Miller Center

Inaugural Address (March 4, 1881)

James A. Garfield


We stand to-day upon an eminence which overlooks a hundred years ofnational life--a century crowded with perils, but crowned with the triumphsof liberty and law. Before continuing the onward march let us pause onthis height for a moment to strengthen our faith and renew our hope bya glance at the pathway along which our people have traveled. 

It is now three days more than a hundred years since the adoption ofthe first written constitution of the United States--the Articles of Confederationand Perpetual Union. The new Republic was then beset with danger on everyhand. It had not conquered a place in the family of nations. The decisivebattle of the war for independence, whose centennial anniversary will soonbe gratefully celebrated at Yorktown, had not yet been fought. The colonistswere struggling not only against the armies of a great nation, but againstthe settled opinions of mankind; for the world did not then believe thatthe supreme authority of government could be safely intrusted to the guardianshipof the people themselves. 

We can not overestimate the fervent love of liberty, the intelligentcourage, and the sum of common sense with which our fathers made the greatexperiment of self-government. When they found, after a short trial, thatthe confederacy of States, was too weak to meet the necessities of a vigorousand expanding republic, they boldly set it aside, and in its stead establisheda National Union, founded directly upon the will of the people, endowedwith full power of self-preservation and ample authority for the accomplishmentof its great object. 

Under this Constitution the boundaries of freedom have been enlarged,the foundations of order and peace have been strengthened, and the growthof our people in all the better elements of national life has indicatedthe wisdom of the founders and given new hope to their descendants. Underthis Constitution our people long ago made themselves safe against dangerfrom without and secured for their mariners and flag equality of rightson all the seas. Under this Constitution twenty-five States have been addedto the Union, with constitutions and laws, framed and enforced by theirown citizens, to secure the manifold blessings of local self-government. 

The jurisdiction of this Constitution now covers an area fifty timesgreater than that of the original thirteen States and a population twentytimes greater than that of 1780. 

The supreme trial of the Constitution came at last under the tremendouspressure of civil war. We ourselves are witnesses that the Union emergedfrom the blood and fire of that conflict purified and made stronger forall the beneficent purposes of good government. 

And now, at the close of this first century of growth, with the inspirationsof its history in their hearts, our people have lately reviewed the conditionof the nation, passed judgment upon the conduct and opinions of politicalparties, and have registered their will concerning the future administrationof the Government. To interpret and to execute that will in accordancewith the Constitution is the paramount duty of the Executive. 

Even from this brief review it is manifest that the nation is resolutelyfacing to the front, resolved to employ its best energies in developingthe great possibilities of the future. Sacredly preserving whatever hasbeen gained to liberty and good government during the century, our peopleare determined to leave behind them all those bitter controversies concerningthings which have been irrevocably settled, and the further discussionof which can only stir up strife and delay the onward march. 

The supremacy of the nation and its laws should be no longer a subjectof debate. That discussion, which for half a century threatened the existenceof the Union, was closed at last in the high court of war by a decree fromwhich there is no appeal--that the Constitution and the laws made in pursuancethereof are and shall continue to be the supreme law of the land, bindingalike upon the States and the people. This decree does not disturb theautonomy of the States nor interfere with any of their necessary rightsof local self-government, but it does fix and establish the permanent supremacyof the Union. 

The will of the nation, speaking with the voice of battle and throughthe 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 citizenshipis the most important political change we have known since the adoptionof the Constitution of 1787. NO thoughtful man can fail to appreciate itsbeneficent effect upon our institutions and people. It has freed us fromthe perpetual danger of war and dissolution. It has added immensely tothe moral and industrial forces of our people. It has liberated the masteras well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both.It has surrendered to their own guardianship the manhood of more than 5,000,000people, and has opened to each one of them a career of freedom and usefulness.It has given new inspiration to the power of self-help in both races bymaking labor more honorable to the one and more necessary to the other.The influence of this force will grow greater and bear richer fruit withthe coming years. 

No doubt this great change has caused serious disturbance to our Southerncommunities. This is to be deplored, though it was perhaps unavoidable.But those who resisted the change should remember that under our institutionsthere was no middle ground for the negro race between slavery and equalcitizenship. There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the UnitedStates. Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessings so long as thelaw or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway ofany virtuous citizen. 

