James Abram Garfield was born into a poor frontier family in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 1831. Throughout his youth, James A. Garfield helped his broke, widowed mother, Eliza, farm their land, which was near Cleveland.
Garfield’s father Abram died before getting the chance to know his son, as James was an infant when his father passed away. As a young man, James dreamed of leaving the farm behind and becoming a sailor.
At the age of 16, he ran away from home to work on canal boats that shuttled goods between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, two of the biggest frontier towns at the time.
Unfortunately for Garfield, sailing proved not to be his forte, and it is reported that during the span of a six-week sailing career, he fell overboard an astonishing 14 times, catching a fever so bad he was forced to return home to the farm.
Determined to succeed after his initial failure, Garfield turned to school to improve his fortunes both as a teacher and a student. Attending the Geauga Academy in Chester, Ohio supported himself through school with a part-time teaching position.
Afterward, Garfield studied at the Eclectic Institute from 1851-1854, earning his living as a school janitor. At the age of 23, James A. Garfield entered Williams College of Massachusetts. At 23, he was one of the oldest students at Williams.
While at College, Garfield excelled and enjoyed hearing the eminent lecturer/ poet /essayist Ralph Waldo Emmerson speak. Garfield also enjoyed challenging William’s President Mark Hopkins.
Garfield was known to be fond of billiards, drinking, fishing, and hunting in his personal life. He was also something of a playboy, having dated three women simultaneously. Eventually, he settled on Lucretia “Crete” Rudolph, a peer of Garfield’s at the Eclectic Institute.
Young Adult- Early Career & Civil War
Upon graduating with honors from Williams College in 1856, James A. Garfield returned to the Eclectic Insititute, where he began working as a full-time teacher. Formally trained as an instructor in classical languages, Garfield also taught a wide range of other classes, including English, history, geology, and mathematics.
Garfield also served as president of the institute from 1857-1861.
In 1858 he and Lucretia married, and in 1861 after studying on his own, he passed the Ohio Bar Exam 1861, becoming a lawyer.
Garfield 1856 found himself aligning with the newly founded Republican party during his college days, considering himself a reformer and a proponent of the Republican party’s anti-slavery stance.
In 1856 Garfield began his political career by campaigning for presidential candidate John C. Freemont in Ohio. Garfield got his first real taste of politics and his first political title when he became the youngest member of the Ohio legislature in 1859.
As a passionate abolitionist, James Garfield fully supported and campaigned for eventual President Abraham Lincoln’s run for the presidency in 1860.
As Southern states began to succeed from the United States in the early 1860s, Garfield was a proponent of the federal government using force to quell the “rebellion.”
After the Civil War broke out, Garfield helped organize the 42nd Ohio Infantry, which he joined as a colonel.
During the course of the war, James A. Garfield twice earned distinction on the battlefield, first for defeating a much stronger (in terms of manpower) confederate force at the battle of Middle Creek in 1862 and then for making a daring, courageous ride under fire at Chickamauga in 1863.
In 1863, Garfield, now a Major General, left the military and joined the US House of Representatives, for which he had been elected to campaign for the previous year.
Though he had initially supported President Lincoln’s successful bid for the presidency, Garfield, considered a radical Republican, felt that Lincoln was too soft on the south. Garfield supported the execution or exile of Confederate leaders and the seizure of any rebel property.
Garfield would serve a total of 8 terms as a congressman and, during that time, transformed from a radical idealist to a seasoned politician, developing the skill of compromise while still working towards goals he and his constituents found important.
In fact, Garfield’s stance changed so much that during the reconstruction period that followed the Civil War, Garfield supported moderation towards and a rebuild of the South, which had been devastated by the horrific conflict.
While a congressman, Garfield served on many different committees and, as a result, became adept at interpreting and regarding financial matters.
During his long tenure as a congressman, Garfield served as the chairman of the Banking and Currency Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and the Military Affairs Committee
He also was a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Garfield understood finances and money and thus backed the use of “hard money” policies while vehemently disagreeing with the proposal to print more paper currency that was unbacked by gold, thus causing inflation.
His position regarding “hard money” made him a favorite of many so-called “gold bug” Republicans, typically bankers and wholesalers who would lose money if a “soft-money” continually printing paper money system were to be implemented. During the financially difficult 1870’s Garfield actually grew so concerned over government spending that he opposed the implementation of federally funded relief projects.
In 1876 Garfield supported Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes for president, which he won in a tightly contested, highly controversial fashion. Garfield himself was a member of a 15 person committee investigating claims of voter fraud and manipulation in several states.
During Hayes’ presidency, James A. Garfield became the Republican minority leader. He furthered his reputation as a deal-maker and compromiser even among the various splintered factions of the Republican party.
Campaign and Election of 1880
Rutherford B. Hayes was satisfied being a one-term president. After his term ended, the Republican party had to decide who their next presidential candidate would be. There were three prime candidates- former president and general Ulysses S. Grant, James G. Blaine, and treasury secretary John Sherman.
At the party’s convention in Chicago that summer of 1880, there were over 34 ballots, butthe candidate was still undecided. As the balloting progressed, Garfield began receiving many votes. By the 36th balloting, the pro- Blaine and Sherman began to see promise in Garfield and began to vote for the Ohio Congressman who had just a few days prior been elected to the United States Senate.
After the convention’s balloting ended, Garfield surpassed Grant for the nomination, winning by a tally of 399 to 306. Garfield thus won a surprise nomination. The party nominated Chester A. Arthur to be Garfield’s vice-president.
Garfield’s opponent in the election of 1880 was a career military man who served valiantly during the civil war and as the military governor of Louisiana and Texas during reconstruction, Winfield S. Hancock. Recognizing the need for party unity, Garfield helped to mend fences between the dissenting Republican factions. At a series of meetings in New York City with Republican party leadership, Garfield promised to recognize all party factions if it came time to decide political appointments after the election.
The election turned out to be one of the closest in history. James A. Garfield defeated Hancock by a slim 7,368 vote margin, though he did have a significantly larger margin of victory in the electoral college, winning 214 votes to Hancock’s 155.
Presidency- Domestic and Foreign Affairs, and Assassination
Garfield’s presidency was cut very short by an assassin’s bullet just one hundred days after his inauguration. After several months, he succumbed to an infection and passed away in September of 1881.
During his short time as President James A. Garfield’s primary domestic duties and accomplishments include appointing his cabinet and settling a hotly contested debate over the position of the collectorship of the Port of New York.
At the time, New York’s ports were a huge boon to the entire United States economy, and it has been stated that the ports of New York City made more money than the entirety of all the other ports in the country.
Garfield decided to appoint William H. Robertson to the position at the port, much to the dismay of the “Stewart” faction of the Republican Party.
Robertson belonged to the “half-breed” faction of the party, and the Stewarts were outraged that someone from their side had not received the nomination. Eventually, Garfield would get his way after the appointment was held up for several months by the senate. Stewart leaders Thomas C. Platt and Roscoe Conkling would resign from their positions in dispute.
Garfield’s notable appointments included Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert as secretary of war. James G. Blaine was named as Garfield’s secretary of state. William Henry Hunt, a former attorney in New Orleans, was named Secretary of the Navy.
Garfield’s adroit move was to recall government bonds that had been issued at 6% interest and refinance them at 3.5%. This move saved the United States Treasury over $10 Million annually, which was around 4% of the entire federal budget at the time.
A notable scandal occurred during Garfield’s tenure as the United States Post office, then the largest government agency by a longshot was convicted of having serious corruption.
The Star Route Scandal, as it was known, shocked the nation and implicated members of Garfield’s party in the sale of postal routes in return for kickbacks.
Due to his presidency’s concise nature, James A. Garfield’s foreign affairs mainly consisted of appointing members to vacant diplomatic positions across the world.
Two writers received appointments. James Russell Lowe was named the U.S. minister to England, and fellow writer Lew Wallace became U.S. minister to Turkey.
Issues that Garfield would have had to deal with had he not been assassinated included Latin American affairs, issues over increased Chinese immigration, and the battle over pacific fishing rights with England.
While walking through Washington D.C.’s Baltimore & Potomac train station on July 2nd, 1881, James A. Garfield was shot through the back with a .44 British Bulldog bullet that ripped through the president’s back and remained in his pancreas at the time of his death in September.
Garfield’s assassin was a mentally disturbed man named Charles J. Guiteau, who claimed to have assassinated the president because he had not appointed him with a European consulship.
Guiteau reportedly chose the .44 caliber weapon because he thought it would look good in a museum. For weeks before the fateful day in early July, Guiteau stalked President Garfield, following him as he went about his day.
Unfortunately for Garfield, the doctors were unable to remove the bullet lodged in his pancreas, and he remained in a hospital bed until the time of his death on September 19, 1881.
Garfield died of complications from the gunshot wound and from blood poisoning, the result of an infection suffered after being shot.
Guiteau was put on trial, and after only an hour of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict and sentenced the assassin to death on the gallows. On June 30th, 1882, Guiteau was put to death by hanging.
It is interesting to note that on the day that Garfield succumbed to his wounds, Guiteau wrote his vice-president and current acting president Chester A. Arthur a note saying,
“My inspiration is a godsend to you, and I presume that you appreciate it. . . . Never think of Garfield’s removal as murder. It was an act of God, resulting from a political necessity for which he was responsible.”
Garfield’s assassination occurring so quickly into his tenure prevents him from having much of a legacy as president, apart from being one of 4 presidents in history to have been killed via assassins bullet.
Thus, Garfield is remembered as a martyr who died for his country and as a self-educated man who advanced the causes that he believed in. Those include hard-money, civil rights, and a laissez-faire economy.
James A Garfield was a politician who was struck down before he could be truly tested.