Monday, February 18, 2013

Presidents' Day and the Destiny of the Republic

by Robert Morrison
Family Research Council's Senior Fellow for Policy Studies

Ever since Congress created Presidents' Day in lieu of the two traditional February birthdays for Washington (22nd) and Lincoln (12th), there has been a controversy. Many point to the fact that this day is still the official observance for George Washington. Others seem to want us to honor Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce right up there with the greatest of our elected Chiefs of State. I think Washington and Lincoln should receive the highest honors. But that does not mean we cannot give due credit to some of our other worthy leaders.

Today, I'd like to focus on the brief presidency of James A. Garfield. This poor Ohio farm boy worked hard and prepared himself for a life of service. He was the only ordained minister to serve in the White House. He fought bravely as a soldier in the Civil War. He gained fame as an orator and served as Speaker of the House of Representatives. So powerful was his nomination speech for an Ohio friend at the 1880 convention that he convinced the Republican delegates he should be their candidate.

As president, James Garfield committed himself to reform. He recognized the importance of education -- in his own life and that of his countrymen. But he asserted that education was a state and local responsibility. The federal government might aid land grant colleges, but should not intrude into state and local prerogatives.

"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." We don't have to guess who that "divine oracle" was.

Interestingly, Garfield followed the Republican Platform faithfully on the marriage issue. Yes, they had a marriage issue then. In his lengthy Inaugural Address, Garfield deplored the practice of polygamy by the Mormons and called upon Congress to strictly prohibit it in the territories. Happily, the Mormons would in time abandon their plural marriage doctrine and become in our day one of the staunchest backers of true marriage. Oh that the Republicans leaders of today would speak out so forcefully and take action so effective to keep their pledges to protect true marriage.

President Garfield was shot in Washington, D.C.'s Union Station on July 2, 1881. His assassin, Charles Guiteau, blamed Garfield for not receiving a political patronage job. Guiteau claimed to be a "Stalwart," as the pro-U.S. Grant faction of the Republicans called themselves. "I am a Stalwart, and now Arthur is president," said the assassin as he fired on the president. Chester Alan Arthur, Garfield's vice president, was a member of that faction. Arthur never wanted to be president and certainly not to be elevated by the hand of an assassin.

Garfield lingered through the hot summer months in Washington, suffering greatly from the wound in his back. He rallied at first, and then grew sicker as his doctors thrust their unclean hands into the wound. He knew he was nearing his death, so President Garfield demanded to be taken to the ocean. A special train was ordered and extra tracks were laid down to a seaside cottage in Elberon, New Jersey. When the train could not reach the cottage, the president's car was pushed by hundreds of volunteers to its final destination. This moving scene was a testimony to how genuinely loved this brave hero of the Civil War was by the American people. His death was mourned in churches North and South. Especially touching was the reverence in which he was held by the black Christians who supported him so faithfully.

Happily for the nation, Chester Alan Arthur rose above the corrupt practices of some of his fellow Stalwarts and became an honored president in his own right. But we can be grateful that America had such a leader as James A. Garfield to leave a legacy of Christian service and sacrifice.