king, in the popular eye in this country, lies in the fact that he is supposed to enjoy less discretion than kings. He is not a “fountain of honor,” as a king is. He can bestow no decorations or pensions. His social countenance or favor does nothing for anybody. He is titular commander-in-chief of the army and navy, it is true, and commanders-in-chief have necessarily much power over the fortunes of soldiers and sailors; but there are practically no army and no navy here. Nor is there any state church, with bishoprics, deaneries, or canonries, in the presidential gift. Moreover, in the popular conception of the office, the President has no prerogative, properly so called. He cannot declare war, or make peace. He can pardon criminals, but only a very limited class of criminals, — those who violate federal laws. He cannot protect any man from trial or impeachment. He is himself liable to impeachment. He has been impeached for, among other things, using bad language in public. He is the creature of the law, and his duty—the only duty which the ordinary American thinks of as belonging to him—is to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. His death does not necessarily cause the holding of a new election, and thus procure for the opposite party another chance of getting into power. His successor is designated by law when he takes office. Why, then, should any one think of murdering him for any political object? What could any one gain by murdering him? He might, of course, be murdered for revenge, but history shows that political murders for simple revenge are so rare as not to be worth considering. The murder of Mr. Percival by Bellingham seems an exception to this rule; but Bellingham was an undoubted lunatic, and would have escaped as such but for the indecent haste of his trial. No assassination or serious attempt at assassination of high political personages, it may be safely said, has ever been committed by a person who would be held morally and legally accountable for his acts, except with the expectation of thereby producing some important political change. But the powers and duties of the American President and the devolution of his office are apparently so regulated by law that no change worth, to a tolerably rational man, the risk involved in killing him has hitherto seemed possible. Americans have therefore probably been less concerned about his personal safety than any people ever were before about that of their chief magistrate.

But when Guiteau’s attempt was made they began, not unnaturally, to inquire whether they had not been mistaken in supposing the conditions of the President’s official life so very different from those of a king. If Guiteau had been unmistakably insane, it would of course have made such an inquiry unnecessary. It so happens, however, that he is, if insane at all, — and his apparent mistake about consequences does indicate considerable unsoundness, — not more insane than that very large class of the community called erratic. This is a class whose members are able to follow the current of affairs with attention, though intermitting attention, and to reason about them without plain absurdity, and are consequential enough in their conduct to enable them occasionally to obtain employment. Their unsoundness and inability to succeed consists largely in a quality which is prominent in savages, but in them is ascribed not to insanity, but to imperfect development, — namely, want of tenacity of purpose. Guiteau seems to have done a variety of things with a certain amount of ability—small, to be sure, but still sufficient to enable him to earn a livelihood, if he had stuck to any one thing. Instability, combined with inordinate vanity, brought him to want, and want made him tricky. But until he shot the President no one thought him too insane for all share in the worlds work. When he shot him, therefore, it was not unnatural that people should listen to his explanation of his act, not as a defense, but as an elucidation of the kind of motives by which this very large class to which he belongs are acted on. That his talk was silly is nothing to the purpose. Two thirds of the talk one hears in a bar-room, for instance, is silly. It becomes important when we remember that there are thousands of persons like him afloat, that is, persons capable of forming plans under a delusion, and pursuing them for a short period with determination, the delusion being one which a man might entertain without rendering himself thereby liable to confinement.

His story was in substance that he belonged to the portion of the republican party opposed to the President, and led by General Grant and Mr. Conkling; that he wished General Arthur to become President; and that if he did so he (Guiteau) expected to be rewarded for his trouble with an office, besides being pardoned for the murder. It appeared, too, on inquiry, that he had unsuccessfully sought office from President Garfield; but it did not appear that anybody to whom he applied for aid in getting office thought him more flagrantly unfit than many other office-seekers, or his application more absurd than those of many others. In fact, he seems to have been looked on simply as a poor specimen of a class of adventurers who plague the Departments a good deal on the occasion of every new administration and sometimes plague them successfully.

