The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 10

Author: James G. Blaine  | Date: 1882


On the Death of Garfield*

In 1685 the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV., scattered to other countries four hundred thousand Protestants, who were among the most intelligent and enterprising of French subjects—merchants of capital, skilled manufacturers, and handicraftsmen superior at the time to all other in Europe. A considerable number of these Huguenot French came to America; a fe landed in New England and became honorably prominent in its history. Their names have in large part become Anglicized, or have disappeared, but their blood is traceable in many of the most reputable families and their fame is 113 perpetuated in honorable memorials and useful institutions.

From these two sources, the English-Puritan and the French-Huguenot, came the late president—his father, Abram Garfield, descended from the one, and his mother, Eliza Ballou, from the other.

It was good stock on both sides—none better, none braver, none truer. There was in it an inheritance of courage, of manliness, of imperishable love of liberty, of undying adherence to principle. Garfield was proud of his blood; and, with as much satisfaction as if he were a British nobleman reading his stately ancestral record in Burke’s "Peerage," he spoke of himself as ninth in descent from those who would not endure the oppression of the Stuarts, and seventh in descent from the brave French Protestants who refused to submit to tyranny even from the Grand Monarch.

General Garfield delighted to dwell on these traits, and during his only visit to England he busied himself in discovering every trace of his forefathers in parish registers and on ancient army rolls. Sitting with a friend in the gallery of the House of Commons one night after a long days’ labor in this field of research, he said with evident elation that in every war in which for three centuries patriots of English blood had struck sturdy blows for constitutional government and human liberty, his family had been represented. They were at Marston Moor, at 114 Naseby, and at Preston; they were at Bunker Hill, at Saratoga, and at Monmouth; and in his own person had battled for the same great cause in the war which preserved the Union of the States.

The poverty of the frontier, where all are engaged in a common struggle, and where a common sympathy and hearty cooperation lighten the burdens of each, is a very different poverty—different in kind, different in influence and effect—from that conscious and humiliating indigence which is every day forced to contrast itself with neighboring wealth on which it feels a sense of grinding dependence. The poverty of the frontier is, indeed, no poverty. It is but the beginning of wealth, and has the boundless possibilities of the future always opening before it. No man ever grew up in the agricultural regions of the West, where a house-raising, or even a corn-husking is a matter of common interest and helpfulness, with any other feeling than that of broad-minded, generous independence. This honorable independence marked the youth of Garfield as it marks the youth of millions of the best blood and brain now training for the future citizenship and future government of the Republic. Garfield was born heir to land, to the title of freeholder which has been the patent and passport of self-respect with the Anglo-Saxon race ever since Hengist and Horsa landed on the shores of England. His adventure on the canal—an alternative between that and the deck of 115 a Lake Erie schooner—was a farmer boy’s device for earning money, just as the New England lad begins a possibly great career by sailing before the mast on a coasting vessel or on a merchantman bound to the Farther India or to the China Seas.

No manly man feels anything of shame in looking back to early struggles with adverse circumstances, and no man feels a worthier pride than when he has conquered the obstacles to his progress. But no one of noble mold desires to be looked upon as having occupied a menial position, as having been repressed by a feeling of inferiority, or as having suffered the evils of poverty until relief was found at the hand of charity. General Garfield’s youth presented no hardships which family love and family energy did not overcome, subjected him to no privations which he did not cheerfully accept, and left no memories save those which were recalled with delight, and transmitted with profit and with pride.

