James Garfield

James Garfield

20th President, 1881

Early Life and Pre-presidency

James Garfield Portrait by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1881

James Garfield Portrait by Ole Peter Hansen Balling, 1881

  • Born on November 19, 1831 in Orange Township, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
  • Parents: Abram Garfield and Eliza Ballou. Siblings: Mehitabel, Thomas, Mary, and James Ballou.
  • Received a simple education at a village school. At 16, he left home to work on canal boats that plied the route between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. He returned home after six weeks due to illness.
  • Attended Geauga Seminary while supporting himself as a carpenter and part-time teacher.
  • Attended Eclectic Insitute in Hiram, Ohio from 1851 to 1854, then entered Williams College in Massachusetts, becoming the oldest student at 23 years old. He graduated in 1856 with honors.
  • Returned to Eclectic Institute as a teacher, then became its president from 1857 to 1861.
  • Married Lucretia Rudolph (1832–1918) on November 11, 1858. Children: Eliza A. (1860–1863), Harry A. (1863–1942), James R. (1865–1950), Mary (1867–1947), Irvin M. (1870–1951), Abram (1872–1958), and Edward (1874–1876).
  • Self-studied law, then passed the bar exam in 1861.
  • Elected Ohio state Senator in 1859 and served until 1861.
  • In August 1861, he commanded the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, rising to the rank of Colonel. By 1862, he had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general, then major general by 1863.
  • Served as chief of staff of Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, Commander of the Army of the Cumberland.
  • Resigned from the military in December 1863 to take his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, a position he had been elected to in the 1862 election in Ohio.
  • Garfield served eight terms in the House (from 1863 to 1879). He won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1879.
  • He won the nomination for the Republican Party’s presidential candidate on the 36th ballot during the party’s national convention in 1880.
  • Garfield won the 1880 presidential election with 48.3% of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral votes.

Presidency

James Garfield Photograph by Matthew Brady, ca. 1870–1880

James Garfield Photograph by Matthew Brady, ca. 1870–1880

  • Took his oath of office on March 4, 1881 at the East Portico, U.S. Capitol.
  • Vice President: Chester A. Arthur (1881)
  • Met opposition in his nominations for key government posts, most notably from New York Senator Roscoe Conkling who had expected “senatorial courtesy” whereby he and his supporters would be the ones to select appointees in those key positions.
  • Garfield’s feud with Conkling reached a climax when the former appointed William H. Robertson, an enemy of Conkling, to be Collector of the Port of New York.
  • In May 1881, New York Senators Conkling and Tom Platt resigned their seats to protest Garfield’s nominations to key New York posts. The two senators were hoping that support from their state legislature would vindicate their stance. However, the state elected two others to fill the vacated seats. This served as a victory for the president. Robertson’s appointment was eventually approved by the Senate.
  • Appointed several African–Americans to key positions in the government.
  • The Star Route scandal centered on the Post Office department was uncovered in May 1881. Garfield demanded the resignation of the second assistant Postmaster General who was believed to be a ring leader.
  • The Garfield Administration negotiated a reciprocal trade treaty with Madagascar in May 1881.
  • On July 2, 1881, Garfield was walking through a railroad station in Washington, D.C. on his way to his alma mater Williams College when a disgruntled lawyer, Charles J. Guiteau, who had been denied a post as the consul in Paris, shot the president two times in the back.
  • One of the bullets lodged inside him and could not be found and removed. It later caused Garfield to weaken from the infection. Garfield stayed in the White House for several weeks before being moved to Jershey Shore in September in the hopes that the climate would help him recover.
  • The inventor Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal-detecting device to locate the bullet inside Garfield, which was then believed to be in the liver area. The device did not work on Garfield, but it was later found to work perfectly.
  • Garfield died on September 19, 1881 from his injury.
  • The president’s casket laid in state in Washington before journeying by funeral train to Cleveland, Ohio where it also lay in state. He was temporarily interred at Lake View Cemetery.
  • The assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, was indicted on October 14, 1881, found guilty in January 1882, then sentenced to death. He was hanged on June 30, 1882.
  • The James A. Garfield Memorial was built inside Lake View Cemetery. It was dedicated on May 1890 and houses the caskets of Garfield and his wife, as well as the ashes of a daughter and son-in-law.
  • The James A. Garfield Monument, located on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, was dedicated in May 1887.