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James A. Garfield


Garfield, James A.

James Abram Garfield became the 20th president of the United States in 1881 and was assassinated later that year. He had been an influential member of the House of Representatives for the period 1863 to 1880, but his presidency was too short to confirm the indications that he would have been the moderate, successful leader that the Republican party required in the 1880s. Garfield is now remembered mostly as the last chief executive to be born in a log cabin and as a dark-horse candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1880.

Early Life

Garfield was born on Nov. 19, 1831, in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. After an impoverished childhood he attended what became Hiram College and graduated from Williams College in 1856. He returned to Hiram as principal from 1857 to 1861, but he had already concluded that "teaching is not the work in which a man can live and grow." In 1858 he married Lucretia Rudolph; two of their children, James Rudolph and Harry Augustus, gained national distinction.

Intensely religious as a youth (he was a member of the Disciples of Christ and a lay preacher), Garfield moved toward secular and political concerns in the 1850s. He studied law, became a Republican, and was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859. When the Civil War began, he joined and helped recruit the 42d Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He fought at Shiloh and Chickamauga, rose to major general, and, as chief of staff of the Army of the Cumberland, displayed impressive talents as a planner and organizer.

Elected to Congress in 1862, Garfield began his legislative service in December 1863. For the next 17 years he concentrated on economic issues on the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees. He voted with Radical Republicans on Reconstruction but did not endorse the more stringent measures of that bloc. He was a mild protectionist in Ohio tariff politics, and he opposed greenbacks and other inflationary ideas. Scandal touched him only slightly when his modest dealings with the Crédit Mobilier company became public.

Garfield was moderately tall and wore a heavy beard. He was bookish but not intellectual and had a reputation on Capitol Hill as "one of the real jolly good fellows." Cautious and thoughtful, he appeared indecisive to some colleagues and weak to others. Yet he had ambition and resolve, and when his chance came in 1880 he was ready.

Early in 1880 the Ohio legislature elected Garfield to the Senate to succeed John Sherman, and he then served as Sherman's campaign manager in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. At the convention Garfield worked skillfully to block the candidacies of James G. Blaine and Ulysses S. Grant. In the process his appeal as a compromise candidate outshone Sherman's lackluster personality and record. By the 35th ballot a Garfield tide was running through the hall, and on the next ballot he received the nomination.


With Chester Alan Arthur as his running mate, Garfield faced a difficult race against Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democratic nominee. The narrow victory that Garfield achieved testified to the stalemated condition of politics in the Gilded Age. His majority in the electoral college was 214 to 155, but his plurality in the popular vote was under 7,500. The Republicans won because of superior organization, a new emphasis on the tariff issue, and Democratic errors. Garfield's deft speeches at his home in Mentor, Ohio, foreshadowed the "front porch" campaigns of Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley.

Divisions within the Republican party made Garfield's cabinet and patronage choices the primary issue between his election and assassination. He named James G. Blaine secretary of state and gave greater recognition to Blaine's Half-Breed faction than to the Stalwarts led by Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York. Once in office, Garfield nominated an enemy of Conkling's as collector of the New York port and pushed hard to secure the appointee's Senate confirmation. Garfield's skill in this struggle indicated that responsibility had lessened his earlier irresolution. As defeat became likely, Conkling resigned his Senate seat and sought vindication and reelection from the New York legislature. When that body seemed ready to reject Conkling's bid, Garfield's ascendancy as president appeared assured.

On July 2, 1881, Garfield went to Washington's railroad station to begin a family trip. There Charles J. Guiteau, an insane Stalwart and disappointed office seeker, shot him. Garfield lived for 11 weeks in increasing pain and failing strength and died in Elberon, N.J. on Sept. 19, 1881. Garfield quickly faded from public and historical memory. The circumstances of his assassination facilitated passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883. His death left the Republican party confused and leaderless throughout much of the 1880s and helped delay its emergence to majority status for 15 years.

Biography from The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia