Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: James A. Garfield

Our country probably never produced a character more perfectly rounded, physically, intellectually and morally than that which is presented to us in the person of James A. Garfield, who was born in a log cabin in Cuyahoga county, Ohio, November 19th, 1831.

His childhood was passed in almost complete isolation from social influences, save those which proceeded from his mother. His father had died when James was only eighteen months old, and when old enough to be of any use he was put to work on the farm. The family was very poor, and his services were needed to help ‘make both ends meet.’ At school, as a little boy, he allowed no one to impose upon him. He is said to have never picked a quarrel, but was sure to resent any indignity with effect, no matter how large a boy the offender happened to be. He attended school during the cold months when it was impossible to be of value on the farm; summers he generally ‘worked out,’ at one time being a driver-boy on the canal.

He attended school at the Geauga Seminary, where he got through his first term on the absurdly small sum of seventeen dollars. When he returned to school the next term he had but a six pence in his pocket, and this he dropped into the contribution box the next day at church. He made an arrangement with a carpenter in the village to board with him, and have his washing, fuel and light furnished for one dollar and six cents per week.The carpenter was building a house, and Garfield engaged to help him nights and Saturdays. The first Saturday he planed fifty-one boards, and thereby made one dollar and two cents. So the term went, and he returned home, having earned his expenses and and three dollars over.

The following winter he taught school at $12 a month and ‘boarded around.’ In the spring he had $48, and when he returned to school he boarded himself at an expense of thirty-one cents a week. Heretofore, he had supposed a college course beyond him, but meeting a college graduate who explained that it was barely possible for a poor boy to graduate, if he worked and attended alternate years, he determined to try it. After careful calculation Garfield concluded he could get through school within twelve years. He accordingly began to lay his plans to graduate. Think of such determination, dear reader, and then see if you can reasonably envy the position attained by Garfield. He appeared as a scholar at Hiram, a new school of his own denomination, in 1851. Here he studied all the harder, as he now had an object in life. Returning home he taught a school, then returned to college, and attended the spring term. During the summer he helped build a house in the village, he himself planning all the lumber for the siding, and shingling the roof. Garfield was now quite a scholar, especially in the languages, and upon his return to Hiram he was made a tutor, and thenceforward he worked both as a pupil and teacher, doing a tremendous amount of work to fit himself for college. When he came to Hiram he started on the preparatory course, to enter college, expecting it would take four years. Deciding now to enter some eastern institution, he wrote a letter to the president of each of the leading colleges in the east, telling them how far he had progressed. They all replied that he could enter the junior year, and thus graduate in two years from his entrance. He had accomplished the preparatory course, generally requiring four solid years, and had advanced two years on his college course. He had crowded six years into three, beside supporting himself. If ever a man was worthy of success Garfield was. He decided to enter Williams College, where he graduated in 1856, thus came that institution to grasp the honor of giving to the United States of America one of our most popular presidents. The grasp of the mind of Garfield, even at this early period, can be seen by glancing at the title of his essay, “The Seen and the Unseen.” He next became a professor; later, principal of the college at Hiram.

In the old parties Garfield had little interest, but when the Republican party was formed he became deeply interested, and became somewhat noted as a stump orator for Fremont and Dayton. In 1860 he was sent to the State senate, and while there began preparation for the legal profession, and in 1861 was admitted to the bar. The war broke out about this time, which prevented his opening an office, and he was commissioned a colonel, finally a major-general. His career in the army was brief, but very brilliant, and he returned home to go to Congress. In Washington his legislative career was very successful. He proved to be an orator of no mean degree of ability, his splendid education made him an acknowledged scholar, and he soon became known as one of the ablest debaters in Congress, serving on some of the leading committees.

When Ohio sent her delegation to the Republican National Convention, of 1880, pledged for Sherman, Garfield was selected as spokesman. His speech, when he presented the name of John Sherman, coming, as it did, when all was feverish excitement, must be acknowledged as a master-piece of the scholarly oratory of which he was master. Conkling had just delivered one in favor of Grant, the effect of which was wonderful. The Grant delegates ‘pooled’ the flags, which marked their seats, marched around the aisles and cheered and yelled as if they were dwellers in Bedlam, just home after a long absence. Fully twenty minutes this went on, and Mr. Hoar, the president of the convention after vainly trying to restore order gave up in despair, sat down, and calmly allowed disorder to tire itself out.

