“Special Preparations”: The Crafting of an Inaugural Address

New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” In between is the inaugural address. Except in the cases of those five presidents who rose to the office from the vice-presidency and did not earn another term, every American president has begun his administration with an inaugural speech. It must be assumed that each of them sought to inspire the nation with the poetry of their vision; certainly most have used the opportunity to outline the prose of their goals for the years ahead.

James A. Garfield, the nation’s 20th president, was recognized as an effective and inspiring speaker. His contemporaries described his speeches as “models of effective eloquence,” and observed that he was “strongest…on the rostrum [addressing] the assembled people.” But after leading a divided party to a very narrow victory in 1880, Garfield approached the task of preparing an inaugural address with great trepidation.

Until 1937, presidents were inaugurated on the fourth of March. With plenty of time to prepare, Garfield attacked the task of preparing his speech, which he always refers to as the “inaugural,” in his usual, scholarly way. He began to read the addresses of his predecessors, in order, starting just before Christmas.

A draft of Garfield's inaugural address in his own handwriting.  Note the corrections and the "Mentor, Ohio" heading on the paper.  (Library of Congress)

A draft of Garfield’s inaugural address in his own handwriting. Note the corrections and the “Mentor, Ohio” heading on the paper. (Library of Congress)

From the Diary of James A. Garfield:

Monday, 12/20/1880 Made the first actual study for inaugural by commencing to read those of my predecessors. Read and made notes on the two Inaugurals of Washington. This was done however in intervals of interruptions.

Tuesday, 12/21/1880 Read John Adams’ inaugural address and made notes. Far more vigorous in ideas than Washington’s. His next to last sentence contains more than 700 words. Strong but too cumbrous….At noon Harry Rhodes came. He read aloud Jefferson’s inaugural. Stronger than Washington’s, more ornate than Adams’. All apologetic, and unnecessary self-deprecating.

Wednesday, 12/22/1880 …in company with Rhodes and Crete,(Garfield’s wife, Lucretia) read the Inaugurals of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. Curious tone of self-deprecation runs through them all—which I cannot quite believe was genuine. Madison’s speeches were not quite up to my expectations. Monroe’s first was rather above. Since John Adams he was the first to review the experiment of Independence and the Constitution, in an inaugural address.

Garfield soon abandoned the study of those earlier speeches. By mid-January he had concluded: Monday, 1/17/1881 …I must begin special preparations for the inaugural. I have half a mind to make none. Those of the past except Lincoln’s, are dreary reading. Doubtless mine will be also.

Perhaps the entry ten days later explains Garfield’s difficulty in crafting his speech: Thursday, 1/27/1881 …I commenced the first draft of the Inaugural. I feel but little freedom in its composition. There are so many limitations…The general plan I have formed is 1st a brief introduction, 2nd a summary of recent topics that ought to be treated as settled, 3rd a summary of those that ought to occupy the public attention,4th a direct appeal to the people to stand by me in an independent and vigorous execution of the laws…

James A. Garfield's diary entries, March 3-4, 1881.  Garfield became the nation's 20th President and delivered his inaugural address (which he expressed anguish over many times in his diary) on March 4, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

James A. Garfield’s diary entries, March 3-4, 1881. Garfield became the nation’s 20th President and delivered his inaugural address (which he expressed anguish over many times in his diary) on March 4, 1881. (Library of Congress)

As he was constantly interrupted by family and visitors, negotiations over cabinet appointments, and preparations for the move to the White House, Garfield found that work on the inaugural address was easy to postpone.

Thursday, 2/10/1881 Made some progress on the inaugural; but still feel unusual repugnance to writing…

Sunday 2/13/1881 Got my first satisfactory start on the inaugural. It is difficult to understand the singular repugnance I feel in regard to doing this work.

Thursday, 2/17/1881 Made pretty fair progress on the inaugural, though much interrupted.

Monday, 2/22/1881 …It seems nearly impossible to do any work on the inaugural for the pressure of callers…

Sunday, 2/27/1881 …The afternoon and evening were devoted to packing and general preparation…I am greatly dissatisfied with the inaugural, which is still incomplete…

Then, on his way to the capital on March 1, 1881: Late at night I looked over the inaugural, and became so much dissatisfied with it that I have resolved to rewrite it and made a beginning though very weary…

Over the next three days, between receptions, meetings about his cabinet choices, and dinner with outgoing President Hayes, Garfield worked on the new speech.

Wednesday, 3/2/81 …I made fair progress, between calls, on my redraft of the inaugural, which amounts almost to a reconstruction of it…

Thursday, 3/3/81 Got but three hours of sleep last night, but made some progress on the new draft of inaugural…Hotel at 11. Work on inaugural 2 ½ hours, and wrote last sentence at 2 ½ o’clock a.m. March 4.