With possibly a single exception, Garfield was the youngest member in the House when he entered, and was but seven years from his college graduation. But he had not been in his seat sixty days before his ability was recognized and his place conceded. He stepped to the front with the confidence of one who belonged there. The House was crowded with strong men of both parties; nineteen of them have since been transferred to the Senate, and many of them have served with distinction in the gubernatorial 116 chairs of their respective State and on foreign missions of great consequence; but among them all none grew so rapidly, none so firmly, as Garfield. As is said by Trevelyan of his parliamentary hero, Garfield succeeded "because all the world in concert could not have kept him in the background, and because when once in the front he played his part with a prompt intrepidity and a commanding ease that were but the outward symptoms of the immense reserves of energy on which it was in his power to draw." Indeed, the apparently reserved force which Garfield possessed was one of his great characteristics. He never did so well but that it seemed he could easily have done better. He never expended so much strength but that he seemed to be holding additional power to call. This is one of the happiest and rarest distinctions of an effective debater, and often counts for as much in persuading an assembly as the eloquent and elaborate argument.

The great measure of Garfield’s fame was filled by his service in the House of Representatives. His military life, illustrated by honorable performance, and rich in promise, was, as he himself felt, prematurely terminated and necessarily incomplete. Speculation as to what he might have done in the field, where the great prizes are so few, can not be profitable. it is sufficient to say that as a soldier he did his duty bravely; he did it intelligently; he won an enviable fame, and he retired from the service 117 without blot or breath against him. As a lawyer, tho admirably equipped for the profession, he can scarcely be said to have entered on its practise. The few efforts that he made at the bar were distinguished by the same high order of talent which he exhibited on every field where he was put to test, and if a man may be accepted as a competent judge of his own capacities and adaptation, the law was the profession to which Garfield should have devoted himself. But fate ordained it otherwise, and his reputation in history will rest largely upon his services in the House of Representatives. That service was exceptionally long. He was nine times consecutively chosen to the House, an honor enjoyed by not more than six other representatives of the more than five thousand who have been elected from the organization of the government to this hour.

As a parliamentary orator, as a debater on an issue squarely joined, where the position had been chosen and the ground laid out, Garfield must be assigned a very high rank. More, perhaps, than any man with whom he was associated in public life he gave careful and systematic study to public questions, and he came to every discussion in which he took part with elaborate and complete preparation. He was a steady and indefatigable worker. Those who imagine that talent or genius can supply the place or achieve the results of labor will find no encouragement in Garfield’s life. In preliminary work he was apt, rapid, and skilful. He possessed in a high 118 degree the power of readily absorbing ideas and fact, and, like Doctor Johnson, had the art of getting from a book all that was of value in it by a reading apparently so quick and cursory that it seemed like a mere glance at a table of contents. He was a preeminently fair and candid man in debate, took no petty advantage, stooped to no unworthy methods, avoided personal allusions, rarely appealed to prejudice, did not seek to inflame passion. He had a quicker eye for the strong point of his adversary than for his weak point, and on his own side he so marshaled his weighty arguments as to make his hearers forget any possible lack in the complete strength of his position. He had a habit of stating his opponent’s side with such amplitude of fairness and such liberality of concession that his followers often complained that he was giving his case away. But never in his prolonged participation in the proceedings of the House did he give his case away, or fail in the judgment of competent and impartial listeners to gain the mastery.

These characteristics, which marked Garfield as a great debater, did not, however, make him a great parliamentary leader. A parliamentary leader, as that term is understood wherever free representative government exists, is necessarily and very strictly the organ of his party. An ardent Americana defined the instinctive warmth of patriotism when he offered the toast, "Our country always right; but, right or wrong, our country." The parliamentary leader who has a 119 body of followers that will do and dare and die for the cause is one who believes his party always right, but, right or wrong, is for his party. No more important or exacting duty devolves upon him than the selection of the field and the time of the contest. He must know not merely how to strike, but where to strike and when to strike. He often skilfully avoids the strength of his opponent’s position and scatters confusion in his ranks by attacking an exposed point, when really the righteousness of the cause and the strength of logical intrenchment are against him. He conquers often both against the right and the heavy battalions; as when young Charles Fox, in the days of his Toryism, carried the House of Commons against justice, against immemorial rights, against his own convictions—if, indeed, at that period, Fox had convictions—and in the interest of a corrupt administration, in obedience to a tyrannical sovereign, drove Wilkes from the seat to which the electors of Middlesex had chosen him and installed Luttrell, in defiance, not merely of law, but of public decency. For an achievement of that kind Garfield was disqualified—disqualified by the texture of his mind, by the honesty of his heart, by his conscience, and by every instinct and aspiration of his nature.

