WHATEVER the future may witness of tragical and pathetic on the stage of public events, it can see nothing so impressively memorable as that which this generation has known in the assassination of Lincoln and Garfield. The men were alike in their typically American origin and character, — from the people, of the people, for the people ; acquainted with hardships and privation and toil, and supremely triumphant in their aims. They were both cast in the same noble mould, and were largely gentle, patient, and good; true heroes and exemplars of a democracy whose ideal is the realization in its chiefs of the same virtues which sweeten and enlighten the lowliest life in the commonwealth. History will make certain distinctions between them, but without disturbing the conception of their essential equality, and without affecting the parity of their humane ambition, or separating them in the perpetual remembrance of their common fate.
Which calamity was harder to bear, the sharp passion of grief for Lincoln’s sudden death, or the long-drawn anguish for Garfield’s lingering murder, none of us can refine upon his emotions sufficiently to say; but the shock of the one event had its Supporting elements, while in the other the nation’s endurance, hourly tried for twelve long weeks by fluctuating hopes and fears, seemed to fail with the slowly wasting strength of the sufferer. Those wonderful electrical nerves, which bind the world in an instant intelligence never known before, made all Christendom a watcher by one sick-bed. The calamity was domesticated at every hearth, and our very consciousness of the world’s sympathy helped to intensify that anxiety, that deeply indwelling sorrow, which so possessed each of us that at any moment of that time we could have questioned the lurking shadow in our lives, and found it a personal grief for Garfield’s suffering, a brooding fear of his death. This unselfish grief, privy and general at once, at last almost ignored the public effects which were dreaded when the news of the attempt came. At first there was trouble in the people’s minds as to what his successor might do or undo ; but it is a fact, which history will recognize, that when the life-and-death struggle began, this question wholly faded from the thoughts of men. Either the self-governing community remembered its own sufficiency to every emergency, or care for the future vanished in the tender solicitude which kept vigil in the hushed and darkened room where that dear friend of all lay dying. Against that darkness certain shapes of arrogance and misrule, which had long vexed us, silently vanished. They may reappear; but with every hour of the President’s suffering the popular conviction strengthened that his successor would do nothing unworthy of either; and the popular heart turned to him in regret for the misgivings which his differences with Garfield had prompted. He was included in the people’s tenderness for Garfield, and every proof he gave of generous and manly condolence was welcomed with trusting affection, till, when the end came, it could be said that he succeeded to the place that death had vacated for him with the good will of the whole people, united as they had never been before. For in the regret for Garfield all hostile memories and warring interests were lost: there were neither sections, nor parties, nor factions ; we all claimed an equal right to mourn him.
A no less extraordinary phenomenon of the situation was the entire abeyance into which question of the assassin fell, when the public interest became fixed upon his victim’s wavering chances of life. One almost forgot the crime which had brought this anguish and trouble. Guiteau was recalled to mind only by an effort of resentment, when the thought of Garfield’s prolonged sufferings became intolerable ; and then he was recalled in contempt and incredulity that such a wretch should be, rather than with any desire to wreak vengeance upon him. Probably before this page comes to the reader, Guiteau’s fate will have been decided; but no one doubts now that he will have a scrupulously fair trial, not only in the courts of law, but before the bar of public opinion in the nation which, in the history of the world, has first known how to forbear. His is no political crime, though its effects are of national importance; and but that each of us feels his conscience concerned that the assassin shall have neither more nor less than justice, it is probably at this moment a matter of supreme indifference to nine tenths of the nation what becomes of Guiteau. Fool, or maniac, or simply devil, it is his fate to have bereaved a people who desire nothing more concerning him than that he shall hereafter be kept out of mischief in whatever way is best. They scornfully refuse to believe in a class of him, or to suppose that he forms a dangerous element or precedent.
The pity with which the nation regards the family of the murdered President is to be measured only by the general sense of his great and loving nature. By our own loss we can partly imagine theirs, and the affection of all our millions has followed them back from the White House, where such sorrow has befallen them, to the quiet village home, where they must dwell with it, and outlive it as they may. We can never forget that Garfield’s orphans are now the nation’s wards, with claims upon its tenderness and care which are sacred. In the presence of living courage like that of his wife, each of us has learned to feel how cheaply conventional is the attribution of the highest virtues to the past. Here is Roman fortitude, here is the martyr’s patience, illustrated with such unconsciousness, with such simple self-forgetfulness, that even recognition of her heroic qualities seems intrusive. Before this true and good woman let the nation reverently uncover, and honor in her the character fostered by our democratic Christianity, which she was sadly but greatly privileged to exemplify.
In these twelve weeks past her home life has been shared by the whole people, to whom every intimate fact of that long and terrible ordeal, every symptom of the sickness, every detail of the treatment, has been made known, not only without loss of dignity, but with constant increase of affectionate sympathy. The like may happen again, but it never has happened before ; for the conditions that have made the world privy to these events are new, and it is impossible not to feel that they have greatly wrought for humanity. But whatever may happen hereafter, we may be sure that no future knowledge of suffering can include trials more nobly or more simply borne.
Where all words are poor and insufficient, these may stand as well as any for our sense of the sufferer’s own constancy. Familiar as we are with his case, we shall never realize the tortures he silently endured, or fully appreciate the grandeur of the cheerfulness with which he bore pain, and saw hope fade, and saw death come. We have met with a great loss. No one conjectures now that public interests will suffer, or affairs will be thrown into disorder. But if this had happened, these were troubles temporary and reparable. What is lasting and not to be remedied is our loss in the man whose death has left the world poorer. That pang remains, and keeps us bereaved. Search among all our millions, and we shall hardly find another man so temperate and wise and just as James A. Garfield, with qualities so admirable for the chief magistrate of a free people. “ God fulfills himself in many ways,” but he accomplishes his work by means of men ; and there were tokens that in this man the power that makes for righteousness had found an instrument apt to its hand. So it appears now, and it is no disloyalty to his successor to recognize that Garfield was incomparably the man for the place which shall know him mo more. He, above any statesman living, knew the Americans, and rightly conceived of their destinies and duties ; and all the Americans, willing to leave the question of other traits to history, mingle their tears in remembrance of his goodness and truth.