Newly inaugurated President James A. Garfield reviews the inaugural parade on March 4, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Newly inaugurated President James A. Garfield reviews the inaugural parade on March 4, 1881. (Library of Congress)

It was snowing when Garfield finished writing. By noon the sky had cleared, but snow covered the ground and the inaugural platform on the east side of the Capitol. Vice-president Chester Alan Arthur was sworn in at noon in the Senate chamber. Garfield’s diary (Friday, 4/4/81) reports that he, his family and the gathered dignitaries went…Thence to the east portico of the rotunda, and read my inaugural—slowly and fairly well—though I grew somewhat hoarse towards the close…

The address closely followed the outline Garfield had suggested in January. Was there poetry in the speech? Perhaps in the introduction:

We stand today 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.

The second, and most eloquent part of the speech, “a summary of recent topics that ought to be treated as settled,” reminds the American people that

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 thereof.”

Summarizing the topics that “ought to occupy the public attention” was definitely prose. Garfield brought up agriculture, commerce, the currency and civil service reform. His appeal for support was direct:

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.

Following the inaugural address, James A. Garfield swore the oath that made him the 20th President of the United States.

James A. Garfield takes the oath as the nation's 20th President.  Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Morrison Waite administered the oath.  (Georgetown University Special Collections)

James A. Garfield takes the oath as the nation’s 20th President. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Morrison Waite administered the oath. (Georgetown University Special Collections)

Sunday, 3/6/81 Slept six hours, which is much better than I have done of late. The inaugural and cabinet seem to be well received…

His friend J. Harrison Rhodes later said, “It is extraordinary that when Garfield spoke in the House, in convention, or from the stump, he spoke with courage and eloquence; in his letter of acceptance and in his inaugural address, he failed utterly to rise to the standard which he had previously set up.”

It is true that Garfield’s inaugural contains no lines that have rung down through the ages, and parts are indeed “dreary reading,” but perhaps it shows that the bridge between the poetry of campaigning and the prose of governing needs to be a sturdy structure.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

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The “Fine Times” of James A. Garfield’s Education, Part I

Touring James Garfield’s home today, one would have to try hard to overlook the fact that education and learning were important facets to the President’s life. His principal’s desk from the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, the portraits of writers that Garfield respected such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Shakespeare, the books that are visible in nearly every single room – his Mentor home is full of reminders of Garfield’s fondness for learning new things. In fact, intellectualism had one of the most lasting effects on his entire life, even beyond his years as a teacher and school principal. His academic foundation and love for learning would help guide him through most events in his life, from his service in the Union Army to the very day of his inauguration as President.

Garfield in his early teens did not seem on track for the life of an educated man. He had attended district schooling at least semi-regularly and had been instructed in the subjects most students studied in the mid-19th century: reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography, as well as a few other topics if the instructor had studied and cared to teach them. He seemed to have a great fondness for reading and learning, but he was from a poor family and at the time seemed devoted to becoming a sailor. Stacking the deck against Garfield even further, there was a belief among some in the Western Reserve that excessive reading, particularly of novels, was a sort of abnormality, and some argued even a cause or sign of mental illness. Fortunately his mother Eliza and his older brother Thomas apparently did not agree, and while James was recovering from an illness acquired from working on the canal he was persuaded to try school at the nearby Geauga Seminary in Chester. The money that Garfield’s mother and brother were able to scrape together in order for James to attend school at the Seminary amounted to $17 – close to their total savings up to that point. A dollar went a lot further back then than it does today but it did not go that far, and Garfield would finish the term with a grand total of six cents.

Eliza Garfield and her children.  James (back row at right) would receive much help in funding his education from his mother and his brother, Thomas (back row at left).  [Library of Congress]

Eliza Garfield and her children. James (back row at right) would receive much help in funding his education from his mother and his brother, Thomas (back row at left). [Library of Congress]

James Garfield discovered at Geauga Seminary that he was a natural student. Apparently instruction there was not all that much different from the district schools he had attended previously – in fact, by most accounts Geauga Seminary was fairly second-rate. Earlier in life he had walked out of one district school due to a particularly weak teacher, and during his first term at Geauga he wrote home requesting his grammar book as a reference to help correct his teacher’s mistakes. Overall, though, the Seminary was a step up in his education and Garfield enjoyed his studies enough to forget his passion for sailing. The library was small with about 150 books but it was larger than what he was used to at that time. And some of the books were in Greek, likely Garfield’s first exposure to the language that would become one of his favorite subjects. He found that he excelled in algebra, at least compared to his classmates who mostly dropped out of the class by the end of the term. He also took a liking to “natural philosophy” which was that era’s name for the natural sciences. He seemed to enjoy the way science provided an answer to many everyday occurrences that one could witness firsthand.

James Garfield did not merely coast through his two years at the Geauga Seminary. “Studying” is probably the single most common word found in his somewhat sparse journal entries from this time period. He was also working hard outside of the classroom to help supplement his perpetually diminishing funds, often chopping wood and teaching district school during his time off. Undoubtedly aiding Garfield’s work ethic was the simple fact that he loved what he was doing – school was fun. Entries such as “School as usual. Fine times.” and “Studying. Fine times.” appear frequently in his diary between 1849 and 1850. On November 29, 1849, while wrapping up his first term Garfield wrote in his diary “Studying some. The thoughts of parting rend my heart. We soon must say adieu.”

