If, as James A. Garfield wrote, “The world’s history is a divine poem, of which the history of every nation is a canto, and every man a word”, then Garfield himself left an ineffaceable word of victory, of the triumph of truth over deception, upon the pages of the history of man. His approach was consistently original and genuine and he was not afraid to stand for what he knew to be right, regardless of the consequences or the strength of the adversary he had to face to remain faithful to his highest vision.
His unintended rise to the Presidency in 1881 left him with a complicated situation that most would see as debilitating if not futile. Garfield’s VP, Chester Arthur, had been picked for him during the Republican Convention the previous year, and Arthur apparently was in the back pocket of one of the most powerful men in government at the time, Roscoe Conkling. Conkling ran the New York Customs House, which was at the time the largest federal office in the United States.
Conkling had backed another Presidential candidate, Ulysses S Grant (who had incidentally installed Conklin in the position he held), in the 1880 Convention and was terribly upset by Garfield’s nomination. Eager, I’m sure to protect his position he flexed his muscle early on in Garfield’s election campaign, going as far as threatening to undo Garfield’s base of support if Garfield did not play by Conkling’s rules.
Of all the descriptions I’ve read of President Garfield’s character, the elements highlighted by Candace Millard in her book, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, stand out to me as being important to any aspiring leader:
As strong a grip as he had on the vice president, Conkling was confident he would have little difficulty controlling the president. Even Garfield’s friends worried that he was an easy mark. He was too interested in winning over his enemies to be able to protect his own interests. “For his enemies, or those who may have chosen thus to regard themselves,” a friend had said of him, “he had no enmity—naught but magnanimity.” When challenged in Congress by men for whom “no sarcasm was too cutting, no irony too cold,” Garfield never rose to the bait. He would reply with such earnestness that, in the words of an early biographer, “a stranger entering the House after Garfield had begun his speech in answer to some most galling attack would never suspect the speech was a reply to a hostile and malignant assault.”
Nor was Garfield capable of carrying a grudge, a character trait that neither Conkling nor Blaine could begin to understand. Years before, Garfield had resolved to stop speaking to a journalist who had tried to vilify him in the press. The next time he saw the man, however, he could not resist greeting him with a cheerful wave. “You old rascal,” he said with a smile. “How are you?” Garfield realized that, in a political context, the ease with which he forgave was regarded as a weakness, but he did not even try to change. “I am a poor hater,” he shrugged.
What Conkling did not understand, however, was that while Garfield was a poor hater, he was a very good fighter. As president, he wrote in his diary, he was “determined not to be classified the friend of one faction only,” and he vowed to “go as far as I can to keep the peace.” That said, he had never before walked away from a fight, and he was not about to do so now. He had fought everyone from hardened canal men to unruly students to Confederate soldiers, and he knew that, whether he liked it or not, he now had another battle on his hands.
“Of course I deprecate war,” he wrote, “but if it is brought to my door the bringer will find me at home.”
I wish there were more men and women on earth who would recognize that they are sufficiently worthy and capable of taking such a stance in relation to their affairs. Some might say that such an approach worked in those simpler and different times, but I say that there is always room for truth, compassion and magnanimity, no matter how complicated or convoluted the world has become.