James A. Garfield

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I love to deal with doctrines and events. The contests of men about men I greatly dislike.
The world's history is a divine poem, of which the history of every nation is a canto, and every man a word.

James Abram Garfield (19 November 183119 September 1881) was the 20th President of the United States (1881), and the second U.S. President to be assassinated. His term was the second shortest in U.S. history, after William Henry Harrison's. Holding office from March to September of 1881, President Garfield was in office for a total of just six months and fifteen days.

Quotes[edit]

There has been a Divine melody running through the song which speaks of hope and halcyon days to come.
I am trying to do two things: dare to be a radical and not be a fool, which, if I may judge by the exhibitions around me, is a matter of no small difficulty.
The chief duty of government is to keep the peace and stand out of the sunshine of the people.
Things don't turn up in this world until somebody turns them up.
Nobody but radicals have ever accomplished anything in a great crisis.
Tell her I am seriously hurt; how seriously I cannot yet say.
Tortured for the Republic.
The worst days of darkness through which I have ever passed have been greatly alleviated by throwing myself with all my energy into some work relating to others.
I mean to make myself a man, and if I succeed in that, I shall succeed in everything else.
Assassination can be no more guarded against than death by lightning; it is best not to worry about either.
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. NO thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people.
  • Be fit for more than the thing you are now doing. Let everyone know that you have a reserve in yourself; that you have more power than you are now using. If you are not too large for the place you occupy, you are too small for it.
    • "Elements of Success", in President Garfield and Education : Hiram College Memorial (1881) by B. A. Hinsdale, p. 327
  • Poverty is uncomfortable, as I can testify; but nine times out of ten the best thing that can happen to a young man is to be tossed overboard and compelled to sink or swim for himself.
    • "Elements of Success" President Garfield and Education : Hiram College Memorial (1881) by B. A. Hinsdale, p. 331
  • It would convert the Treasury of the United States into a manufactory of paper money. It makes the House of Representatives and the Senate, or the caucus of the party which happens to be in the majority, the absolute dictator of the financial and business affairs of this country. This scheme surpasses all the centralism and all the Caesarism that were ever charged upon the Republican party in the wildest days of the war or in the events growing out of the war.
  • The worst days of darkness through which I have ever passed have been greatly alleviated by throwing myself with all my energy into some work relating to others.
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 124.
  • I believe in God, and I trust myself in His hands.
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 595.
  • I mean to make myself a man, and if I succeed in that, I shall succeed in everything else.
    • A Dictionary of Thoughts : Being A Cyclopedia Of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern (1908) by Tryon Edwards, p. 327
  • The President is the last person in the world to know what the people really want and think.
    • As quoted in Garfield of Ohio : The Available Man (1970) by John M. Tyler.
  • I am receiving what I suppose to be the usual number of threatening letters on the subject. Assassination can be no more guarded against than death by lightning; it is best not to worry about either.
    • As quoted in Garfield of Ohio : The Available Man (1970) by John M. Tyler
  • I have had many troubles, but the worst of them never came.
    • As quoted in The Power of Choice (2007) by Joyce Guccione, p. 49

1850s[edit]

  • The world's history is a divine poem, of which the history of every nation is a canto, and every man a word. Its strains have been pealing along down the centuries, and though there have been mingled the discords of warring cannon and dying men, yet to the Christian philosopher and historian — the humble listener — there has been a Divine melody running through the song which speaks of hope and halcyon days to come.
    • The Province of History (c. 1856), Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 620.

1860s[edit]

  • For mere vengeance I would do nothing. This nation is too great to look for mere revenge. But for security of the future I would do every thing.
    • Speech in New York City (15 April 1865) on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, as reported in John Clark Ridpath, The Life and Work of James A. Garfield (1882 memorial edition), p. 194. Several biographers include this speech, but accounts of his remarks that day vary.
  • If wrinkles must be written upon our brows, let them not be written upon the heart. The spirit should not grow old.
    • Letter to Colonel A. F. Rockwell (13 August 1866)
  • I am trying to do two things: dare to be a radical and not be a fool, which, if I may judge by the exhibitions around me, is a matter of no small difficulty.
    • In a letter to Burke Aaron Hinsdale (1 January 1867); quoted in The Life of Gen. James A. Garfield (1880) by Jonas Mills Bundy, p. 77
  • I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here, beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept, plighted faith may be broken, and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke: but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.
  • The chief duty of government is to keep the peace and stand out of the sunshine of the people.
    • Letter to H. N. Eldridge (12 December 1869) as quoted in Garfield (1978) by Allen Peskin, Ch. 13

1870s[edit]

  • The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.
    • Statement that he is reported to have first made at an Alumni Dinner in Delmonico's Restaurant in New York. (28 December 1871). Hopkins was a personal friend and the president of Williams College.
  • It is not part of the functions of the national government to find employment for people — and if we were to appropriate a hundred millions for this purpose, we should be taxing forty millions of people to keep a few thousand employed.
    • To B. A. Hinsdale in 1874, as quoted in The Life and Letters of James Abram Garfield: 1831-1877 (1925) by Theodore Clarke Smith, p. 517
  • I will not vote against the truths of the multiplication table.
    • To H. Austin (4 February 1874) as quoted in Garfield (1978) by Allen Peskin, Ch. 17
  • The return to solid values is always hard... Distress, panic, and hard times have marked our pathway in returning to solid values.
    • Speech (22 June 1874) US Congressional Record, 43rd Congress, 2nd session
  • I am a poor hater.
    • Diary (26 April 1876) as quoted in Garfield (1978) by Allen Peskin, Ch. 13
  • Nobody but radicals have ever accomplished anything in a great crisis. Conservatives have their place in the piping times of peace; but in emergencies only rugged issue men amount to much.
    • Statement of 1876, in The Diary of James A. Garfield: 1875-1877 (1983), edited by Harry James Brown and Frederick D. Williams. p. 396
  • Few men in our history have ever obtained the Presidency by planning to obtain it.
    • Diary (4 February 1879)

1880s[edit]

  • Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.
    • Letter accepting the Republican nomination to run for President (12 July 1880)
  • I thank you doctor, but I am a dead man.
    • To a doctor treating his wound. Quoted in John Whitcomb, Claire Whitcomb "Real Life at the White House", Routledge, 2002, p. 177.
  • I love to deal with doctrines and events. The contests of men about men I greatly dislike.
    • Diary (14 March 1881)
  • My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it?
    • Diary (8 June 1881) as quoted in Garfield (1978) by Allen Peskin, Ch. 24
  • The sin of slavery is one of which it may be said that without the shedding of blood there is no remission.
    • Diary (8 June 1881)
  • Strangulatus pro republica.
    • Tortured for the Republic.
    • Last written words, two days before he died; these are sometimes reported as being his last words. (17 September 1881) Variant translation: "Tortured for the sake of the republic."
  • Garfield: "Old boy! Do you think my name will have a place in human history?"
    Rockwell: "Yes, a grand one, but a grander one in human hearts. Old fellow, you mustn’t talk in that way. You have a great work yet to perform."
    Garfield: "No. My work is done."
    • Conversation with his secretary, Colonel Rockwell the day before he died. These have been reported as his last spoken words. (18 September 1881)

Speech Nominating John Sherman for President (1880)[edit]

Speech at the Republican National Convention, Chicago, Illinois (June 5, 1880) nominating John Sherman for President. His address was considered so impressive that it is generally credited with inspiring others to rally around him as a "dark horse" candidate.
I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man; but I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured.
  • Nothing touches my heart more quickly than a tribute of honor to a great and noble character; but as I sat in my seat and witnessed this demonstration, this assemblage seemed to me a human ocean in tempest. I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man; but I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured. When the storm has passed and the hour of calm settles on the ocean, when the sunlight bathes its peaceful surface, then the astronomer and surveyor take the level from which they measure all terrestrial heights and depths.
  • Gentlemen of the Convention, your present temper may not mark the healthful pulse of our people. When your enthusiasm has passed, when the emotions of this hour have subsided, we shall find below the storm and passion that calm level of public opinion from which the thoughts of a mighty people are to be measured, and by which final action will be determined.
  • Not in Chicago, in the heat of June, but at the ballot-boxes of the Republic, in the quiet of November, after the silence of deliberate judgment, will this question be settled. And now, gentlemen of the Convention, what do we want?
  • Twenty-five years ago this Republic was bearing and wearing a triple chain of bondage. Long familiarity with traffic in the bodies and souls of men had paralyzed the consciences of a majority of our people; the narrowing and disintegrating doctrine of State sovereignty had shackled and weakened the noblest and most beneficent powers of the national government; and the grasping power of slavery was seizing upon the virgin territories of the West, and dragging them into the den of eternal bondage.
    At that crisis the Republican party was born. It drew its first inspiration from that fire of liberty which God has lighted in every human heart, and which all the powers of ignorance and tyranny can never wholly extinguish. The Republican party came to deliver and to save.
  • Then, after the storms of battle, were heard the calm words of peace spoken by the conquering nation, saying to the foe that lay prostrate at its feet: "This is our only revenge — that you join us in lifting into the serene firmament of the Constitution, to shine like stars for ever and ever, the immortal principles of truth and justice: that all men, white or black, shall be free, and shall stand equal before the law."
  • In order to win victory now, we want the vote of every Republican — of every Grant Republican, and every anti-Grant Republican, in America — of every Blaine man and every anti-Blaine man. The vote of every follower of every candidate is needed to make success certain. Therefore I say, gentlemen and brethren, we are here to take calm counsel together, and inquire what we shall do.
  • We want a man whose life and opinions embody all the achievements of which I have spoken. We want a man who, standing on a mountain height, traces the victorious footsteps of our party in the past, and, carrying in his heart the memory of its glorious deeds, looks forward prepared to meet the dangers to come. We want one who will act in no spirit of unkindness toward those we lately met in battle.
  • He has shown himself able to meet with calmness the great emergencies of the government. For twenty-five years he has trodden the perilous heights of public duty, and against all the shafts of malice has borne his breast unharmed. He has stood in the blaze of "that fierce light that beats against the throne"; but its fiercest ray has found no flaw in his armor, no stain upon his shield. I do not present him as a better Republican or a better man than thousands of others that we honor; but I present him for your deliberate and favorable consideration. I nominate John Sherman, of Ohio.

Inaugural address (1881)[edit]