Now the public was startled at finding that he was tolerably correct in his view of the political situation. He described it much as any “stalwart” would have described it. What he desired, too, in the way of change—the substitution of General Arthur for General Garfield as President, the reorganization of the cabinet, and the conduct of the administration under the inspiration of Mr. Conkling and General Grant—was exactly what all the “stalwarts” desired. They would all have declared, if questioned, that if such a change could be brought about honorably it would be a most fortunate thing for the party and the country. So that it plainly appeared that a political situation had arisen which most Americans had supposed was not possible under this government, a situation in which the death of the President would almost certainly produce the effect of a new election won by the opposition, by putting the administration into the hands of his bitter enemies, and leading to some considerable changes. It was, in short, just the kind of situation which in the Old World has produced the great historical assassinations and attempts at assassination, and notably the assassination of William the Silent and Henri IV. In both these cases things had reached a pass which made a cause or régime dependent for success or stability on a single life, and would have made the death of a particular man, if it came naturally, welcome to a large body even of honorable, sincere, and disinterested persons. No such situation ever lasts long anywhere without touching some diseased imagination, and one great object of all free constitutions is to provide against its creation. I do not think I overstate in saying that the American people were shocked two months ago in finding they had not provided against it. Most readers will be shocked still more, if they will take the trouble to see how closely Gerard, who murdered William the Silent, and still more Ravaillac, who murdered Henri IV., resembled Guiteau both in character and career. They were both more fanatical than he, but they belonged to the same category of unstable, flighty, and vainglorious people who seek to achieve fame by a single blow, and find all ordinary pursuits and industries too monotonous for them.

There is, in fact, a curious likeness between Ravaillac and Guiteau. Ravailac began life as a lawyer’s clerk; then he turned school-master; then got into jail for debt, and while there had numerous visions. On his discharge he joined the Feuillants in Paris, much as Guiteau joined the Oneida Community, but was expelled as a fool and visionary. They would not have him even as a lay brother. While knocking about the world, after this, seeking occupation, he heard of the king as the enemy of the Catholic faith, who threatened the church with unnumbered woes; and he heard it from men who would not for worlds have harmed a hair of the king’s head, but would, doubtless, have considered the changes the king’s death would work, and as a matter of fact did work, most desirable. Their talk opened to Ravaillac’s sick fancy an easy road to distinction, and he took it. After he struck the fatal blow he made no attempt to escape, but, says L’Etoile, “remained, knife in hand, to show himself and vaunt himself as the greatest of assassins.”

The civil service reformers have met with some opposition, but after all very little, in their attempts to “make capital” out of Guiteau’s crime by ascribing it to “the spoils system,” and use it as an argument in favor of a different system of appointment and a different tenure in the civil service of the government. Of course no effort “to make capital” out of anything is wholly unattended with extravagance. Anything which makes the hostility of the stalwarts a guilty cause of Guiteau’s offense is unwarrantable and unfair. It would he absurd to ask men to refrain, in political contests, from all language which may by any possibility incite some crazy man to commit a murder. But then we must, on the other hand, not be deterred, by the fear of hurting some one’s feelings, from saying that there can be no manner of doubt that this opposition was a cause of Guiteau’s offense, and that it was the spoils system which made it so. The quarrel of the stalwarts with the President was a quarrel about offices, and about nothing else. What they asked of him, and reproached him for not granting, was a different distribution of offices from the one he had made. This different distribution of offices was the change, and the only one of moment, which would have resulted from the accession of General Arthur to the presidency. It was this change that Guiteau had in mind when he fired his shot. Now it was probably unfair to say that the Jesuits put Ravaillac up to kill Henri, but it is none the less true that if there had been no Jesuistic hostility to Henri’s policy of toleration Ravaillac would never have killed him, and a French reformer would have been fully justified in denouncing Jesuit rancor and seeking its extirpation from the kingdom, if that were possible, as the cause of the tragedy.

