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James A. Garfield
Inaugural Address
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

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

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 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

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 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 God.

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