The three most distinguished parliamentary leaders hitherto developed in this country are Mr. Clay, Mr. Douglas, and Mr. Thaddeus Stevens. Each was a man of consummate ability, 120 of great earnestness, of intense personality differing widely each from the others, and yet with a signal trait in common—the power to command. In the "give and take" of daily discussion; in the art of controlling and consolidating reluctant and refractory followers; in the skill to overcome all forms of opposition, and to meet with competency and courage the varying phases of unlooked-for assault or unsuspected defection, it would be difficult to rank with these a fourth name in all our Congressional history. But of these Mr. Clay was the greatest.

It would, perhaps, be impossible to find in the parliamentary annals of the world a parallel to Mr. Clay, in 1841, when at sixty-four years of age he took the control of the Whig party from the president who had received their suffrages, against the power of Webster in the Cabinet, against the eloquence of Choate in the Senate, against the herculean efforts of Caleb Cushing and Henry A. Wise in the House. In unshared leadership, in the pride and plentitude of power he hurled against John Tyler with deepest scorn the mass of that conquering column which had swept over the land in 1840, and drove his administration to seek shelter behind the lines of his political foes. Mr. Douglas achieved a victory scarcely less wonderful when, in 1854, against the secret desires of a strong administration, against the wise counsel of the older chiefs, against the conservative instincts and even the moral sense of the country, he 121 forced a reluctant Congress into a repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Mr. Thaddeus Stevens, in his contests from 1865 to 1868, actually advanced his parliamentary leadership until Congress tied the hands of the president and governed the country by its own will, leaving only perfunctory duties to be discharged by the executive. With two hundred millions of patronage in his hands at the opening of the contest, aided by the active force of Seward in the cabinet, and the moral power of Chase on the bench, Andrew Johnson could not command the support of one-third in either House against the parliamentary uprising of which Thaddeus Stevens was the animating spirit and the unquestioned leader.

From these three great men Garfield differed radically; differed in the quality of his mind, in temperament, in the form and phase of ambition. He could not do what they did, but he could do what they could not, and in the breadth of his Congressional work he left that which will longer exert a potential influence among men, and which, measured by the severe test of posthumous criticism, will secure a more enduring and more enviable fame.

Those unfamiliar with Garfield’s industry, and ignorant of the details of his work, may in some degree measure them by the annals of Congress. No one of the generation of public men to which he belonged has contributed so much that will be valuable for future reference. His 122 speeches are numerous, many of them brilliant, all of them well studied, carefully phrased, and exhaustive of the subject under consideration. Collected from the scattered page of ninety royal octavo volumes of the Congressional Record, they would present an invaluable compendium of the political history of the most important era through which the national government has ever passed.

Differing, as Garfield does, from the brilliant parliamentary leaders, it is not easy to find his counterpart anywhere in the record of American public life. He perhaps more nearly resembles Mr. Seward in his supreme faith in the all-conquering power of a principle. He had the love of learning and the patient industry of investigation to which John Quincy Adams owes his prominence and his presidency. He had some of those ponderous elements of mind which distinguished Mr. Webster, and which indeed, in all our public life, have left the great Massachusetts senator without an intellectual peer.

In English parliamentary history, as in our own, the leaders in the House of Commons present points of essential difference from Garfield. But some of his methods recall the best features in the strong, independent course of Sir Robert Peel, and striking resemblances are discernible in that most promising of modern Conservatives, who died too early for his country and his fame, Lord George Bentinck. He had all of Burke’s love for the sublime and the beautiful, with, 123 possibly, something of his superabundance, and in his faith and his magnanimity, in his power of statement, in his subtle analysis, in his faultless logic, in his love of literature, in his wealth and world of illustration, one is reminded of that great English statesman of to-day, who, confronted with obstacles that would daunt any but the dauntless, reviled by those whom he would relieve as bitterly as by those whose supposed rights he is forced to invade, still labors with serene courage for the amelioration of Ireland and for the honor of the English name.

