Biography of James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States

James Garfield

 John Parrot/Stocktrek Images/ Stocktrek/ Getty Images

James A. Garfield ( Nov. 19, 1831—Sept. 19, 1881) was an educator, a lawyer, and a major general in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. He was elected to the Ohio State Senate and to the U.S. Congress before becoming the 20th American president on March 4, 1881. He served only until Sept. 19, 1881, when he died from complications caused by an assassin's bullet 11 weeks before.

Fast Facts: James A. Garfield

Known For: 20th president of the United States

Born: Nov. 19, 1831, in Cuyahoga County, Ohio

Parents: Abram Garfield, Eliza Ballou Garfield

Died: Sept. 19, 1881, in Elberon, New Jersey

Education: Williams College

Spouse: Lucretia Rudolph

Children: Seven; two died in infancy

Early Life

Garfield was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, to Abram Garfield, a farmer, and Eliza Ballou Garfield. His father died when Garfield was just 18 months old. His mother tried to make ends meet with the farm, but he and his three siblings, two sisters and a brother, grew up in relative poverty.

He attended a local school before moving on to Geauga Academy in Geauga County, Ohio, in 1849. He then went to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later called Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio, teaching to help pay his way. In 1854, he attended Williams College in Massachusetts, graduating with honors two years later.

On Nov. 11, 1858, Garfield married Lucretia Rudolph, who had been a student of his at the Eclectic Institute. She was working as a teacher when Garfield wrote to her and they began courting. She contracted malaria while the first lady but lived a long life after Garfield's death, dying on March 14, 1918. They had two daughters and five sons, two of whom died when they were infants. 

Career Before the Presidency

Garfield began his career as an instructor in classical languages at the Eclectic Institute and was its president from 1857 to 1861. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1860, and he was ordained a minister in the Disciples of Christ church, but he soon turned to politics. He served as an Ohio state senator from 1859 to 1861. Garfield joined the Union army in 1861, taking part in the Civil War battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga and reaching the rank of major general.

He was elected to Congress while still in the military, resigning to take his seat as a U.S. representative and serving from 1863 to 1880. During this time he had an extramarital affair with a woman in New York City. He later admitted the indiscretion and was forgiven by his wife. 

Becoming President

In 1880, the Republicans nominated Garfield to run for president as a compromise candidate between conservatives and moderates. Conservative candidate Chester A. Arthur was nominated as vice president. Garfield was opposed by Democrat Winfield Hancock.

Acting upon the advice of President Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield shied away from actively campaigning, speaking to reporters and voters from his home in Mentor, Ohio, in what was referred to as the first “front porch” campaign. He won 214 out of 369 electoral votes.

Events and Accomplishments

Garfield was in office for only six and a half months. He spent much of that time dealing with patronage issues. The one major issue that he faced was an investigation of whether mail route contracts were being awarded fraudulently, with tax money going to those involved.

The investigation implicated members of his Republican Party, but Garfield didn't flinch from continuing. In the end, revelations from the incident, called the Star Route Scandal, resulted in important civil service reforms.

Assassination

On July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally disturbed office seeker, shot Garfield in the back in the Washington, D.C., railroad station while he was on his way to a family vacation in New England, but the president didn't die until Sept. 19. Guiteau apparently was driven by politics, saying to police after he surrendered, "Arthur is now president of the United States." He was convicted of murder and hanged on June 30, 1882.

The cause of death was massive hemorrhaging and slow blood poisoning, which was later described as being related more to the unsanitary way physicians treated the president than to the wounds themselves. Doctors of the time were unschooled in the role of hygiene in preventing infection. The standard procedure was to devote most of the treatment effort to removing the bullet, and a number of doctors repeatedly poked his wound in an unsuccessful search.

Legacy

Garfield served the second shortest presidential term in American history, topped only by the 31-day term of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who caught a cold that turned into fatal pneumonia. Garfield was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. Upon his death, Vice President Arthur became president.

Because of Garfield's brief time in office, he couldn't achieve much as president. By allowing the investigation into the mail scandal to continue despite its effect on members of his own party, Garfield paved the way for civil service reform.

He also was an early champion of the rights of African-Americans, believing that education was the best hope for improving their lives. In his inaugural address, he said:

“The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people.…It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both.”

Garfield's prolonged death is credited with helping to establish the American president as a celebrity. The public and the media of the day were described as being obsessed with his lengthy passing, more so even than they had been with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln 16 years before.

Sources