The emancipated race has already made remarkable progress. With unquestioningdevotion 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." Theyare rapidly laying the material foundations of self-support, widening theircircle of intelligence, and beginning to enjoy the blessings that gatheraround the homes of the industrious poor. They deserve the generous encouragementof all good men. So far as my authority can lawfully extend they shallenjoythe full and equal protection of the Constitution and the laws. 

The free enjoyment of equal suffrage is still in question, and a frankstatement of the issue may aid its solution. It is alleged that in manycommunities negro citizens are practically denied the freedom of the ballot.In so far as the truth of this allegation is admitted, it is answered thatin many places honest local government is impossible if the mass of uneducatednegroes are allowed to vote. These are grave allegations. So far as thelatter is true, it is the only palliation that can be offered for opposingthe freedom of the ballot. Bad local government is certainly a great evil,which ought to be prevented; but to violate the freedom and sanctitiesof the suffrage is more than an evil. It is a crime which, if persistedin, will destroy the Government itself. Suicide is not a remedy. If inother lands it be high treason to compass the death of the king, it shallbe counted no less a crime here to strangle our sovereign power and stifleits voice. 

It has been said that unsettled questions have no pity for the reposeof nations. It should be said with the utmost emphasis that this questionof the suffrage will never give repose or safety to the States or to thenation until each, within its own jurisdiction, makes and keeps the ballotfree and pure by the strong sanctions of the law. 

But the danger which arises from ignorance in the voter can not be denied.It covers a field far wider than that of negro suffrage and the presentcondition of the race. It is a danger that lurks and hides in the sourcesand fountains of power in every state. We have no standard by which tomeasure the disaster that may be brought upon us by ignorance and vicein the citizens when joined to corruption and fraud in the suffrage. 

The voters of the Union, who make and unmake constitutions, and uponwhose will hang the destinies of our governments, can transmit their supremeauthority to no successors save the coming generation of voters, who arethe sole heirs of sovereign power. If that generation comes to its inheritanceblinded by ignorance and corrupted by vice, the fall of the Republic willbe certain and remediless. 

The census has already sounded the alarm in the appalling figures whichmark how dangerously high the tide of illiteracy has risen among our votersand their children. 

To the South this question is of supreme importance. But the responsibilityfor the existence of slavery did not rest upon the South alone. The nationitself is responsible for the extension of the suffrage, and is under specialobligations to aid in removing the illiteracy which it has added to thevoting population. For the North and South alike there is but one remedy.All the constitutional power of the nation and of the States and all thevolunteer forces of the people should be surrendered to meet this dangerby the savory influence of universal education. 

It is the high privilege and sacred duty of those now living to educatetheir successors and fit them, by intelligence and virtue, for the inheritancewhich awaits them. 

In this beneficent work sections and races should be forgotten and partisanshipshould be unknown. Let our people find a new meaning in the divine oraclewhich declares that "a little child shall lead them," for our own littlechildren will soon control the destinies of the Republic. 

My countrymen, we do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversiesof past generations, and fifty years hence our children will not be dividedin their opinions concerning our controversies. They will surely blesstheir fathers and their fathers' God that the Union was preserved, thatslavery was overthrown, and that both races were made equal before thelaw. We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the finalreconciliation. Is it not possible for us now to make a truce with timeby anticipating and accepting its inevitable verdict? 

Enterprises of the highest importance to our moral and material well-beingunite us and offer ample employment of our best powers. Let all our people,leaving behind them the battlefields of dead issues, move forward and intheir strength of liberty and the restored Union win the grander victoriesof peace. 

The prosperity which now prevails is without parallel in our history.Fruitful seasons have done much to secure it, but they have not done all.The preservation of the public credit and the resumption of specie payments,so successfully attained by the Administration of my predecessors, haveenabled our people to secure the blessings which the seasons brought. 

By the experience of commercial nations in all ages it has been foundthat gold and silver afford the only safe foundation for a monetary system.Confusion has recently been created by variations in the relative valueof the two metals, but I confidently believe that arrangements can be madebetween the leading commercial nations which will secure the general useof both metals. Congress should provide that the compulsory coinage ofsilver now required by law may not disturb our monetary system by drivingeither metal out of circulation. If possible, such an adjustment shouldbe made that the purchasing power of every coined dollar will be exactlyequal to its debt-paying power in all the markets of the world. 

