James A. Garfield
Friday, March 4, 1881
today upon an eminence which overlooks a
hundred years of national lifea century crowded with perils, but crowned with the
triumphs of liberty and law. Before continuing the onward march let us pause on this
height for a moment to strengthen our faith and renew our hope by a glance at the pathway
along which our people have traveled.
It is now three days more than a
hundred years since the adoption of the first written constitution of the United
Statesthe Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The new Republic was then
beset with danger on every hand. It had not conquered a place in the family of nations.
The decisive battle of the war for independence, whose centennial anniversary will soon be
gratefully celebrated at Yorktown, had not yet been fought. The colonists were struggling
not only against the armies of a great nation, but against the settled opinions of
mankind; for the world did not then believe that the supreme authority of government could
be safely intrusted to the guardianship of the people themselves.
We can not overestimate the fervent
love of liberty, the intelligent courage, and the sum of common sense with which our
fathers made the great experiment of self-government. When they found, after a short
trial, that the confederacy of States, was too weak to meet the necessities of a vigorous
and expanding republic, they boldly set it aside, and in its stead established a National
Union, founded directly upon the will of the people, endowed with full power of
self-preservation and ample authority for the accomplishment of its great object.
Under this Constitution the boundaries
of freedom have been enlarged, the foundations of order and peace have been strengthened,
and the growth of our people in all the better elements of national life has indicated the
wisdom of the founders and given new hope to their descendants. Under this Constitution
our people long ago made themselves safe against danger from without and secured for their
mariners and flag equality of rights on all the seas. Under this Constitution twenty-five
States have been added to the Union, with constitutions and laws, framed and enforced by
their own citizens, to secure the manifold blessings of local self-government.
The jurisdiction of this Constitution
now covers an area fifty times greater than that of the original thirteen States and a
population twenty times greater than that of 1780.
The supreme trial of the Constitution
came at last under the tremendous pressure of civil war. We ourselves are witnesses that
the Union emerged from the blood and fire of that conflict purified and made stronger for
all the beneficent purposes of good government.
And now, at the close of this first
century of growth, with the inspirations of its history in their hearts, our people have
lately reviewed the condition of the nation, passed judgment upon the conduct and opinions
of political parties, and have registered their will concerning the future administration
of the Government. To interpret and to execute that will in accordance with the
Constitution is the paramount duty of the Executive.
Even from this brief review it is
manifest that the nation is resolutely facing to the front, resolved to employ its best
energies in developing the great possibilities of the future. Sacredly preserving whatever
has been gained to liberty and good government during the century, our people are
determined to leave behind them all those bitter controversies concerning things which
have been irrevocably settled, and the further discussion of which can only stir up strife
and delay the onward march.
The supremacy of the nation and its
laws should be no longer a subject of debate. That discussion, which for half a century
threatened the existence of the Union, was closed at last in the high court of war by a
decree from which there is no appealthat the Constitution and the laws made in
pursuance thereof are and shall continue to be the supreme law of the land, binding alike
upon the States and the people. This decree does not disturb the autonomy of the States
nor interfere with any of their necessary rights of local self-government, but it does fix
and establish the permanent supremacy of the Union.
The will of the nation, speaking with
the voice of battle and through the amended Constitution, has fulfilled the great promise
of 1776 by proclaiming "liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants
The elevation of the negro race from
slavery to the full rights of citizenship 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. It has freed us from
the perpetual danger of war and dissolution. It has added immensely to the moral and
industrial forces of our people. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a
relation which wronged and enfeebled both. It has surrendered to their own guardianship
the manhood of more than 5,000,000 people, 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 by making labor more honorable to the one and more necessary to the other. The
influence of this force will grow greater and bear richer fruit with the coming years.
No doubt this great change has caused
serious disturbance to our Southern communities. This is to be deplored, though it was
perhaps unavoidable. But those who resisted the change should remember that under our
institutions there was no middle ground for the negro race between slavery and equal
citizenship. There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States.
