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James Abram Garfield

James Abram Garfield was a soldier and congressman who became the twentieth president of the United States. His inability to perform the duties of office following an assassination attempt on July 2, 1881, raised, for the second time in U.S. history, the question of presidential succession.

Garfield was born November 19, 1831, in a log cabin near the town of Orange in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. He was the fourth and final child of Abram Garfield and Eliza Ballou Garfield. Garfield's father's ancestors were among the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1827 the father carried their pioneering spirit to Ohio, where he worked on an Ohio Canal construction crew. By the time Garfield was born, his father was a struggling farmer and a founding member of the local Disciples of Christ church. In 1833, when Garfield was just two years old, his father died suddenly, leaving the family in poverty.

Garfield's mother, a descendant of an old Rhode Island family, was a remarkable woman. After her husband's death, she ran the small family farm on her own and saw to it that Garfield and his siblings worked hard, attended church, and finished school.

After completing his studies at the local school in Orange, Garfield enrolled at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College), at Hiram, Ohio. He eventually went on to Williams College, in Massachusetts. After graduating from Williams with the class of 1856, he returned to the institute at Hiram and assumed the duties of teacher and later principal. On November 11, 1858, he married Lucretia Rudolph, his childhood friend, fellow student, and pupil.

In addition to teaching and tending to the administration of the institute, Garfield frequently served as a lay speaker in Disciples of Christ churches throughout northern Ohio. Like many members of his church, Garfield advocated free-soil principles and was a firm supporter of the newly organized REPUBLICAN PARTY. (Free-Soilers were opposed to the expansion of SLAVERY in the western states and territories.)

With his natural speaking ability, Garfield soon found himself in the political arena. In 1859 he was elected to the Ohio state senate. As the United States neared civil war, Garfield put his speaking abilities to work for the Union, recruiting men and raising troops for battle.

In the summer of 1861, he followed his own advice and recruited a group of volunteers from his former school. He assembled the Forty-second Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and served as the unit's lieutenant colonel and later colonel. Though he had no military experience, Garfield did have a voracious appetite for knowledge and

James A. Garfield.

access to books that could guide his command. He and his men fought at the Battle of Shiloh, in western Tennessee. Garfield left the field when he became ill. After recovering he returned as chief of staff under Major General William S. Rosencrans, with whom he fought at Chickamauga, Georgia.

After Chickamauga, Garfield was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, and he was elected, in absentia, to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. It has been suggested that Garfield was reluctant to surrender his command and take the seat, but he acquiesced when President ABRAHAM LINCOLN pointed out that brigadier generals were in far greater supply than administration Republicans.

In December 1863 Garfield took his seat in the Thirty-eighth Congress as the Republican representative from the nineteenth congressional district of Ohio. When the Republicans became the minority party in the House after the election of 1864, Garfield and Congressman James G. Blaine, of Maine, emerged as minority party leaders. Garfield distinguished himself as chairman of the committee on appropriations, and he established himself as an expert on the budget. He also focused his attention on legislation related to Reconstruction policies in the South, protective tariff issues, and the maintenance of a sound currency. When Blaine was elected to the Senate in 1876, Garfield became the House minority leader—a position he held for the remainder of his congressional service.

Garfield held his House office for eighteen years, for the most part easily winning the nomination of his party and the vote of the electorate as each term concluded. Only once during his time in the House was his reelection in question. In the early 1870s, the Republican party was discredited by allegations of scandal in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant—including the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Crédit Mobilier of America was a construction company established to build the Union Pacific Railroad. It became known that Garfield was among a group of congressmen who had accepted stock in Crédit Mobilier, in exchange for legislative consideration. Garfield ultimately refused the stock, but it took him two years to do so. His critics maintained that he decided not to take the stock only because the issue had placed him in political hot water.

During the same period, Garfield accepted a retainer for legal services from a Washington, D.C., company seeking to supply paving materials in the nation's capital. He argued that because he had no direct connection to city government, there was no conflict of interest. Not everyone shared his opinion.

Though many public servants of the day conducted personal business while in office, Garfield found it increasingly difficult to distinguish clients who wanted his legal advice from those who wanted his political influence. Garfield was reelected in 1874, despite the controversy, but to avoid future problems, he ceased taking outside legal clients. The incident also fueled Garfield's desire to eliminate political patronage in the civil service system.

Garfield took an active role in the 1876 presidential election of RUTHERFORD B. HAYES. When Senator JOHN SHERMAN, of Ohio, was named to the Hayes cabinet, Garfield expressed an interest in filling his vacant Senate seat. Needing Garfield in the House, Hayes discouraged him from pursuing the matter. Near the close of Hayes's term, there was talk that Sherman would seek to regain his Senate seat, but he chose instead to seek his party's nomination for the presidency. It was widely presumed that Sherman supported Garfield's election to the Senate in exchange for Garfield's support at the Republican convention, but no such deal was struck.

