James Abram Garfield was born on November 19, 1831, in Orange, Ohio, near Cleveland, the son of a farmer and canal worker. James was two years old when his father died, which forced him to devote more of his early life to work rather than school.
During an illness in his teen years, Garfield began a serious attempt to gain an education. He enrolled in what was then known as the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) and was actively affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. He later graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Garfield returned briefly to the Eclectic Institute where he taught the classics and served as the principal.
During his twenties, Garfield altered some of his fundamental beliefs. He had been deeply religious and highly suspicious of politicians, but later he developed a keen interest in politics and became less concerned about his faith. His first significant foray into politics came via his support of the candidacy of John C. Frémont, the Republican nominee in 1856.
In 1859, Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate as a Republican. He studied law in his spare time and was admitted to the bar in 1861. Garfield was widely regarded as a superb orator, drawing upon skills he had developed as a preacher.
Garfield raised a volunteer force to fight on the Union side in the Civil War and saw action at Shiloh and Chickamauga. In 1863, he was elected to Congress and left the service at the specific request of Abraham Lincoln to assume his seat. Garfield would be reelected to the House seven more times.
As an increasingly influential political figure, Garfield was a supporter of "hard money" policies, Radical Republican reconstruction programs, black civil rights, and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
Scandal touched Garfield`s career at several points, most notably with the infamous Crédit Mobilier affair. Evidence of his complicity was not absolute and at worst he was regarded as a highly principled man who may have given in to temptation in an age of widespread greed and corruption.
In the Election of 1880, Garfield emerged as the "dark horse" candidate of the Republican Party. His popular vote total was less than a majority because of a strong showing by the Democrats and a token effort by the Greenback-Labor Party.
Garfield`s presidency lasted only four months and was filled with contention. The president angered his chief rival, the Stalwart leader Roscoe Conkling, by appointing Half-Breed James G. Blaine to be Secretary of State and by designating a Conkling rival to a lucrative post at the New York Customhouse, seat of Conkling`s power.
On July 2, 1881, Garfield was waiting at a train station for a trip to a college reunion; he was approached by a disappointed office seeker, Charles J. Guiteau, who fired two pistol shots into the president. The assassin proclaimed, "I am a Stalwart. Arthur is now president."
James A. Garfield hung on for 11 weeks before dying on September 19, 1881. Unsuccessful efforts had been made to locate one of the bullets, which had lodged in his back. Alexander Graham Bell provided his expertise with a newly developed electric device, but to no avail. The president died from blood poisoning, most likely stemming from the efforts to extract the bullet with contaminated instruments.
Garfield`s death touched off a lengthy period of public mourning, as well as widespread anger over the obvious corruption of the patronage system.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by James A. Garfield.
Regarding Assassination of Lincoln
Fellow citizens: God reigns, and the Government at Washington lives!
I am trying to do two things: dare to be a radical and not be a fool, which, if I may judge by the exhibitions around me, is a matter of no small difficulty.
letter to Burke Aaron Hinsdale on January 1, 1867
Regarding Public Education
Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.
Letter accepting the 1880 Republican nomination for President
Quotes regarding James A. Garfield.
By Rutherford B. Hayes
One of its [James A. Garfield’s assassination] lessons, perhaps its most important lesson, is the folly, the wickedness, and the danger of the extreme and bitter partisanship which so largely prevails in our country.
Letter to Emile Kahn, October 1, 1881