Who’s your favorite president?”
It’s a common question—one that allows a person to give an honest answer without treading too far into politics, one of the verboten topics of polite conversation.
But for all the heavy hitters in American history, the man who gets my vote is one most people never think of. When the question is asked of me, I proudly answer, “James Garfield,” only to be met by quizzical stares, as if to say, “Who?”
The response is understandable. Garfield—the 20th President of the United States—served only 200 days before he was assassinated by a madman named Charles Guiteau. Yet, as is often the case, quality matters more than quantity, and the 49 years Garfield lived before stepping into the Oval Office are a far better measure of his worth—an example of humility and service we Christians would all do well to study.
Born in a log cabin in Ohio and raised by his widowed mother, Garfield certainly didn’t live a life of privilege. But poverty couldn’t stop him from achieving his goal of graduating from college, which he did in 1856 at the age of 25, or from becoming a lay preacher in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He also spent three years in the Ohio State Senate and served as a brigadier general in the Union army before being elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, which he did for nine terms.
Success stories like his make the United States what it is. Anyone—no matter how mean his or her origin—can strive for and achieve greatness. If a person has enough guts and gumption, anything is possible. There’s just one strange thing about Garfield’s success: He never sought an appointment or promotion. “I suppose I am morbidly sensitive about any reference to my own achievements,” he once said. “I so much despise a man who blows his own horn, that I go to the other extreme.”
This kind of humility is altogether foreign to us today. In our age of shameless self-promotion and 24-hour news coverage, fame is more ephemeral than ever. And for those seeking celebrity, if the microphones aren’t pointed your way, you might as well not exist. That’s especially true if you’re a politician running for president in 2016.
The Highest Office
There are many adjectives that could be applied to the men and women currently vying for the White House—driven, ambitious, competitive, passionate, and even impressive, just to name a few. But humble isn’t one of them. It’s a quality that’s had little sway in politics for decades, if not centuries.
Whether we’re gunning for a promotion, leading a church committee, or courting voters, character still counts.
But it was on display in grand fashion at the Republican National Convention of 1880. It was a contentious meeting with many factions warring for their men, and Garfield—charged with naming and speaking for John Sherman—was in the thick of it. But despite his gifted oration for his nominee (or perhaps because of it), he suddenly became a rather attractive candidate himself. When a friend said, “General, they are talking about nominating you,” Garfield replied, “My God, Senator, I know it, I know it! and they will ruin me … My name must not be used.”
Time and again over the next three days, he tried to argue that his name should not be submitted for consideration, but time and again, his request was denied by the chairman. And by the 36th ballot—despite having forcefully resisted it—James Garfield became the Republican nominee for president. According to Candace Millard in her book Destiny of the Republic, Garfield was “shocked and sickened” and even asked a friend if it would be wrong of him to leave the convention floor rather than accept the accolades the crowd was attempting to heap on his shoulders.
He was still reticent to take the job, even after defeating Winfield Scott Hancock in the general election. At a party thrown by his college classmates on the evening before his inauguration, Garfield said, “This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the presidential fever, not even for a day; nor have I it tonight. I have no feeling of elation in view of the position I am called upon to fill. I would thank God were I today a free lance in the House or the Senate, but it is not to be, and I will go forward to meet the responsibilities and discharge the duties that are before me with all the firmness and ability I can command.”
Thanks to Charles Guiteau, we’ll never know exactly how good a president James Garfield might have been, but one thing is sure. He approached the most powerful office in the world the same way he did teaching Latin, preaching a sermon, or working on his farm in Ohio—with determination and a resolve to do his very best at whatever he laid his hand to. And in the short time he served as president, he curbed cronyism in executive appointments, enhanced American naval power, and purged corruption in the U.S. Postal Service.
There’s a lesson in his life for all of us, I think. Whether we’re gunning for a promotion, leading a church committee, or courting voters, character still counts. Principles still matter. True greatness has little to do with how high we climb on society’s rickety ladder. And we must always approach life with eternity in mind because, as Garfield himself said in his essay The Province of History, “The world’s history is a divine poem, of which the history of every nation is a canto, and every man a word. Its strains have been pealing along down the centuries, and though there have been mingled the discords of warring cannon and dying men, yet to the Christian philosopher and historian—the humble listener—there has been a divine melody running through the song, which speaks of hope and halcyon days to come.”