Garfield’s nomination to the presidency, while not predicted or anticipated, was not a surprise to the country. His prominence in Congress, his solid qualities, his wide reputation, strengthened by his then recent election as senator from Ohio, kept him in the public eye as a man occupying the very highest rank among those entitled to be called statesman. It was not mere chance that brought him this high honor. "We must," says mr. Emerson, "reckon success a constitutional trait. If Eric is in robust health, and has slept well and is at the top of his condition, and thirty years old at his departure from Greenland, he will steer west and his ships will reach Newfoundland. But take Eric out and put in a stronger and bolder man and the ships will sail six hundred, one thousand, fifteen hundred miles farther and reach Labrador and New England. There is no chance in results."

In the beginning of his presidential life 124 Garfield’s experience did not yield him pleasure or satisfaction. The duties that engross so large a portion of the president’s time were distasteful to him, and were unfavorably contrasted with his legislative work. "I have been dealing all these years with ideas," he impatiently exclaimed one day, "and here I am dealing only with persons. I have been heretofore treating of the fundamental principles of government, and here I am considering all day whether A or B shall be appointed to this or that office." He was earnestly seeking some practical way of correcting the evils arising from the distribution of overgrown and unwieldy patronage—evils always appreciated and often discussed by him, but whose magnitude had been more deeply impressed upon his mind since his accession to the presidency. had he lived, a comprehensive improvement in the mode of appointment and in the tenure of office would have been proposed by him, and, with the aid of Congress, no doubt perfected.

But, while many of the executive duties were not grateful to him, he was assiduous and conscientious in their discharge. From the very outset he exhibited administrative talent of a high order. He grasped the helm of office with the hand of a master. In this respect, indeed, he constantly surprised many who were most intimately associated with him in the government, and especially those who had feared that he might be lacking in the executive faculty. His 125 disposition of business was orderly and rapid. His power of analysis and his skill in classification enabled him to despatch a vast mass of detail with singular promptness and ease. His cabinet meetings were admirably conducted. His clear presentation of official subjects, his well-considered suggestion of topics on which discussion was invited, his quick decision when all had been heard, combined to show a thoroughness of mental training as rare as his natural ability and his facile adaptation to a new and enlarged field of labor.

Garfield’s ambition for the success of his administration was high. With strong caution and conservatism in his nature, he was in no danger of attempting rash experiments or of resorting to the empiricism of statesmanship. But he believed that renewed and closer attention should be given to questions affecting the material interests and commercial prospects of fifty millions of people. He believed that our continental relations, extensive and undeveloped as they are, involved responsibility and could be cultivated into profitable friendship or be abandoned to harmful indifference or lasting enmity. He believed with equal confidence that an essential forerunner to a new era of national progress must be a feeling of contentment in every section of the Union and a generous belief that the benefits and burdens of government would be common to all.

The political events which disturbed the 126 president’s serenity for many weeks before that fatal day in July, form an important chapter in his career, and, in his own judgment, involved questions of principle and right which are vitally essential to the constitutional administration of the federal government. It would be out of place here and now to speak the language of controversy, but the events referred to, however they may continue to be a source of contention with others, have become, as far as Garfield is concerned, as much a matter of history as his heroism at Chickamauga or his illustrious service in the House. Detail is not needful, and personal antagonism shall not be rekindled by any word uttered to-day. The motives of those opposing him are not to be here adversely interpreted nor their course harshly characterized. But of the dead president this is to be said, and said because his own speech is for ever silenced and he can be no more heard except through the fidelity and the love of surviving friends: From the beginning to the end of the controversy he so much deplored, the president was never for one moment actuated by any motive of gain to himself or of loss to others. Least of all men did he harbor revenge, rarely did he even show resentment, and malice was not in his nature. He was congenially employed only in the exchange of good offices and the doing of kindly deeds.

