On April 14, 1861—two days after the rebels fired on Fort Sumter—a young James A. Garfield wrote a letter in which he predicted that “The war will soon assume the shape of Slavery and Freedom. The world will so understand it, and I believe the final outcome will redound to the good of humanity.” Even then, Garfield clearly understood what many illogically continue to deny over 150 years later: that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War.
As a young man, Garfield had believed it “un-Christian” to be involved in politics. However, as a Massachusetts college student he reversed his stance and soon became obsessed with doing his part to rid the country of the evils of slavery. “‘No more Slave Extension’ should be the motto bound to every freeman’s breast,” he told his diary on November 2, 1855. “At such hours as this I feel like throwing the whole current of my life into the work of opposing this giant evil. I don’t know but the religion of Christ demands some such action.” Garfield found a political home in the Republican Party, which from its inception was dedicated to keeping slavery out of the West and later to ensuring legal, civil, and economic equality for all. He remained a dedicated Republican for the rest of his life, through service in the Ohio State Senate, the Union Army, and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Garfield was serving in the House in 1876, when Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Republicans cried foul at the loss based on reports of intimidation and violence against black voters in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. Congress created an electoral commission to determine the election’s true winner and tapped Garfield as one of the fifteen members. The Ohioan traveled to Louisiana to investigate and came away convinced that African Americans had, in fact, been kept from the polls. Garfield had written in a private letter months before the election that “The Democratic party has been and is now submissive to the despots of the South…. They are wrong and the Republican party right every time.” Ever the pragmatist, though, Garfield—hoping the Republicans might gain a following among some conservative southern whites—quietly advised Hayes, “It would be a great help if, in some discrete way, those violent followers could know that the South was going to be treated with kind consideration by you.”
Soon enough, Democrats in the three disputed states acquiesced to a Hayes presidency in return for the new administration’s promise to promote economic development in the South and to leave local politics alone. With the U.S. government looking the other way as Democrats regained control of their states, white southerners were once again free to oppress African Americans openly and to reverse many of the gains black Americans had made during Reconstruction. White conservatives did not become Republicans as Garfield had hoped; instead, they rejuvenated the white supremacist Democratic Party.
Four years after Hayes abandoned southern African Americans, Garfield ran for president as a Lincoln Republican, insisting on equal rights for black Americans. He won election in November 1880, but by a razor-thin margin in the popular vote, defeating Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock by somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 votes of several million cast. While his Electoral College victory was far more decisive—214 to 155 for Hancock—Garfield was certainly not entering office with anything close to a popular mandate from the American public. Just as troubling, a look at the 1880 electoral map could lead one to believe it was 1861, not two decades later. The North had gone solid for the Republican Garfield; the South was just as solid for Hancock. In fact, Hancock’s southern sweep represented the first instance of what would later be called the “solid South.”
Friday, March 4, 1881 dawned cold and snowy in Washington, D.C. Just before noon, on the East Portico of the Capitol building, President-elect James A. Garfield rose to deliver his inaugural address before being sworn in (as was customary at the time) as the twentieth President of the United States. Garfield had struggled mightily with the address, scrapping his draft and starting over just days before and then staying up until two o’clock on the morning of March 4 applying the finishing touches.
Garfield might very easily have chosen to ignore civil rights and race relations in his inaugural address. He was incredibly knowledgeable about fiscal issues; he cared deeply about education; he wanted to reform and modernize the American naval fleet. He had fought in the Civil War, first as a Union general and then as a congressman, and had slugged it out in the House of Representatives during Reconstruction. Garfield, once describing himself as “cursed” by his ability to see both sides of every issue, had at various times been a Radical Republican, a moderate, and a conservative. But Reconstruction was over, and even many former Radicals believed the federal government had done all it could or should for African Americans. The temptation for Garfield to look only forward, not backward, must have been great.
Instead, Garfield boldly and directly addressed civil rights. “The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to full rights of citizenship,” he stated, “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.” Many southern whites surely recoiled at this statement, and Garfield was already creating an uphill battle for himself to win any southern states in his presumed 1884 run for reelection. “There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States,” he continued. “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 early Republican philosophies of equality and governmental activism to benefit all Americans resonated with a young Garfield and stayed with him—even to his inauguration as president. So to those who knew him then or study him now, it is no surprise that Garfield reiterated his own and the government’s commitments to civil rights and equality in his inaugural address. Though many in the Republican Party had moved on from the racial issues of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras and were looking for new alliances with financiers and industrialists, James A. Garfield continued to believe that the government had not only the means, but also the responsibility, to promote equality and opportunity for all Americans.
“We stand today upon an eminence which overlooks a hundred years of national life,” he told the crowd, “a century crowded with perils, but crowned with the triumphs of liberty and law.” And he would, he promised, help liberty and law prevail again during his administration. With such a leader at the nation’s helm, the next four (or perhaps even eight) years had the potential to be good ones.