Inaugural address (March 4, 1881) Full text at Yale University
Let all our people, leaving behind them the battlefields of dead issues, move forward and in their strength of liberty and the restored Union win the grander victories of peace.
We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation.
The civil service can never be placed on a satisfactory basis until it is regulated by law.
  • Fellow-Citizens: We stand to-day upon an eminence which overlooks a hundred years of national life — a century crowded with perils, but crowned with the triumphs of liberty and law. Before continuing the onward march let us pause on this height for a moment to strengthen our faith and renew our hope by a glance at the pathway along which our people have traveled.
  • The colonists were struggling not only against the armies of a great nation, but against the settled opinions of mankind; for the world did not then believe that the supreme authority of government could be safely intrusted to the guardianship of the people themselves.
    We can not overestimate the fervent love of liberty, the intelligent courage, and the sum of common sense with which our fathers made the great experiment of self-government. When they found, after a short trial, that the confederacy of States, was too weak to meet the necessities of a vigorous and expanding republic, they boldly set it aside, and in its stead established a National Union, founded directly upon the will of the people, endowed with full power of self-preservation and ample authority for the accomplishment of its great object.
  • Under this Constitution the boundaries of freedom have been enlarged, the foundations of order and peace have been strengthened, and the growth of our people in all the better elements of national life has indicated the wisdom of the founders and given new hope to their descendants.
  • The supreme trial of the Constitution came at last under the tremendous pressure of civil war. We ourselves are witnesses that the Union emerged from the blood and fire of that conflict purified and made stronger for all the beneficent purposes of good government.
  • The will of the nation, speaking with the voice of battle and through the amended Constitution, has fulfilled the great promise of 1776 by proclaiming 'liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.' 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. 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.
  • No doubt this great change has caused serious disturbance to our Southern communities. This is to be deplored, though it was perhaps unavoidable. But those who resisted the change should remember that under our institutions there was no middle ground for the negro race between slavery and equal citizenship. There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States. Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessings so long as the law or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous citizen.
  • The emancipated race has already made remarkable progress. With unquestioning devotion to the Union, with a patience and gentleness not born of fear, they have "followed the light as God gave them to see the light." They are rapidly laying the material foundations of self-support, widening their circle of intelligence, and beginning to enjoy the blessings that gather around the homes of the industrious poor. They deserve the generous encouragement of all good men. So far as my authority can lawfully extend they shall enjoy the full and equal protection of the Constitution and the laws.
  • It has been said that unsettled questions have no pity for the repose of nations. It should be said with the utmost emphasis that this question of the suffrage will never give repose or safety to the States or to the nation until each, within its own jurisdiction, makes and keeps the ballot free and pure by the strong sanctions of the law.
  • It is the high privilege and sacred duty of those now living to educate their successors and fit them, by intelligence and virtue, for the inheritance which awaits them. In this beneficent work, sections and races should be forgotten and partisanship should be unknown. Let our people find a new meaning in the divine oracle which declares that "a little child shall lead them," for our own little children will soon control the destinies of the Republic.
  • My countrymen, we do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of past generations, and fifty years hence our children will not be divided in their opinions concerning our controversies. They will surely bless their fathers and their fathers' God that the Union was preserved, that slavery was overthrown, and that both races were made equal before the law. We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation.
  • Enterprises of the highest importance to our moral and material well-being unite us and offer ample employment of our best powers. Let all our people, leaving behind them the battlefields of dead issues, move forward and in their strength of liberty and the restored Union win the grander victories of peace.
  • The civil service can never be placed on a satisfactory basis until it is regulated by law. For the good of the service itself, for the protection of those who are intrusted with the appointing power against the waste of time and obstruction to the public business caused by the inordinate pressure for place, and for the protection of incumbents against intrigue and wrong, I shall at the proper time ask Congress to fix the tenure of the minor offices of the several Executive Departments and prescribe the grounds upon which removals shall be made during the terms for which incumbents have been appointed.
  • I am about to assume the great trust which you have committed to my hands. I appeal to you for that earnest and thoughtful support which makes this Government in fact, as it is in law, a government of the people.
    I shall greatly rely upon the wisdom and patriotism of Congress and of those who may share with me the responsibilities and duties of administration, and, above all, upon our efforts to promote the welfare of this great people and their Government I reverently invoke the support and blessings of Almighty God.

Garfield's Words (1882)[edit]

I am glad to have the opportunity of standing up against a rabble of men who hasten to make weathercocks of themselves.
Quotations from Garfield's Words: Suggestive Passages from the Public and Private Writings of James Abram Garfield (1882) edited by William Ralston Balch
  • If there be one thing upon this earth that mankind love and admire better than another, it is a brave man — it is a man who dares to look the devil in the face and tell him he is a devil.
  • I am glad to have the opportunity of standing up against a rabble of men who hasten to make weathercocks of themselves.
  • I have always said that my whole public life was an experiment to determine whether an intelligent people would sustain a man in acting sensibly on each proposition that arose, and in doing nothing for mere show or demagogical effect.
  • It is not manly to lie even about Satan.
  • I would rather be defeated than make capital out of my religion.
  • The men who succeed best in public life are those who take the risk of standing by their own convictions.
  • The great Carlyle has said that the best gift God ever gave to man was an eye that could really see; I venture to add that an equally rare and not less important gift is the courage to tell what one sees.
  • I must do something to keep my thoughts fresh and growing. I dread nothing so much as falling into a rut and feeling myself becoming a fossil.