At last it ceases, Ohio is called, a form arises near the center of the middle aisle, and moves toward the stage amid the clapping of thousands of hands, which increases as General Garfield mounts the same platform upon which Senator Conkling has so lately stood. In speaking he is not so restless as was Conkling, but speaking deliberately he appeals to the judgment of the masses, as follows:

“Mr. President: I have witnessed the extraordinary scenes of this convention with deep solicitude. No emotion touches my heart more quickly than a sentiment in honor of a great and noble character. But, as I sat on these seats and witnessed these demonstrations, it seemed to me you were a human ocean in a tempest. I have seen the sea lashed into a fury and tossed into a 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 had passed and the hour of calm settles on the ocean, when sunlight bathes its smooth surface, then the astronomer and surveyor takes the level from which he measures all terrestrial heights and depths. Gentlemen of the convention, your present temper may not mark the healthful pulse of our people. When our enthusiasm has passed, when the emotions of this hour have subsided, we shall find the calm level of public opinion below the storm from which the thoughts of a mighty people are to be measured, and by which their final action will be determined. Not here, in this brilliant circle where fifteen thousand men and women are assembled, is the destiny of the Republic to be decreed; not here, where I see the enthusiastic faces of seven hundred and fifty-six delegates waiting to cast their votes into the urn and determine the choice of their party; but by four million Republican firesides, where the thoughtful fathers, with wives and children about them, with the calm thoughts inspired by love of home and love of country, with the history of the past, the hopes of the future, and the knowledge of the great men who have adorned and blessed our nation in days gone by—there God prepares the verdict that shall determine the wisdom of our work to-night. Not in Chicago in the heat of June, but in the sober quiet that comes between now and November, in the silence of deliberate judgment will this great question be settled. Let us aid them to-night.

“But now, gentlemen of the convention, what do we want? Bear with me a moment. Hear me for this cause, and, for a moment, be silent that you may hear. Twenty-five years ago this Republic was 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 baleful doctrine of State sovereignty had shocked and weakened the noblest and most beneficent powers of the national government, and the grasping power of slavery was seizing 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 man’s heart, and which all the powers of ignorance and tyranny can never wholly extinguish. The Republican party came to deliver and save the Republic. It entered the arena when the beleaguered and assailed territories were struggling for freedom, and drew around them the sacred circle of liberty which the demon of slavery has never dared to cross. It made them free forever. Strengthened by its victory on the frontier, the young party, under the leadership of that great man who, on this spot, twenty years ago, was made its leader, entered the national capitol and assumed the high duties of the government. The light which shone from its banner dispelled the darkness in which slavery had enshrouded the capitol, and melted the shackles of every slave, and consumed, in the fire of liberty, every slave-pen within the shadow of the capitol. Our national industries, by an impoverishing policy, were themselves prostrated, and the streams of revenue flowed in such feeble currents that the treasury itself was well-nigh empty. The money of the people was the wretched notes of two thousand uncontrolled and irresponsible State banking corporations, which were filling the country with a circulation that poisoned rather than sustained the life of business. The Republican party changed all this. It abolished the babel of confusion, and gave the country a currency as national as its flag, based upon the sacred faith of the people. It threw its protecting arm around our great industries, and they stood erect as with new life. It filled with the spirit of true nationality all the great functions of the government. It confronted a rebellion of unexampled magnitude, with slavery behind it, and, under God, fought the final battle of liberty until victory was won. Then, after the storms of battle, were heard the sweet, calm words of peace uttered by the conquering nation, and saying to the conquered foe that lay prostrate at its feet: ‘This is our only refuge, that you join us in lifting to 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 stand equal before the law.’

