Though his story is hardly the stock and trade of most church historians, James A. Garfield (1831–1881) affords us innumerable lessons about character, faith, and public service. Such lessons are especially relevant for us during these final days leading up to the presidential election when moral and ethical issues have been thrust to the forefront of the national debate and have polarized the opposing factions.
He was the last of America’s presidents to rise from humble beginnings in a log cabin to the White House. Left fatherless when he was still just an infant, Garfield was forced to work from his earliest years on his family’s small truck farm in Ohio. Besides helping to support his widowed mother, he also succeeded in earning enough — as a canal boat driver, carpenter, and teacher — to put himself through college.
His love of learning and his sharp intellect led him into a teaching career — ultimately serving as a professor of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as a renowned expert in classical and biblical literature, and finally as a college president. The diligence and initiative that catapulted Garfield into the respected ranks of academia ultimately carried him into public life as well. He became known as a powerful moralist and anti-slavery speaker, and he grew increasingly active in local Ohio politics. Though not a fire-breathing abolitionist — he preferred a path toward emancipation more along the lines of William Wilberforce’s reforms in Britain — his early and courageous commitment earned for him the respect of many of even the most radical ideologues and reformers in the North.
When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Garfield happened to be visiting in New York. Known as one of the president’s closest friends and most trusted political and military advisors, he was implored by city officials to address the agitated throngs that had gathered in the streets. He climbed aloft a scaffold and somehow won the crowd’s attention. He simply said, “My fellow citizens, the president is dead, but the republic lives — and God Omnipotent reigns.” To the astonishment of all, the mob quietly and quickly dispersed.
Garfield, who would himself one day attain the highest office in the land only to be struck down by an assassin’s bullet, had been a fire-breathing Yankee enthusiast during the War Between the States. But the uncivil horrors of the battlefields in Virginia and the inhuman manipulations of the politicians in Washington had tempered his passions considerably. He no longer believed that men and governments, ideologies and policies, or parties and factions were ends unto themselves. He had embraced instead a perspective of politics rooted in a far deeper and more profound reality. From the pinnacle of that scaffold in New York he reminded the crowd of that reality: “Fellow citizens, clouds and darkness are round about Him. His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. Justice and judgment are the establishment of His throne. Mercy and truth shall go before His face. Fellow citizens, God reigns, e’en o’er the government in Washington — despite all appearances.”
For Garfield, faith, character, and public service were necessarily subject to the sovereign purposes of God’s own good providence. He attempted to live his life and forge his convictions in accordance with that essential understanding.
He served for eighteen years in congress, emerging in 1880 as the popular leader of his party. Nevertheless, when the Republicans met in Chicago in 1880, Garfield was not considered a presidential contender. By all accounts, the real struggle would be between former president Ulysses Grant, who had returned to public life in an effort to seek an unprecedented third term, and Senator James Blaine from Maine. But as had happened so many times before in the contentious world of post-war politics, the convention was so divided that neither could win. It was not until the thirty-sixth ballot that Garfield was nominated.
He was hardly a typical politician. He was far too forthright for that. Indeed, excerpts from his speeches continue to rankle the proprieties of political expediency: “Never trust the value or authenticity of a politician’s convictions — until he denies them.” “Election results rarely tell the mood of a people. They merely express a tiresome resignation — that such things probably don’t matter much anyway — so why not try something new?” “Things just don’t turn up in this world until someone turns them up.”
Despite his unwillingness to temper his sharp wit and even sharper rhetoric, Garfield won the general election that year. But the surprise gift of the highest office in the land was not one that Garfield could enjoy for very long. In the White House, he showed signs of being a strong executive, independent of party, as was Hayes. But he was in office less than four months when he was fatally shot by an assassin as he was about to catch a train in the Washington depot in 1881. Like that earlier log-cabin president, Garfield left the White House a martyr, having spent less time in office than any President except William Harrison.