From Geauga Seminary, Garfield decided to test himself further by enrolling at the new Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in Hiram, Ohio. A part of this decision was based on the fact that he did not know what he wanted to do with his life: he mostly disliked teaching children in the district schools, and while he was a capable carpenter the profession never seemed to keep his interest for long. On the other hand, he viewed a college education (or at least an advanced education) as the best way to lift himself up beyond the “herd”. The Geauga school seemed to have done much for his confidence, at least. Thomas Munnell, the teacher of Latin at the Eclectic, remembered the following about James Garfield, shortly after he first enrolled at the school in the fall of 1851:

“When he arrived he had studied a little of Latin grammar, but had done nothing in the way of translating. I had no class to suit him in elementary Latin, one being behind him, and another far in advance. He resolved at once to overtake the advanced class, provided I would hear his recitation after class hours, which I readily agreed to do.” (History of Hiram College, 1850-1900 by F.M. Green). Garfield’s self-confidence was apparently well-placed, as he was asked to give the valedictory address his first year at the Eclectic.

The Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in 1858.  Originally a one-building school, "the Eclectic" became Hiram College in 1867.  (Hiram College Archives/Wikipedia)

The Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in 1858. Originally a one-building school, “the Eclectic” became Hiram College in 1867. (Hiram College Archives/Wikipedia)

Money was again a concern at the Eclectic. During the first term he had just enough saved up from teaching and carpentry work that he was able to pay his way. His second term he worked as a janitor for the school (sweeping, ringing the bell, and building fires for heat) and in between terms he again worked as a teacher. Besides monetary concerns, every year James and his fellow students had to deal with crowded housing. Most housing at the Eclectic was provided by the community itself, which was fairly small, and it was a problem finding enough space for the 300-500 students each year. Zeb Rudolph, Garfield’s future father-in-law, often had ten students in his seven-room Hiram house. The institution attempted to build boarding houses but the option was apparently never popular with the students and the structures were sold just a few years later.

Garfield immersed himself in his studies at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. He studied and attended lectures on a variety of topics, but the major courses for him early on were Greek and Latin (his two favorites), trigonometry, and “Sacred History”, which was a required course every morning that taught the Bible. The suggested curriculum was rather flexible and students took classes based more on their own needs or personal interests. Surprisingly, the Eclectic did not even have an official library until 1854, with the Bible being the only book that belonged to the institute up to that point. Extracurricular learning helped make up for the lack of a library, particularly the student-organized literary and debating societies. James Garfield actually helped lead the organization of one of these lecturing and debating groups himself, which was called the Philomathean Society. The school placed an emphasis on religious studies, being founded by the Disciples of Christ faith, but it was not strictly a theology school – a variety of classes were offered (hence the name “Eclectic”) and the school was nonsectarian.

Garfield did so well as a student that by 1853 he was listed in the catalogue as “Teacher in the English Department and of the Ancient Languages.” He also taught classes outside of these topics, including geometry and penmanship. James Garfield was a very talented scholar and had worked incredibly hard, but his sudden rise to teaching at the Eclectic can also be explained by the size of the faculty there: on average, the academy only had 5 full-time instructors and the Eclectic students, many of which taught at district schools between terms, were occasionally asked to help teach. The rapid change from student to teacher was impressive nonetheless, though.

The Eclectic seems to have improved his confidence even more – he was excelling in his classes, speaking regularly at the debating societies, preaching at Disciples of Christ meetings, and now even teaching at the school. He also began trying his hand at courting while at the Eclectic, eventually beginning a relationship with a fellow student who he would later marry in 1858, Lucretia Rudolph. They had met at the Geauga Seminary, but it was in Hiram that they grew close. Early on their letters to one another were, naturally, scholarly – books and the classics were common topics.

Garfield's Greek class at the Eclectic, 1853.  Garfield (far right) is seated next his student(and future wife) Lucretia Rudolph.  (Lake County Historical Society)

Garfield’s Greek class at the Eclectic, 1853. Garfield (far right) is seated next to his student(and future wife) Lucretia Rudolph. (Lake County Historical Society)

In 1854, James Garfield once again decided that he needed something more with his education. While the Eclectic was a step up from previous schools he had attended and offered a variety of classes that suited some of his academic needs, it was at this time more of an academy or preparatory school than a college and would not confer degrees until it became Hiram College in 1867 (also, due to the school’s primary department some of the students there were as young as 10). Arguably it was not just the absence of a degree, though, that made Garfield feel he needed more. He was so outstanding in his studies that after spending three years there he had outgrown the school. The classes were engaging and roughly the equivalent of college-level material, but by this time he had largely stopped attending and was teaching full time instead. He felt he had some purpose in life beyond what he was currently doing, though he was not sure what it was. Garfield decided to continue his education and work for that college degree.

(check back soon for Part II of this post)

T.J. Todd, Visitor Use Assistant