James Garfield

Photograph of James Garfield as President

Photograph of James Garfield as President

James A. Garfield was the twentieth President of the United States. He served in 1881. He was born on November 19, 1831 in a one room log cabin in Orange, Ohio. His father was a farmer and Orange was the frontier. His father died when Garfield was 1-1/2 years old. His mother, Eliza, was determined to keep the family of five children together, so sold off fifty aces to pay debts and she and the children farmed the remaining thirty acres.

Garfield began school at age three, and loved reading. He wanted to go to college from an early age. When he was seventeen, he went to work, first as a sailor on Great Lakes freighters then as a tow-boy on the Ohio Canal. In 1848, he took $17 his mother gave him and set off with two cousins to attend a school in Chester, Ohio. He and his cousins rented a house, cooked for themselves and worked weekends as carpenter helpers.

Garfield dropped out of school for a semester to teach at a country school, and then returned to Chester to prepare for college. He entered Hiram Eclectic Institute (Hiram College), where he stayed for three years. He became proficient at Greek and Latin and earned money by tutoring.

He was then given a loan, and entered Williams College, where he graduated with honors in 1856. He excelled at all subjects, only disliking chemistry, writing in his diary “Chemistry is the only study in the course that I disliked and although I passed fairly well, I did not study it with the love for it that I felt for other studies.” He returned to Hiram as a professor of Latin and Greek in 1856, and was made President of the school the next year. He married Lucretia Roberts in 1858, and they had seven children, one of whom was Secretary of the Interior under President Theodore Roosevelt. He was also a lay preacher and studied the law while at Hiram, and in 1859, was elected was a Republican member of the state senate.

When the Civil War broke out, Garfield and student’s from Hiram became a company in the 42nd Ohio Volunteers, and Garfield was made Lieutenant Colonel, then Colonel. He led a brigade in 1862 that drove the Confederate forces out of Eastern Kentucky and was made a Brigadier General. He fought in a number of major battles including Chickamauga in 1863, and was made Major General for his bravery.

While on active duty in 1862, Garfield was elected to Congress. In 1863, he received a request from President Lincoln that he resign his commission and take his seat, which he did. He spent the next seventeen years in Congress.

Garfield sided with the Radical Republicans and was for both the Reconstruction acts and the impeachment of President Johnson. He had strong feelings against the South which he kept for his whole life.

During the Grant administration, Garfield served on a number of important House committees. In 1877, he served on the Electoral commission that helped settle the Hayes-Tilden election. He served also as Minority Leader of the House under President Hayes.

Garfield was elected in 1880 by the Ohio Legislature to serve in the US Senate, but he never took the office. In June 1880, the Republican Convention was split into two factions. Garfield was head of the Ohio delegation and avoided taking sides. When neither faction could prevail with their candidate after thirty three ballots, things began to shift with Wisconsin noting for Garfield. He was nominated as the Republican candidate for President on the thirty-sixth ballot. The convention also chose Chester A. Arthur as the Vice-President candidate.

President Hayes supported Garfield’s nomination. With times being prosperous and the Republicans supporting protective tariffs, Garfield and Arthur narrowly won the election. The Democrats had run General Hancock, a hero of the battle of Gettysburg. The popular votes were almost a tie, but Garfield won handily in the Electoral College.

Garfield was sworn in on March 4, 1881. His first act was to turn and kiss his mother who had always been his strongest supporter. It was the first time the mother of a President had been present at an inauguration. Recognized as one of the finest orators of his time, his address was a masterpiece.

Garfield focused his remarks on the need to reform the Civil Service. He wanted it fixed by law as opposed to the old patronage system, feeling that frequently the people were served by lesser officials than they deserved. President Hayes himself wrote of Garfield that “no man ever started so low that accomplished so much….he is the ideal self-made man”.

Garfield, due to the initial split convention, felt he needed to pay off his debts to one faction, the “Half-Breeds”. He did so by appointing James Blaine as Secretary of State. He also replaced the collector of the Port of New York. This angered some of the other faction, the “stalwarts” of which his Vice-President, Chester Arthur, was a member.

On the morning of July 2, 1881, Garfield and Blaine were boarding a train to attend the Presidents 25 year reunion at Williams College when as assassin struck. Charles Guiteau shot Garfield twice, shouting “I am a Stalwart. Arthur is now President”. Guiteau was mentally deranged and there was no Stalwart conspiracy. He was hanged on June 30, 1882. Garfield lingered near death for weeks, and finally died on September 19, 1881, only 200 days into his term as President.

James A. Garfield Facts

  • President No.: 20th
  • When did James Garfield serve? 1881
  • What was James Garfield’s party? Republican
  • Where was James Garfield from? Ohio
  • Who was James Garfield’s wife? Lucretia Rudolph Garfield
  • When was James Garfield born? November 19, 1831
  • Where was James Garfield born? Orange, Ohio
  • When did James Garfield die? September 19, 1881
  • Where did James Garfield die? Elbberon, New Jersey after being shot July 2 in Washington D.C.
  • Which college did James Garfield attend? Williams College
  • What was James Garfield’s Jobs Before President? Teacher, preacher, Congressman and Senator
  • What was James Garfield’s height? 6 feet
  • What was the population when James Garfield was president? 50,155,783
  • What hobbies did James Garfield have? Billiards
  • What transportation did James Garfield use? Train, horse
  • How did James Garfield communicate? Letter, telegram


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