Inaugural Address of James A. Garfield
FRIDAY, MARCH 4, 1881
We stand to-day upon an eminence which overlooks a hundred years of
national life--a 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 States--the 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 appeal--that 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 thereof."
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
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
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 remediless.
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 education.
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 subjects.
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 interest."
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
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 Almighty