“Then came the question of reconstruction, the public debt, and the public faith. In the settlement of the questions the Republican party has completed its twenty-five years of glorious existence, and it has sent us here to prepare it for another lustrum of duty and victory. How shall we do this great work? We cannot do it, my friends, by assailing our Republican brethren. God forbid that I should say one word to cast a shadow upon any name on the roll of our heroes. This coming fight is our Thermopylæ. We are standing upon a narrow isthmus. If our Spartan hosts are united, we can withstand all the Persians that the Xerxes of Democracy can bring against us. Let us hold our ground this one year, for the stars in their courses fight for us in the future. The census taken this year will bring re-enforcements and continued power. But in order to win this 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 our 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, sees all the achievements of our past history, and carries in his heart the memory of all its glorious deeds, and who, looking forward, prepares to meet the labor and the dangers to come. We want one who will act in no spirit of unkindness toward those we lately met in battle. The Republican party offers to our brethren of the South the olive branch of peace, and wishes them to return to brotherhood, on this supreme condition, that it shall be admitted forever and forevermore, that, in the war for the Union, we were right and they were wrong. On that supreme condition we meet them as brethren, and on no other. We ask them to share with us the blessings and honors of this great republic.

“Now, gentlemen, not to weary you, I am about to present a name for your consideration—the name of a man who was the comrade and associate and friend of nearly all those noble dead whose faces look down upon us from these walls to-night, a man who began his career of public service twenty-five years ago, whose first duty was courageously done in the days of peril on the plains of Kansas, when the first red drops of that bloody shower began to fall, which finally swelled into the deluge of war. He bravely stood by young Kansas then, and, returning to his duty in the National Legislature, through all subsequent time his pathway has been marked by labors performed in every department of legislation. You ask for his monuments. I point you to twenty-five years of national statutes. Not one great beneficent statute has been placed in our statute books without his intelligent and powerful aid. He aided these men to formulate the laws that raised our great armies and carried us through the war. His hand was seen in the workmanship of those statutes that restored and brought back the unity and married calm of the States. His hand was in all that great legislation that created the war currency, and in a still greater work that redeemed the promises of the Government, and made the currency equal to gold. And when at last called from the halls of legislation into a high executive office, he displayed that experience, intelligence, firmness and poise of character which has carried us through a stormy period of three years. With one-half the public press crying ‘crucify him,’ and a hostile Congress seeking to prevent success, in all this he remained unmoved until victory crowned him. The great fiscal affairs of the nation, and the great business interests of the country he has guarded and preserved while executing the law of resumption and effecting its object without a jar and against the false prophecies of one-half of the press and all the Democracy of this continent. 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 on his shield. I do not present him as a better Republican or as better man than thousands of others we honor, but I present him for your deliberate consideration. I nominate John Sherman, of Ohio.”

The speech was over, its effect was like oil upon troubled waters. When the balloting began a single delegate only voted for Garfield. The fight was between Grant, Blaine, Sherman and Edmunds; Windom and others were waiting the possibility of a compromise. Garfield managed Sherman’s forces. He meant to keep his favorite in the field, in vain trying to win over Blaine’s followers. On the thirty-fourth ballot the Wisconsin delegation determined to make a break, and hence put forth an effort in an entirely new direction, casting their entire seventeen votes for Garfield. The General arose and declined to receive the vote, but the chairman ruled otherwise, and on the next ballot the Indiana delegation swung over. On the thirty-sixth ballot he was nominated. Then followed his canvass and election.

Time flew, and he was about to join his old friends at Willams’ College, when an assassin stealthily crept up and shot him from behind, as dastardly assassins and cowardly knaves generally do. The whole country was thrown into a feverish heat of excitement between this cowardly act and the president’s death, which occurred two months later. Thus, after a struggle for recognition, which had won the admiration of the world, he was snatched from the pleasure of enjoying the fruits of his toil, and from the people who needed his service. Like Lincoln, he had come from the people, he belonged to the people, and by his own right hand had won the first place among fifty millions of people. Like Lincoln, he was stricken down when his country expected the most of him, stricken in the very prime of life. Like Lincoln, when that enjoyment for which he had labored was about to crown his efforts; and like Lincoln, it could not be said of him he lived in vain.