The Life of James Garfield

The 20th President of the United States

The last of the log-cabin presidents, James Garfield attacked political corruption and returned a measure of prestige to the White House

James Garfield was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio in 1831. Fatherless from the age of two, Garfield drove a canal boat team and eventually saved enough money to go to school. He graduated from Williams College in 1856. In 1857, Garfield became a classics professor at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. In 1858, he became the school’s president.

Garfield Enters Politics

In 1859, Garfield was elected to the Ohio State Senate. During the secession crisis just before the beginning of the American Civil War, Garfield was a strong advocate of using force to compel the seceding states to re-enter the Union.

Garfield in the American Civl War

In 1862, Garfield came to the attention of President Lincoln and General Grant, when he led a brigade against Confederate troops at Middle Creek, Kentucky. When Garfield was 31 he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and would eventually receive a second promotion, this time to the rank of major general.

Meanwhile, Garfield had been elected to Congress. President Lincoln was able to convince him to accept the position, arguing that it was easier to find another officer to command his unit, than it was to find effective Republicans in Congress. James Garfield served in the House of Representatives for 18 years and became one of the Republican Party’s leading figures.

President Garfield

During the 1880 Republican Convention, following President Hayes’ decision not to seek a second term, Garfield tried to win the nomination for his friend, John Sherman. He failed and on the 36th ballot, Garfield was nominated instead.

He ran against another Civil War veteran, General Winfield Scott Hancock. Garfield won the popular vote by less than 10,000 ballots. James Garfield became the 20th President of the United States.

Garfield used his authority as President to strengthen Federal authority over the New York Customs House. The New York Customs House was run by Senator Roscoe Conkling. Conkling was the leader of a group known as the Stalwart Republicans and a major distributor of patronage in the state of New York. President Garfield submitted a list of appointments to the Senate, including Conkling’s arch rival, William H Robertson to run the New York City Customs House. Conkling tried to persuade the Senate to block the nomination and appealed to the Republican Caucus to force the Senate to withdraw it.

Garfield would not submit, however, saying, “this will settle the question whether the president is the registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States.”

Conkling was able to manoeuvre the Senate into confirming Garfield’s uncontested nominations and delaying the confirmation of Robertson. Garfield responded by withdrawing all of the nominations except for Robertson’s. This move was meant to force the Senate to sacrifice all of the nominations, or reinstate them. In an act of desperation, Conkling resigned, believing that he would be reappointed and vindicated. Instead, the New York State Legislature appointed someone else to his vacated position. At the same time, the Senate approved all of President Garfield’s nominations.

President Garfield’s Assassination

While this was happening, Garfield’s Secretary of State had invited representatives of all the republics in the Americas to attend a summit that had been set for 1882. Unfortunately, that summit never took place. President Garfield was shot in a Washington DC train station by a bitter lawyer, who had been turned down for a diplomatic post.

Garfield clung to life for several weeks at the White House. At one point, Alexander Graham Bell was brought in with an induction-balance electrical device in an attempt to find and remove the bullet. The plan failed and Garfield died from an infection and internal haemorrhaging on September 19, 1881, leaving Chester A Arthur as the 21st President of the United States.


James Garfield. The White House. US Government.July 13/09

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