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.
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…
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.
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.
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