James Garfield - Twentieth President of the United States

Vintage American history painting of President James Garfield.
John Parrot/Stocktrek Images/ Stocktrek/ Getty Images

James Garfield's Childhood and Education:

Garfield was born on November 19, 1831 in Ohio. His father died when he was only 18 months old. His mother tried to make ends meet but he and his three siblings grew up in relative poverty. He attended a local school before moving on to Geauga Academy in 1849. He then went to the Eclectic Institute in Hiram, Ohio, teaching to help pay his way. In 1854, he attended Williams College in Massachusetts. He graduated with honors in 1856.

Family Ties:

Garfield was born to Abram Garfield, a farmer, and Eliza Ballou Garfield.  She lived at the White House with her son. It is said that her son carried her up and down the White House stairs himself due to her frailty while living there. He had two sisters and a brother.

On November 11, 1858, Garfield married Lucretia Rudolph. She had been a student of Garfield's at the Eclectic Institute. She was working as a teacher when Garfield wrote her and they began courting. She contracted malaria while First Lady. However, she lived a long life after Garfield's death, dying on March 14, 1918. Together, they had two daughters and five sons. 

James Garfield's Career Before the Presidency:

Garfield began his career as in instructor in classical languages at the Eclectic Institute. He then became its president from 1857-1861. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1860. At the same time, he served as an Ohio State Senator (1859-61). In 1861, Garfield joined the Union army rising to be a major general. He took part in the Battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga. He was elected to Congress while still in the military and resigned to take his seat as a U.S. Representative (1863-80).

Becoming the President:

In 1880, the Republicans nominated Garfield to be the president as a compromise candidate between conservatives and moderates. Conservative candidate Chester A. Arthur was nominated as vice president. Garfield was opposed by Winfield Hancock. Garfield shied away from campaigning upon former President Rutherford B. Hayes' advice. He won with 214 out of 369 electoral votes.

Events and Accomplishments of James Garfield’s Presidency:

Garfield was only in office for a little more than six months. He spent much of that time dealing with patronage issues. The one major issue that he dealt with was an investigation of whether mail route contracts were being awarded fraudulently with tax money lining the pockets of those involved. When the investigation showed that members of the Republican Party were involved, Garfield did not flinch from continuing the investigation. In the end, the revelations from the scandal called the Star Route Scandal resulted in important civil service reforms.

On July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally disturbed office seeker, shot President Garfield in the back. The president did not die until September 19th of blood poisoning. This was related more to the manner in which the physicians attended to the president than to the wounds themselves. Guiteau was convicted of murder and hanged on June 30, 1882.

Historical Significance:

Due to Garfield's brief time in office, he was not able to achieve much as president. By allowing the investigation into the mail scandal to continue despite it affecting members of his own party, Garfield paved the way for civil service reform. Upon his death, Chester Arthur became President.