Garfield Shot: The Moral of It

Garfield Shot: The Moral of It

Charles Guiteau was unhappy with the way the civil service treated him, so he shot President Garfield.


Charles Guiteau was unhappy with the way the civil service treated him, so he shot President Garfield.

It is very seldom that an event of any kind is accepted by the public as a lesson or source of instruction on any definite point to the degree to which the attempt on Presi-dent Garfield’s life has been. Hardly any one who has spoken or written about it has confined himself to a simple expression of horror or sympathy. Nearly every one finds a moral in it, and the moral is that our system of appointment to office must be changed. We do not think we have taken up a newspaper during the last ten days which has not in some manner made the crime the product of ‘the spoils system.” There has hardly been an allusion to it in the pulpit which has not pointed to the spoils system as the fons et origo mali. In fact, the crime seems to have acted on public opinion very like a spark n a powder-magazine. It has fallen on a mass of popular indignation all ready to explode. It did not, we now plainly see, find the public ignorant or indifferent regarding the abuses of the civil service. The attempt on the President’s life has not been treated as proof that there is something grievously wrong with our mode of appointing to office, because it is nothing of the kind. A crazy fellow might conceive himself aggrieved by the working of the best conceivable mode of appointment to office, and proceed to avenge himself by assassination. He might, for instance, think himself unjustly dismissed for gross incom-petency or misconduct, or he might think that promotion had been withheld from him which he had fairly earned, or that in a competitive examination he had been unjustly marked. The act of a madman or a weak-minded man never proves anything except that the man is mad or weak-minded.

Guiteau’s offence has, therefore, not, been accepted as evidence of something which people doubted or did not know, but as a striking and dreadful illustration of the wroking of an evil of which they had known for a long time. The extraordinary unanimity of the expressions of opinion about the origin of the crime, and the wideness of the area over which they have been uttered, and the almost complete absence of any counter opinion, show very clearly how small and uninfluential that portion of the public which is inter-ested in the perpetuation of the spoils system really is. Nobody, so far as our observa-tion has gone, has come forward in its defence. No man or newspaper has ventured to deny the connection of Guiteau’s crime with the system. All the other inferences from it have been a good deal gainsaid; but nobody has risen up to maintain that as “it was the best civil service on this planet,” it was absurd to condemn it because a man who had unsuccessfully tried to enter it had sought to avenge himself by an attempt on the Presi-dent’s life. Nor has any one come forward and declared that, inasmuch as it is “as good as the civil service of any European country,” Guiteau’s crime no more suggested the need of alteration in it than in that of Great Britain or France. Nor do any of the philoso-phers who used to declare that the spoils system was a useful, original, and purely American system, peculiarly adapted to the needs of a democratic country, now pro-claim that it would be as silly to propose changing it because a disappointed office-seeker had tried to murder the President, as it would be to propose abolishing universal suffrage because there were occasional frauds at the elections. These various classes of defenders of the spoils system undoubtedly exist: we have heard from them fre-quently within the last five years through one channel or another; but they are now si-lent. Not one of them has lifted up his voice to protest against the gross perversion of the popular indignation which must to them certainly seem involved in the use now made of Guiteau’s crime by the civil-service reformers.

This shows two things: one is that they are conscious of their numerical weakness, and the other is that, though they love the spoils system as much as ever, they will never venture to defend it before an aroused and attentive public. Their speeches and articles on its behalf are all addressed to a public which they suppose to be apathetic or indif-ferent.

If we are right in assuming that Guiteau’s crime has satisfied the American people not that the civil service needs reforming — for that they knew already — but that something must now be done to reform it, the question, “what they are going to do about it,” is one that must by this time be suggesting itself to thousands. It is hardly possible that the ex-citement about the President’s condition will be allowed to die out without doing some-thing toward turning away the attention of the whole class to which Guiteau belongs — the class of shiftless, crackbrained adventurers — from the public service as a means of livelihood. It ought to be so organized and administered that the Guiteaus, when “down on their luck,” or “clean broke,” would no more think of a Government office as a last re-source than of the pastorate of an up-town church. But no such change will be effected in it — no change of any kind will be effected in it — if the people content themselves with dolorous denunciation. We must have action that will result in legislation. Those, then, who are most impressed by the bearing of the Washington tragedy on the question of civil-service reform should, now that their minds are beginning to be relieved of anxiety about the President’s condition, make action of some sort an expression of their thank-fulness for his recovery. To prepare for action they must ask themselves what they seek; and when they have found out, they ought to seek it with all their might.

Two bills were introduced into the last Congress dealing with the whole question of ap-pointments and removals from office and promotions in office, and with the assess-ments of officeholders. They were carefully drawn. No objection, so far as we know, has been made to their constitutionality or to their practicability. In fact, they have not been opposed by anybody in Congress, but they will never be passed as long as Congress-men do not believe that the public wants them passed. Probably ninety-nine hundredths of those who during the past six weeks have been inveighing against the spoils system have no knowledge whatever either of this or of any other attempt to abolish the spoils system, and have never sought, and are not now seeking, any information on the sub-ject. Had these rules been in force during the last year President Garfield would during the last four months have had all his time for the real duties of his office, as would the members of his Cabinet. The rows within the party about offices would never have oc-curred. There would have been no “Stalwarts” or “Half-Breeds,” and no Guiteau. There would have been no deadlock at Albany. There would have been no Platt and no Conk-ling such as we now see them. There would have been none of the scandal and dis-grace which the crime of July a has brought on popular government, The popular inter-est which has ever since the inauguration been mainly centred on a series of degrading personal quarrels would have been bestowed on the score of questions of the highest national interest which are now vainly awaiting solution.

The Fund for Mrs. Garfield

The profound sympathy universally felt for the President and his family makes any criti-cism of a movement to give that feeling a substantial expression seem at the first blush a little ungracious. Nevertheless, the suggestions as to the proposed fund for the benefit of Mrs. Garfield made in the letter, from a prominent member of the Chamber of Com-merce, published in the Evening Post last Saturday, contain food for reflection on the part of the gentlemen engaged in promoting the subscription. As the writer says:

“Every man of generous feeling has had his emotions gratefully quickened by the movement started in the Chamber to raise a liberal fund to be given to the wife and chil-dren of the President of the United States under the impending danger which threatens them, and no one wishes to say a word that may tend to repress so benevolent a pur-pose.”

But the movement, which appeared a natural and spontaneous outburst as long as the chances seemed to be that the President would die, begins to wear a somewhat differ-ent aspect now that his recovery has become probable. The correspondent suggests an objection to the proposed fund, derived from the constitutional prohibition of any in-crease of the President’s salary during the period for which he was elected, and the de-nial to him of all right to receive “any other emolument from the United States or any of them.” He points out that it was the intention of these clauses to secure the President from all sinister exterior influence (and, we may add, from the suspicion of any such in-fluence), and asks whether we may not, under the effect of the generous impulse in-spired by the calamity, and by the suffering of the President and his family, be in danger of violating at least the spirit of this law. He suggests that a private agreement ought to have been made between the donors of the money that, in case of a fatal termination, the proposed sum should be given to the family of the President, and that this intention might have been communicated to him “without giving names that could embarrass him in the future, or impair his official or personal independence.” But even this, he thinks, “might give the President serious trouble hereafter, and prove a curse rather than a blessing.”

It is, in fact, clear that the President’s recovery will make his relation to the fund a very peculiar and delicate one, and on many accounts it is for his interest and that of the pub-lic that this should be frankly discussed by the press in advance. In the event of the President’s death the whole matter would become one exclusively of taste and senti-ment. If Congress should neglect to make a suitable provision for the President’s widow, there can he no doubt that a call for a popular subscription would he heartily responded to; and even if it should not neglect to do this, the question of making her a substantial gift, which, in our opinion, could not be too large, would he one entirely between the do-nors and herself. No public interests of any kind would be affected. The differences be-tween this and the case of the President’s recovery have seemed so obvious to one or two of the subscribers that they have made their subscriptions conditional upon his death. In case of his recovery it will, of course, be very difficult to distinguish between a gilt to the President and a gift to the President’s wife. The plan of putting the money in trust does not remove this difficulty. A substantial addition to the resources of the one is practically a substantial addition to the resources of the other.

The change in its form from a private to a national subscription can have little or no ef-fect upon this. It necessarily remains, as it originated, a fund set on foot by a number of well-known capitalists. That these gentlemen are simply animated by a generous sym-pathy does not alter this fact it is just this association that renders it the duty of the President’s friends to point out the inferences that will be drawn from it hereafter. Among the subscribers are men interested in the promotion by legislation at Washington of pri-vate enterprises of all sorts. This legislation must come before the President for ap-proval or disapproval, and it is of the utmost importance not merely that he should be subject to no private bias in favor of the promoters of such enterprises, but that he should not he open to any suspicion of such bias. The general sympathy with him in his present critical condition should not blind us to the fact that his acts will hereafter be criticised with all the fierceness and ingenuity that party spirit can supply, and that the acceptance of money by his wife at the hands of men who are knocking every year at the doors of Congress for favors will be a handle for his enemies which they will not ne-glect to use. Human nature being what it is, no matter how high the reputation of a President for integrity may he, it is impossible to prove to the satisfaction of one who doubts it that his signature or veto of a bill is unaffected by the recollection of a pecuni-ary benefit derived from its promoters and it is this impossibility which made all the Presidents who had occupied the White House down to General Grant’s time so sensi-tive on the subject of gifts. It is safe to say that the admirers and well-wishers of the President will do well to proceed very cautiously in the matter. While they can afford to disregard all criticism of their own motives in starting the subscription, they certainly cannot afford to disregard the criticisms to which the scheme, if carried out, is sure to subject the President. If he recovers, the necessity and duty of making a pecuniary pro-vision for his family will not seem so obvious as it did when he appeared to be lying at the point of death, and the objections to such a provision by means of a fund such as is now proposed will seem every day more clear and distinct. It would be a very serious embarrassment to him.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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