James Garfield: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

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James Garfield

Engraved portrait of President James Garfield
James Garfield. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born: November 19, 1831, Orange Township, Ohio.
Died: At the age of 49, September 19, 1881, in Elberon, New Jersey.

President Garfield had been shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881, and never recovered from his wounds.

Presidential term: March 4, 1881 - September 19, 1881.

Garfield’s term as president only spanned six months, and for half of that he was incapacitated from his wounds. His term as president was the second shortest in history; only William Henry Harrison, who served a single month, spent less time as president.

Accomplishments: It is difficult to point to any presidential accomplishments of Garfield’s, as he spent so little time as president. He did, however, set an agenda which was followed by his successor, Chester Alan Arthur.

One particular goal of Garfield’s which Arthur accomplished was reform of the civil service, which was still influenced by the Spoils System dating back to the time of Andrew Jackson.

Supported by: Garfield joined the Republican Party in the late 1850s, and remained a Republican for the rest of his life. His popularity within the party led to him being considered a candidate for the party’s presidential candidate in 1880, though Garfield did not actively pursue the nomination.

Opposed by: Throughout his political career Garfield would have been opposed by members of the Democratic Party.

Presidential campaigns: Garfield’s one presidential campaign was in 1880, against the Democratic nominee Winfield Scott Hancock. Though Garfield barely won the popular vote, he easily won the electoral vote.

Both candidates had served in the Civil War, and Garfield supporters were not inclined to attack Hancock as he had been an acknowledged hero at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Hancock supporters tried to tie Garfield to corruption in the Republican Party going back to the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, but were not successful. The campaign was not particularly lively, and Garfield essentially won based on his reputation for honesty and hard work, and his own distinguished record in the Civil War.

Spouse and family: Garfield married Lucretia Rudolph on November 11, 1858. They had five sons and two daughters.

Education: Garfield received a basic education in a village school as a child. In his teens he flirted with the idea of becoming a sailor, and left home briefly but soon returned. He entered a seminary in Ohio, working odd jobs to support his education.

Garfield turned into a very good student, and entered college, where he took up the challenging subjects of Latin and Greek. By the mid-1850s he had become the instructor of classical languages at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in Ohio (which became Hiram College).

Early career: While teaching in the late 1850s Garfield became interested in politics and joined the new Republican Party. He campaigned for the party, giving stump speeches and speaking out against the spread of slavery.

The Ohio Republican Party nominated him to run for state senate, and he won the election in November 1859. He continued to speak out against slavery, and when the Civil War broke out following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Garfield enthusiastically supported the Union cause in the war.

Military career: Garfield helped to raise troops for volunteer regiments in Ohio, and he became a colonel in command of a regiment. With the discipline he had shown as a student, he studied military tactics and became proficient in commanding troops.

Early in the war Garfield served in Kentucky, and he participated in the critical and very bloody Battle of Shiloh.

Congressional career: While serving in the Army in 1862, Garfield’s supporters back in Ohio nominated him to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. Though he did not campaign for it, he was easily elected, and thereby began a 18-year career as a Congressman.

Garfield was actually absent from the Capitol for much of his first term in Congress, as he was serving at various military postings. He resigned his military commission at the end of 1863, and began to concentrate on his political career.

Late in the Civil War, Garfield was affiliated for a time with the Radical Republicans in Congress, but he gradually became more moderate in his views toward Reconstruction.

During his long congressional career, Garfield held a number of important committee posts, and he took a particular interest in the nation’s finances. It was only reluctantly that Garfield accepted the nomination to run for president in 1880.

Later career: Having died while president, Garfield had no post-presidential career.

Unusual facts: Beginning with elections for student government while at college, Garfield never lost any election in which he was a candidate.

Death and funeral: In the spring of 1881, Charles Guiteau, who had been a Republican Party supporter, became embittered after being refused a government job. He decided to assassinate President Garfield, and began tracking his movements.

On July 2, 1881, Garfield was at a railroad station in Washington, D.C., planning to board a train to travel to a speaking engagement. Guiteau, armed with a large caliber revolver, came up behind Garfield and shot him twice, once in the arm and once in the back.

Garfield was taken to the White House, where he remained confined to bed. An infection spread in his body, perhaps aggravated by doctors probing for the bullet in his abdomen not using sterile procedure which would be common modern times.

In early September, in hopes that fresh air would help him recuperate, Garfield was moved to a resort on the New Jersey shore. The change did not help, and he died on September 19, 1881.

Garfield’s body was taken back to Washington. After observances at the U.S. Capitol, his body was taken to Ohio for burial.

Legacy: As Garfield spent so little time in office, he did not leave a strong legacy. However, he was admired by the presidents who followed him, and some of his ideas, such as civil service reform, were enacted following his death.