Presidents from the last half of the nineteenth century don’t get a lot of attention. Most people would have a hard time coming up with the names of even one or two. Yet there were some good men who served during that era, men who are now largely forgotten. I’d like to mention two of them and pass on a few words of wisdom from them that might benefit our nation today.
James Garfield might be familiar in a vague way to Americans, but don’t ask what they know about him specifically—you won’t get much of a response.
Garfield was a minister with the Disciples of Christ early in his life, served as an officer in the Civil War, then was elected to Congress, where he served from 1864 to 1881. He became a Republican leader respected by his colleagues. The Republican convention in 1880 was deadlocked on its presidential nominee after 35 ballots. On the 36th ballot, they turned to Garfield as the standard-bearer even though he wasn’t seeking the nomination. His name has since become synonymous with the term “dark horse candidate.”
As president in 1881, Garfield began to tackle some of the corruption issues within his own party. At the centennial of the Declaration of Independence five years earlier, he had warned the country,
Now more than ever before, the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave, and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature. …
If the next centennial does not find us a great nation … it will be because those who represent the enterprise, the culture, and the morality of the nation do not aid in controlling the political forces.
Those are words that are not confined to Garfield’s time period. They are just as applicable today.
Tragically, Garfield was not able to do more; he was shot just four months after his inauguration by an angry Republican who didn’t get a job in the administration. Garfield lingered for two months, and then died. Yet even though his tenure was much too short, he left an example of character that we would be wise to emulate.
Grover Cleveland was the Democratic nominee in 1884. As governor of New York, Cleveland had a sterling reputation for honesty. During the campaign a woman came forward with a story–Cleveland, the lifelong bachelor—was the father of her child. Cleveland acknowledged that might be the case; he had wandered from his Christian upbringing. Yet the woman was well known for being promiscuous, so there was no real proof. In spite of that, Cleveland gave the boy his last name, provided financially for him and his mother, and when she died shortly afterward, he made sure the boy was adopted by a good family that would raise him in love.
In Cleveland’s first term, he displayed his concern for constitutional authority by vetoing a series of laws that attempted to pay Civil War pensions that were manifestly fraudulent. His reputation for honesty and for operating under the rule of law stayed with him in the White House.
He lost the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison, despite winning the popular vote. Unlike a certain loser of the 2000 election, he didn’t contest the result; he understood the constitutional system and accepted it. He then turned around and won again in 1892, the only president to serve two terms non-consecutively.
Cleveland had a law partner who died prior to his presidency. Although he was under no obligation to do so, Cleveland took it upon himself to provide financially for the wife and daughter his partner had left behind. When rumors swirled during his first term that he was finally going to marry, everyone assumed it would be his partner’s widow. To the surprise of everyone, it turned out to be the daughter instead. He was 49, she 21.
The marriage, by all reputable accounts, was a happy one.
When Cleveland won reelection in 1892, his inaugural address focused on the all-too prevalent idea that the government owed people a living. He decried the paternalistic attitude that said the government was man’s provider:
It [paternalism] perverts the patriotic sentiments of our countrymen and tempts them to pitiful calculation of the sordid gain to be derived from their government’s maintenance. It undermines the self-reliance of our people and substitutes in its place dependence upon governmental favoritism. It stifles the spirit of true Americanism and stupefies every ennobling trait of American citizenship. The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include the support of the people.
These presidents—James Garfield and Grover Cleveland—may be largely forgotten, but they were honorable men who had significant things to say to our generation. Are we listening?