What has made the Guiteau attempt so useful to the civil service reformers is not the discredit it has brought on the enemies of the reform, for that is after all remote and indirect, but the revelation it has made of the extent to which the spoils system, by enlarging enormously the field of the President’s discretion, assimilates his position in the matter of responsibility to that of a monarch. The more arbitrary power he exercises and can use, either for his own personal benefit or that of others, the greater the temptation to assassinate him, either to revenge denial, or bring about a “new deal,” by a fresh hand. If places were filled and promotions made by legal machinery, as they are for the most part in England and in Germany and France, he would be the mere arm of the law, which even the crazy could see it would do no man any good to lop off or disable. As he is now, he is the dispenser of more favors than any monarch in Europe would be if he had no standing army. No monarch possesses or would dare to exercise the power over the civil servants of the government which the President exercises, and it is a power which no President can exercise without giving offense to great numbers of unsteady minds. His use of it every four years at least, and in a minor degree every year, has on what may without injustice be called the class of adventurers of both sexes the unsettling effects of a great public lottery. The sole difference is that in the one case, in order to draw a prize, one has to have some slight clerical capacity, and must go to Washington and “lobby,” while in the other one has only to buy a ticket. But the only effect of this difference is to diminish the number of candidates by making the process more expensive. In neither case is any thought bestowed by those who seek to win on mental capacity or moral standing as a condition of success. The office-seeker is apt to be a person who has failed, or thinks he is going to fail, in ordinary pursuits. In this country this usually indicates some sort of defectiveness, either of mind or character, and he looks to government employment solely because he expects that its standards are not so rigid as those of private employment. Consequently, the possibility of a “new deal” always most powerfully disturbs the class who are most easily disturbed, and is sure to furnish the Gerards, Ravaillacs, Catesbys, Thistlewoods, and Guiteaus whenever the situation seems to call for them or rather tempt them. In other words, the President, by his arbitrary dealing with offices, calls about him, and excites, or depresses, or exasperates, the only persons from whose anger he runs any risk, — the only persons who are likely to find incentives to violence in the ordinary denunciation of political contests.

It is to be observed, too, that it is the spoils system only which makes the hostility of the Vice-President to the President a matter of eager interest to this class. If the only possible result of the Vice-President’s accession to power were the recommendation or support by the White House of a new set of measures, or some new line of public policy, the change would have no interest whatever for the Guiteaus, though it might have much for the intelligent and steady and industrious. It is the conversion of “politics” into a scramble for offices which makes the appearance of the Vice-President at the head of a faction hostile to the President like the alarum of Byron’s Tambourji to the Klephts, a sign to broken and unlucky people, who have lost their places and exhausted their credit, that there may be another chance for them. It suggests to every one of them the thought, “What a lucky thing it would be if he could only come into power!” It consequently goes far to destroy the effect of the constitutional provision which designates the Vice-President as the President’s successor, in case of his death, in so far as this provision is intended to produce certainty and quiet in the demise of the office. The succession of a Vice-President hostile to the administration is attended, in fact, with all the inconveniences, and has none of the advantages, of a new election. It not only substitutes a man whom the people did not intend to be President for one whom they did intend to be President, but substitutes a man who disliked the President’s ways and ideas, and is almost pledged to act in an entirely opposite direction, and for this purpose is likely to derange the whole machinery of government. If this derangement is to take place, however, every time a new President enters the White House, it should only take place after and as the result of a popular vote. To permit it as the result of the President’s natural death would be a great and very inconvenient anomaly; to permit it as the result of his assassination is more than inconvenient, — it is highly dangerous. It ought to be a settled rule of American polity, that no man or body of men shall profit by assassination. Nothing should pass by murder, in the shape of either dignity or emolument, to any person designated for the succession by law. But the great lesson of the occasion is the danger to the president which plainly lies in his arbitrary power over the enormous body of persons who now compose the civil service of the government. They do not live under law, and as long as they do not live under law they will constitute in a certain sense a dangerous class, and will be surrounded by a still more dangerous class, composed of those who would like to oust them and get their places.