The chief duty of the National Government in connection with the currencyof the country is to coin money and declare its value. Grave doubts havebeen entertained whether Congress is authorized by the Constitution tomake any form of paper money legal tender. The present issue of UnitedStates notes has been sustained by the necessities of war; but such papershould depend for its value and currency upon its convenience in use andits prompt redemption in coin at the will of the holder, and not upon itscompulsory circulation. These notes are not money, but promises to paymoney. If the holders demand it, the promise should be kept. 

The refunding of the national debt at a lower rate of interest shouldbe accomplished without compelling the withdrawal of the national-banknotes, and thus disturbing the business of the country. 

I venture to refer to the position I have occupied on financial questionsduring a long service in Congress, and to say that time and experiencehave strengthened the opinions I have so often expressed on these subjects. 

The finances of the Government shall suffer no detriment which it maybe possible for my Administration to prevent. 

The interests of agriculture deserve more attention from the Governmentthan they have yet received. The farms of the United States afford homesand employment for more than one-half our people, and furnish much thelargest part of all our exports. As the Government lights our coasts forthe protection of mariners and the benefit of commerce, so it should giveto the tillers of the soil the best lights of practical science and experience. 

Our manufacturers are rapidly making us industrially independent, andare opening to capital and labor new and profitable fields of employment.Their steady and healthy growth should still be matured. Our facilitiesfor transportation should be promoted by the continued improvement of ourharbors and great interior waterways and by the increase of our tonnageon the ocean. 

The development of the world's commerce has led to an urgent demandfor shortening the great sea voyage around Cape Horn by constructing shipcanals or railways across the isthmus which unites the continents. Variousplans to this end have been suggested and will need consideration, butnone of them has been sufficiently matured to warrant the United Statesin extending pecuniary aid. The subject, however, is one which will immediatelyengage the attention of the Government with a view to a thorough protectionto American interests. We will urge no narrow policy nor seek peculiaror exclusive privileges in any commercial route; but, in the language ofmy predecessor, I believe it to be the right "and duty of the United Statesto assert and maintain such supervision and authority over any interoceaniccanal across the isthmus that connects North and South America as willprotect our national interest." 

The Constitution guarantees absolute religious freedom. Congress isprohibited from making any law respecting an establishment of religionor prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Territories of the UnitedStates are subject to the direct legislative authority of Congress, andhence the General Government is responsible for any violation of the Constitutionin any of them. It is therefore a reproach to the Government that in themost populous of the Territories the constitutional guaranty is not enjoyedby the people and the authority of Congress is set at naught. The MormonChurch not only offends the moral sense of manhood by sanctioning polygamy,but prevents the administration of justice through ordinary instrumentalitiesof law. 

In my judgment it is the duty of Congress, while respecting to the uttermostthe conscientious convictions and religious scruples of every citizen,to prohibit within its jurisdiction all criminal practices, especiallyof that class which destroy the family relations and endanger social order.Nor can any ecclesiastical organization be safely permitted to usurp inthe smallest degree the functions and powers of the National Government. 

The civil service can never be placed on a satisfactory basis untilit is regulated by law. For the good of the service itself, for the protectionof those who are intrusted with the appointing power against the wasteof time and obstruction to the public business caused by the inordinatepressure for place, and for the protection of incumbents against intrigueand wrong, I shall at the proper time ask Congress to fix the tenure ofthe minor offices of the several Executive Departments and prescribe thegrounds upon which removals shall be made during the terms for which incumbentshave been appointed. 

Finally, acting always within the authority and limitations of the Constitution,invading neither the rights of the States nor the reserved rights of thepeople, it will be the purpose of my Administration to maintain the authorityof the nation in all places within its jurisdiction; to enforce obedienceto all the laws of the Union in the interests of the people; to demandrigid economy in all the expenditures of the Government, and to requirethe honest and faithful service of all executive officers, rememberingthat the offices were created, not for the benefit of incumbents or theirsupporters, but for the service of the Government. 

And now, fellow-citizens, I am about to assume the great trust whichyou have committed to my hands. I appeal to you for that earnest and thoughtfulsupport which makes this Government in fact, as it is in law, a governmentof the people. 

I shall greatly rely upon the wisdom and patriotism of Congress andof 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 peopleand their Government I reverently invoke the support and blessings of AlmightyGod.