Go back to Inaugural Address, 1881
James A. Garfield (1831 - 1881)
Inaugural Address, 1881
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
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
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
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 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 of 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, 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
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 of law.
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
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 God.
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