In due course the Ohio legislature elected Garfield to the U.S. Senate for a six-year term to begin in 1881, and he attended the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago as head of the Ohio delegation. Because of home state support for Sherman, Garfield reluctantly agreed to act as Sherman's floor manager and to canvass for delegates on his behalf—even though Senator Blaine, Garfield's old friend and colleague, was also seeking the party's nomination.

Garfield was a formidable and well-known figure at the convention. His persuasive skill on the floor did not go unnoticed. He kept Sherman's chances alive by fighting for the delegates' freedom to vote their choice, and by opposing a unit rule that forced delegations to cast all their votes for the candidate holding the majority of votes within a state delegation. Former president Grant, who was also running for nomination, and his supporters, called the Stalwarts, supported the unit rule because Grant held the majority in many delegations.

Garfield managed to block the nominations of Blaine and Grant, but he could not secure a majority for Sherman. With the convention deadlocked, twenty Wisconsin delegates made a bold move on the thirty-fifth ballot and, in protest, cast twenty votes for Garfield.

On the next ballot, Garfield found himself the unanimous choice of the convention and the unwitting beneficiary of his own floor maneuvering. CHESTER A. ARTHUR was named his running mate. Blaine followers supported the ticket, and most Sherman followers were willing to overlook the manner in which the nomination had been secured, but Grant's forces never forgave Garfield for his opposition.

Garfield pacified unhappy Sherman supporters by surrendering his new Senate seat, enabling Sherman to return to his old post. Throughout the summer of 1880, Garfield attempted to meet with the national committee and with Grant supporters, but he was never given an audience. In November Garfield returned to his farm in Mentor, Ohio, to wait them out.

Finally, on the eve of the election, Grant was persuaded to recognize Garfield as the party's choice. Grant and his followers were invited to the Garfield farm for a historic meeting, often called the Mentor Summit. What was said at the meeting—and what was promised—has been the subject of much debate. Grant thought he had extracted a personal promise from Garfield that, in exchange for Grant's support, the Stalwarts would be named to influential posts in the new administration.

With the help of Grant's supporters, Garfield won the election by a narrow margin over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock. Between the election and the inauguration, Garfield busied himself with the selection of his cabinet. All factions of the party called on the president-elect to lobby for their preferred nominees, but Grant Stalwarts remained assured that Garfield would bow to their influence. Garfield's first known appointment, making Blaine SECRETARY OF STATE, caused an uproar among the Grant faction and was viewed as a breach of the promises made at Mentor. Garfield nevertheless remained committed to building a conciliation cabinet that would balance everyone's interests and eliminate political patronage jobs—and kept the rest of his choices well guarded until inauguration day, March 4, 1881.

The first months of his term continued to be plagued with appointment and confirmation battles. Grant supporters continued to believe that he should have been the party's presidential nominee and that in an election deal Garfield had agreed to consult Grant about appointments. Those in the Senate who supported Grant rallied to systematically reject undesirable appointments, but Garfield was equally stubborn. Of the Stalwarts' attempt to derail his nomination for collector of customs for the port of New York City, Garfield said, "They may take him out of the Senate head first or feet first, but I will never withdraw him."

Though confirmation battles consumed a majority of Garfield's time, he also carried out other presidential duties and commitments. On July 2, 1881, he was en route to a speaking engagement at his alma mater Williams College, when lawyer Charles J. Guiteau shot him at a Washington, D.C., railroad station. Described as an erratic character, Guiteau shouted to a crowd at the railroad station that he was a Stalwart.

Garfield lingered for eleven weeks. Daily reports from physicians showed that he was unable to carry out his responsibilities. By August the question of Garfield's succession was being discussed in the press and debated by constitutional scholars. It was agreed that the vice president was constitutionally allowed to assume the president's powers and duties, but it was not clear whether he should serve as acting president until Garfield recovered, or assume the office itself and displace Garfield altogether. The pertinent provision of the Constitution—Article II, Section 1, Clause 6—was ambiguous, and expert opinion was still divided over the precedent set by JOHN TYLER, who had taken the oath of office in 1841 after the death of President WILLIAM H. HARRISON, rather than merely assuming Harrison's duties until the next election.

Because Congress was not in session, the issue could not be debated there, but it was addressed by Garfield's cabinet members on September 2, 1881. They agreed that it was time for the vice president to assume Garfield's duties, but they too were divided as to the permanence of the vice president's role. The problem was never resolved because Garfield died September 19, 1881, before any action was taken by the cabinet or the vice president. Following the precedent set by Tyler, Arthur took the oath of office and assumed the presidency, following Garfield's death.


Garfield's unexpected nomination, bitter election, and tragic death often overshadow his previous accomplishments and his presidential agenda. His efforts to build a conciliation cabinet and to purge administrative agencies of old patronage jobs made him a strong advocate of civil service reforms. Ironically, the appointment battles preceding his murder probably caused Congress to pass civil service reforms in 1883 that were far broader in reach and scope than anything Garfield had envisioned.


Peskin, Allan. 1999. Garfield: A Biography. Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press.

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