Disputed[edit]


Misattributed[edit]

  • History is philosophy teaching by example, and also warning; its two eyes are geography and chronology.
    • This quote was already published in 1853, when Garfield was only 22.
  • Ideas control the world.
    • John Wingate Thornton, The historical relation of New England to the English Commonwealth (1875), p. 46
  • Most human organizations that fall short of their goals do so not because of stupidity or faulty doctrines, but because of internal decay and rigidification. They grow stiff in the joints. They get in a rut. They go to seed.
  • Whosoever controls the volume of money in any country is absolute master of all industry and commerce.... And when you realize the entire system is very easily controlled, one way or another, by a few powerful men at the top, you will not have to be told how periods of inflation and depression originate.
    • This is probably a paraphrase of the “absolute dictator” quote (see Sourced), followed by commentary by someone else that has been misattributed to Garfield.
  • The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.
    • Attributed without citation to Mark Twain as well as Garfield in recent years, this may have arisen sometime in the 1970s, with earliest publication yet located Pinochet's Chile : An Eyewitness Report, 1980/81 (1981) by Morna Macleod, p. 5.
  • I take it that the question of employees is only a question of private and corporate economy, and individuals or companies have the right to buy labor where they can get it cheapest. We have a treaty with the Chinese government which should be religiously kept until its provisions are abrogated by the action of the general Government, and I am not prepared to say that it should be abrogated until our great manufacturing and corporate interests are conserved in the matter of labor.
    • This politically motivated misattribution was contained in a forged letter circulated during the 1880 presidential campaign. Reported in Paul F. Boller, John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (1990), p. 31.

Quotes about Garfield[edit]

Who of us, having heard him here or elsewhere, speaking upon a question of great national concern, can forget the might and majesty, the force and directness, the grace and beauty of his utterances. ~ William McKinley
  • Here he was leader and master, not by combination of scheming, not by chicanery or caucus, but by the force of his cultivated mind, his keen and farseeing judgment, his unanswerable logic, his strength and power of speech, his thorough comprehension of the subjects of legislation. Always strong, he was strongest on his feet addressing the House or from the rostrum the assembled people. Who of us having heard him here or elsewhere speaking upon a question of great national concern can forget the might and majesty, the force and directness, the grace and beauty of his utterances? He was always just to his adversary, an open and manly opponent, and free from invective. He convinced the judgment with his searching logic, while he swayed his listeners with brilliant periods and glowing eloquence. He was always an educator of people. His thoughts were fresh, vigorous, and instructive.
    • William McKinley, in a eulogy during an unveiling of a statue of Garfield (19 January 1886), as quoted in One of the People : Life and Speeches of William McKinley (1896) by F. T. Neely also quoted in The Life and Letters of James Abram Garfield: 1831-1877 Vol. 2 (1925) by Theodore Clarke Smith
  • Although elected, General Garfield never took his seat in the Senate of the United States. His legislative career ended here, where it had practically begun eighteen years before. His nomination for the Presidency occurred soon after the Legislature of Ohio had chosen him Senator, and came to him, as did all of his honors, because deserved. Although unsought, no mere chance brought him this rare distinction. His solid reputation rendered it not improbable at any time. He had the qualities which attached his great party to him and the equipment which filled the fullest measure of public and party requirements. From the stirring scenes at Chicago to the succeeding election he bore himself like a statesman and patriot fit for the highest trust. He advanced in public confidence, and whenever he met with or addressed the people, he enlarged the circle of his admiring followers and friends. … He was twenty-three years of age when he confronted the practical duties and the wider problems of life. All before had been training and preparation, the best of both, and his marvelous career ended before he was fifty. Few have crowded such great results and acquired such lasting fame in so short a life. Few have done so much for country and for civilization as he whom we honor to-day, stricken down as he was when scarce at the meridian of his powers. He did not flash forth as a meteor; he rose with measured and stately step over rough paths and through years of rugged work. He earned his passage to every preferment. He was tried and tested at every step in his pathway of progress. He produced his passport at every gateway to opportunity and glory.
    His broad and benevolent nature made him the friend of all mankind.
    • William McKinley, in a eulogy during an unveiling of a statue of Garfield (19 January 1886), as quoted in One of the People : Life and Speeches of William McKinley (1896) by F. T. Neely
  • He rushes into a fight with the horns of a bull and the skin of a rabbit.
    • Jeremiah S. Black, as quoted in Garfield of Ohio : The Available Man (1970) by John M. Tyler

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