Top 10 Things to Know About James Garfield

Twentieth President of the United States

President James A. Garfield Lithograph by G.F. Gilman, ca. 1881

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collections/Public Domain


James Garfield was born on November 19, 1831, in Orange Township, Ohio. He became president on March 4, 1881. Almost four months later, he was shot by Charles Guiteau. He died while in office two and a half months later. Following are ten key facts that are important to understand when studying the life and presidency of James Garfield.

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Grew up in Poverty

James Garfield
Brady-Handy Photograph Collection

James Garfield was the last president to be born in a log cabin. His father died when he was eighteen months old. He and his siblings tried to work with their mother at their farm to make ends meet. He worked his way through school at the Geauga Academy.

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Married His Student

Lucretia Garfield, wife of American president James A Garfield, late 19th century, (1908)

Print Collector/Getty Images

Garfield moved to the Eclectic Institute, today the Hiram College, in Hiram, Ohio. While there, he taught some classes to help pay his way through school. One of his students was Lucretia Rudolph. They started dating in 1853 and married five years later on November 11, 1858. She would later be a reluctant First Lady for the short time that she occupied the White House

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Became the President of a College at the Age of 26

The Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in 1858. (Hiram College) Domain


Garfield decided to continue teaching at the Eclectic Institute after graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts. In 1857, he became its president. While serving in this capacity, he also studied law and served as an Ohio state senator. 

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Became a Major General During the Civil War

William Starke Rosecrans, American soldier, (1872). Rosecrans (1819-1898) was a Union general during the American Civil War. He fought at the Battle of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. He was also an inventor, businessman, diplomat and politician.

Print Collector/Getty Images

Garfield was a staunch abolitionist. At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, he joined the Union Army and quickly rose through the ranks to become a major general. By 1863, he was chief of staff to General Rosecrans. 

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Was in Congress for 17 Years

James Garfield left the military when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1863. He would continue to serve in Congress until 1880. 

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Was Part of the Committee That Gave the Election to Hayes in 1876

Samuel Tilden was the Democratic candidate who, although received more popular votes than his Republican opponent, lost the Presidential election by one electoral vote to Rutherford B. Hayes.

Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1876, Garfield was a member of the fifteen-man investigative committee that awarded the presidential election to Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden. Tilden had won the popular vote and was just one electoral vote shy of winning the presidency. The awarding of the presidency to Hayes was known as the Compromise of 1877. It is believed that Hayes agreed to end Reconstruction in order to win. Opponents called this the corrupt bargain.  

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Was Elected to But Never Served in the Senate

In 1880, Garfield was elected to the US Senate for Ohio. However, he would never take office due to winning the presidency in November. 

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Was a Compromise Candidate for President

Chester A Arthur
Chester A Arthur.

Public Domain

Garfield was not the Republican party's first choice as a nominee in the election of 1880. After thirty-six ballots, Garfield won the nomination as a compromise candidate between conservatives and moderates. Chester Arthur was chosen to run as his vice president. He ran against Democrat Winfield Hancock. The campaign was a true clash of personality over issues. The final popular vote was extremely close, with Garfield receiving only 1,898 more votes than his opponent. Garfield, however, received 58 percent (214 out of 369) of the electoral vote to win the presidency. 

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Dealt With the Star Route Scandal

While in office, the Star Route Scandal occurred. While President Garfield was not implicated, it was found that many members of Congress including those of his own party were illegally profiting from private organizations who purchased postal routes out west. Garfield showed himself to be above party politics by ordering a complete investigation. The aftermath of the scandal resulted in many important civil service reforms. 

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Was Assassinated After Serving Six Months in Office

Charles Guiteau
Charles Guiteau.

Historical/Getty Images

On July 2, 1881, a man named Charles J. Guiteau who had been denied a position as the ambassador to France shot President Garfield in the back. Guiteau said he shot Garfield “to unite the Republican Party and save the Republic.” Garfield ended up dying on September 19, 1881, of blood poisoning due to the unsanitary manner in which the physicians attended to his wounds. Guiteau was later hanged on June 30, 1882, after being convicted of murder.