Warm Southern Breeze

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James A. Garfield on Separation of Church and State… in 1874

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Monday, February 8, 2021

James A. Garfield

It’s always interesting to see how our forebears thought about certain fundamental matters to our nation’s governance. We have historians to guide us, who make it their life’s work to study, and investigate the men, women, and circumstances of their lives, and the times in which they lived. We can, and should be grateful to, and for, them; for they bring to life those things which, though they may seem dead, are still often, very much alive.

Following is an excerpt in whole, as found in the Congressional Record – a verbatim record of remarks made on the floor of the House of Representatives – of a statement made by then-Ohio Representative James A. Garfield, from the 19th Congressional District, who later became President of the United States, and was also, at age 50, ingloriously, the second President assassinated.

Interestingly, he survived being shot on July 2, but eventually succumbed to infection September 19, which was introduced by doctors who frequently inserted their unsterile hands into the wound in efforts to remove the bullet. Today, unless a bullet is lodged near a vital organ, or blood vessel, and is thought to possibly migrate, they’re left in situ (in place) because, the theory being, that the heat generated by firing kills any bacteria which may be introduced, and sometimes, cauterizes the wound.


Mr. GARFIELD. I desire in a very few words, not to argue the merits of this case but to give the ground on which the Committee on Appropriations made their recommendation. Having stated that ground, I shall leave the question to the discretion of the House.

I agree with everything that the gentleman from Massachusetts [Mr. E. R. Hoar] has said about the worthy charitable work of this organization known as the Little Sisters of the Poor. I agree that they distribute their charity without the slightest regard to denominational belief. The only ground on which I make a distinction (and it is a distinction I wish the House to understand) is this: Here is an organization composed exclusively of people of one religious denomination. Under its charter the members are wholly and only of one religious sect, and of one society within that religious sect. I take it that no woman in America, not a Catholic, could be one of the corporators in this home. At any rate I take it for granted that the members would not act in conjunction with any corporation not of that sect as a joint controller of the institution.

Now, I make the point – and the Committee on Appropriations made the point – that we ought never to commit ourselves to the aid of an exclusively sectarian institution. I would say the same were this institution under the control of a Protestant church, even if it were a church to which I myself belonged. The divorce between the church and the state ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no church property anywhere in any State or in the nation should be exempted from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a church tax upon the whole community.

If the House deems this a point that ought not to be considered, I shall be very glad to see these Little Sisters of the Poor helped. If the fifty-sixth amendment, making an appropriation for the work for the Women’s Christian Association were in favor of any one sect , I should vote very quickly to strike it out.”

–– James A. Garfield (1831-1881) – Republican, then Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio’s 19th Congressional District, Congressional Record, 43rd Congress, Monday, June 22, 1874, Volume 2, Part 6, p5384

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