There was not an hour, from the beginning of the trouble till the fatal shot entered his body, 127 when the president would not gladly, for the sake of restoring harmony, having retracted any step he had taken if such retracting had merely involved consequences personal to himself. The pride of consistency, or any supposed sense of humiliation that might result from surrendering his position, had not a feather’s weight with him. No man was ever less subject to such influences from within or from without. But after the most anxious deliberation and the coolest survey of all the circumstances, he solemnly believed that the true prerogative of the executive were involved in the issue which had been raised and that he would be unfaithful to his supreme obligation if he failed to maintain, in all their vigor, the constitutional rights and dignities of his great office. He believed this in all the convictions of conscience when in sound and vigorous health, and he believed it in his suffering and prostration in the last conscious thought which his wearied mind bestowed on the transitory struggles of life.

More than this need not be said. Less than this could not be said. Justice to the dead, the highest obligation that devolves upon the living, demands the declaration that in all the bearings of the subject, actual or possible, the president was content in his mind, justified in his conscience, immovable in his conclusions.

Great in life, he was surpassingly great in death. For no cause, in the very frenzy of wantonness and wickedness, by the red hand of 128 murder, he was thrust from the full tide of this world’s interest, from its hopes, its aspirations, its victories, into the visible presence of death—and he did not quail. Not alone for one short moment in which, stunned and dazed, he could give up life, hardly aware of its relinquishment, but through days of deadly languor, through weeks of agony, that was not less agony because silently borne, with clear sight and calm courage he looked into his open grave. What blight and ruin met his anguished eyes, whose lips may tell—what brilliant, broken plans, what baffled, high ambitions, what sundering of strong, warm, manhood’s friendship, what bitter rending of sweet household ties! Behind him a proud, expectant nation, a great host of sustaining friends, a cherished and happy mother, wearing the full, rich honors of her early toil and tears; the wife of his youth, whose whole life lay in his; the little boys not yet emerged from childhood’s day of frolic; the fair young daughter; the sturdy sons just springing into closest companionship, claiming every day and every day rewarding a father’s love and care; and in his heart the eager, rejoicing power to meet all demands. And his soul was not shaken. His countrymen were thrilled with instant, profound, and universal sympathy. Masterful in his mortal weakness, he became the center of a nation’s love, enshrined in the prayers of a world. But all the love and all the sympathy could not share with him his suffering. He trod the wine-press alone. 129 With unfaltering front he faced death. With unfailing tenderness he took leave of life. Above the demoniac hiss of the assassin’s bullet he heard the voice of God. With simple resignation he bowed to the Divine decree.

As the end drew near his early craving for the sea returned. The stately mansion of power had been to him the wearisome hospital of pain, and he begged to be taken from his prison walls, from its oppressive, stifling air, from its homelessness and its hopelessness. Gently, silently, the love of a great people bore the pale sufferer to the longed-for healing of the sea, to live or to die, as God should will, within sight of the heaving billows, within sound of its manifold voices. With a wan, fevered face, tenderly lifted to the cooling breeze, he looked out wistfully upon the ocean’s changing wonders; on its far sails; on its restless waves, rolling shoreward to break and die beneath the noonday sun; on the red clouds of evening, arching low to the horizon; on the serene and shining pathway of the star. Let us think that his dying eyes read a mystic meaning which only the rapt and parting soul may know. Let us believe that in the silence of the receding world he heard the great waves breaking on a further shore and felt already upon his wasted brow the breath of the eternal morning. 130

*Delivered in the House of Representatives, February 27, 1882. Abridged.

Download Options

Title: The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 10

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 10

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: James G. Blaine, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 10 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), Original Sources, accessed May 20, 2024,

MLA: Blaine, James G. The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 10, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. 10, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, Original Sources. 20 May. 2024.

Harvard: Blaine, JG, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 10. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 May 2024, from