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 emancipated race has already made
remarkable progress. With unquestioning devotion 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." They are rapidly laying the material foundations of self-support,
widening their circle of intelligence, and beginning to enjoy the blessings that gather
around the homes of the industrious poor. They deserve the generous encouragement of all
good men. So far as my authority can lawfully extend they shall enjoy the full and equal
protection of the Constitution and the laws.
The free enjoyment of equal suffrage is
still in question, and a frank statement of the issue may aid its solution. It is alleged
that in many communities negro citizens are practically denied the freedom of the ballot.
In so far as the truth of this allegation is admitted, it is answered that in many places
honest local government is impossible if the mass of uneducated negroes are allowed to
vote. These are grave allegations. So far as the latter is true, it is the only palliation
that can be offered for opposing the freedom of the ballot. Bad local government is
certainly a great evil, which ought to be prevented; but to violate the freedom and
sanctities of the suffrage is more than an evil. It is a crime which, if persisted in,
will destroy the Government itself. Suicide is not a remedy. If in other lands it be high
treason to compass the death of the king, it shall be counted no less a crime here to
strangle our sovereign power and stifle its voice.
It has been said that unsettled
questions have no pity for the repose of nations. It should be said with the utmost
emphasis that this question of the suffrage will never give repose or safety to the States
or to the nation until each, within its own jurisdiction, makes and keeps the ballot free
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 present condition of the race. It is a danger that lurks and hides in the
sources and fountains of power in every state. We have no standard by which to measure the
disaster that may be brought upon us by ignorance and vice in the citizens when joined to
corruption and fraud in the suffrage.
The voters of the Union, who make and
unmake constitutions, and upon whose will hang the destinies of our governments, can
transmit their supreme authority to no successors save the coming generation of voters,
who are the sole heirs of sovereign power. If that generation comes to its inheritance
blinded by ignorance and corrupted by vice, the fall of the Republic will be certain and
The census has already sounded the
alarm in the appalling figures which mark how dangerously high the tide of illiteracy has
risen among our voters and their children.
To the South this question is of
supreme importance. But the responsibility for the existence of slavery did not rest upon
the South alone. The nation itself is responsible for the extension of the suffrage, and
is under special obligations to aid in removing the illiteracy which it has added to the
voting 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 the volunteer forces of the
people should be surrendered to meet this danger by the savory influence of universal
It is the high privilege and sacred
duty of those now living to educate their successors and fit them, by intelligence and
virtue, for the inheritance which awaits them.
In this beneficent work sections and
races should be forgotten and partisanship should be unknown. 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.
My countrymen, we do not now differ in
our judgment concerning the controversies of past generations, and fifty years hence our
children will not be divided in their opinions concerning our controversies. They will
surely bless their fathers and their fathers' God that the Union was preserved, that
slavery was overthrown, and that both races were made equal before the law. We may hasten
or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation. Is it not possible for
us now to make a truce with time by anticipating and accepting its inevitable verdict?
Enterprises of the highest importance
to our moral and material well-being unite us and offer ample employment of our best
powers. Let all our people, leaving behind them the battlefields of dead issues, move
forward and in their strength of liberty and the restored Union win the grander victories
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, have enabled
our people to secure the blessings which the seasons brought.
By the experience of commercial nations
in all ages it has been found that gold and silver afford the only safe foundation for a
monetary system. Confusion has recently been created by variations in the relative value
of the two metals, but I confidently believe that arrangements can be made between the
leading commercial nations which will secure the general use of both metals. Congress
should provide that the compulsory coinage of silver now required by law may not disturb
our monetary system by driving either metal out of circulation. If possible, such an
adjustment should be made that the purchasing power of every coined dollar will be exactly
equal to its debt-paying power in all the markets of the world.
The chief duty of the National
Government in connection with the currency of the country is to coin money and declare its
value. Grave doubts have been entertained whether Congress is authorized by the
Constitution to make any form of paper money legal tender. The present issue of United
States notes has been sustained by the necessities of war; but such paper should depend
for its value and currency upon its convenience in use and its prompt redemption in coin
at the will of the holder, and not upon its compulsory circulation. These notes are not
money, but promises to pay money. If the holders demand it, the promise should be kept.
The refunding of the national debt at a
lower rate of interest should be accomplished without compelling the withdrawal of the
national-bank notes, and thus disturbing the business of the country.
I venture to refer to the position I
have occupied on financial questions during a long service in Congress, and to say that
time and experience have strengthened the opinions I have so often expressed on these
The finances of the Government shall
suffer no detriment which it may be possible for my Administration to prevent.
The interests of agriculture deserve
more attention from the Government than they have yet received. The farms of the United
States afford homes and employment for more than one-half our people, and furnish much the
largest part of all our exports. As the Government lights our coasts for the protection of
mariners and the benefit of commerce, so it should give to the tillers of the soil the
best lights of practical science and experience.
Our manufacturers are rapidly making us
industrially independent, and are opening to capital and labor new and profitable fields
of employment. Their steady and healthy growth should still be matured. Our facilities for
transportation should be promoted by the continued improvement of our harbors and great
interior waterways and by the increase of our tonnage on the ocean.
The development of the world's commerce
has led to an urgent demand for shortening the great sea voyage around Cape Horn by
constructing ship canals or railways across the isthmus which unites the continents.
Various plans to this end have been suggested and will need consideration, but none of
them has been sufficiently matured to warrant the United States in extending pecuniary
aid. The subject, however, is one which will immediately engage the attention of the
Government with a view to a thorough protection to American interests. We will urge no
narrow policy nor seek peculiar or exclusive privileges in any commercial route; but, in
the language of my predecessor, I believe it to be the right "and duty of the United
States to assert and maintain such supervision and authority over any interoceanic canal
across the isthmus that connects North and South America as will protect our national
The Constitution guarantees absolute
religious freedom. Congress is prohibited from making any law respecting an establishment
of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Territories of the United States
are subject to the direct legislative authority of Congress, and hence the General
Government is responsible for any violation of the Constitution in any of them. It is
therefore a reproach to the Government that in the most populous of the Territories the
constitutional guaranty is not enjoyed by the people and the authority of Congress is set
at naught. The Mormon Church not only offends the moral sense of manhood by sanctioning
polygamy, but prevents the administration of justice through ordinary instrumentalities of
In my judgment it is the duty of
Congress, while respecting to the uttermost the conscientious convictions and religious
scruples of every citizen, to prohibit within its jurisdiction all criminal practices,
especially of that class which destroy the family relations and endanger social order. Nor
can any ecclesiastical organization be safely permitted to usurp in the smallest degree
the functions and powers of the National Government.
The civil service can never be placed
on a satisfactory basis until it is regulated by law. For the good of the service itself,
for the protection of those who are intrusted with the appointing power against the waste
of time and obstruction to the public business caused by the inordinate pressure for
place, and for the protection of incumbents against intrigue and wrong, I shall at the
proper time ask Congress to fix the tenure of the minor offices of the several Executive
Departments and prescribe the grounds upon which removals shall be made during the terms
for which incumbents have 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 the people, it will be the purpose of my Administration to
maintain the authority of the nation in all places within its jurisdiction; to enforce
obedience to all the laws of the Union in the interests of the people; to demand rigid
economy in all the expenditures of the Government, and to require the honest and faithful
service of all executive officers, remembering that the offices were created, not for the
benefit of incumbents or their supporters, but for the service of the Government.
And now, fellow-citizens, I am about to
assume the great trust which you have committed to my hands. I appeal to you for that
earnest and thoughtful support which makes this Government in fact, as it is in law, a
government of the people.
I shall greatly rely upon the wisdom
and patriotism of Congress and of 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 people and their Government I reverently invoke the support and blessings of