James A. Garfield

James a. Garfield wearing a hat


It was a great honor, but by this time James Garfield had decided to resign his commission, for in the prior year, 1862, he had been elected to represent the 19th district of Ohio in the House of Representatives in Washington.

There, he proved himself to be conscientious and hardworking. He was known for using the resources of the Library of Congress for information. He studied the conditions of the country.

During his seventeen years representing northeast Ohio, he served on the Military Affairs Committee, the Banking and Currency Committee, the Ways and Means Committee. He was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 1871 to 1875.

Congressman Garfield devised a schedule for the 1870 Census that, though not used in 1870, became the model for the 1880 Census. He authored legislation to establish a “Bureau of Education” to study how well the various states and regions educated their citizens, the amount of money spent, and the number of teachers and schools devoted to that purpose.

Mr. Garfield was very interested in the currency debate that perturbed the halls of Congress from the 1860s to the 1890s. He agreed with those who called for the removal of the paper money used to finance the Civil War, called “greenbacks,” and favored putting the United States back on “the gold standard.” In so doing, the country would pay it debts honorably. Money backed by gold, Garfield averred, was “honest money.”

In 1873 and 1874, the Credit Mobilier, DeGolyer Pavement, and “Salary Grab” scandals threatened his reputation. Investigations into these matters did nothing to derail his Congressional career, however.


As the South saw increasing racial tension throughout the 1870s, as housing and job opportunities for Blacks were denied, as well as the right to vote, James Garfield condemned these injustices. Perhaps it was his eloquence when speaking of these wrongs, that he came to the attention of his fellow Republicans who were seeking a presidential candidate for 1880.

President Rutherford B. Hayes’ calling of a special session of Congress in late March 1879 to fund army appropriations produced a passionate public debate about the function of government.

The matter was this: The Democrats, who controlled the House of Representatives, attached language – “riders” – to general appropriations for the functioning of the federal government that, if accepted “defunded” federal marshals, whose duty it was to oversee federal elections in the South. In effect, this meant that there would be no one to prevent intimidation of voters, especially of black voters, at the polls. In effect, the Democrats were attempting to force the Republican-controlled Senate and Republican President Hayes to accept the riders or shut down the government. President Hayes stood firm. He vetoed five appropriations bills with such riders.

Congressman Garfield, stood firm, too. As leader of the House Republicans, he spoke out forcefully in support of Hayes’ vetoes. In a speech entitled “Revolution in Congress,” he berated the Democrats. Their motives were unjust. They meant to deny the rights granted to Blacks after the Civil War. Furthermore, he noted, Democrats declared that
“if they are not permitted to force upon the other house [the Senate] and the Executive [the President] against their consent … this refusal will be considered a sufficient ground for starving this government to death.”6

His words were an inspiration. He was mobbed by well-wishers in the House. He was praised in the press. Consequently, Republicans succeeded in preventing overrides of Hayes’ vetoes.

The springtime triumph of Garfield and Hayes lingered into the new year. Both men enjoyed a popularity in the Republican party not known before. James Garfield’s prominent role in this episode gained him favorable attention and speculation within press circles and within the Republican Party that he should be considered for the presidency in 1880.

a large crowd of people


At the beginning of 1880, Garfield was ready to “move up the ladder” from the House to the Senate. In the Ohio legislature, which was to elect the next U.S. Senator, Garfield had broad support. The influence of Treasury Secretary John Sherman didn’t hurt. In January, Garfield was handily elected.

What was the price of Sherman’s support? It was nothing less than having Garfield nominate him for president at the Republican Convention later that year. With Garfield in his camp, Sherman hoped to have a united Ohio delegation behind him.

Though he was bound to Sherman, Garfield didn’t believe the Treasury Secretary would be the nominee, despite his great service to the nation and the party. Sherman was not an inspiring figure. Garfield understood this.

Moreover, the Republican Party was divided in 1880. Policy differences over reform, and outsized loyalty to the other two leading candidates, Ulysses S. Grant on the one hand, and Senator James G. Blaine on the other were the sources of disagreement.

At the Convention, there was no nominee after 33 ballots. On the 34th ballot, sixteen delegates from Wisconsin voted for Garfield. He stood up and “protested against the use of [his] name.”

No matter. On the 36th ballot, James Garfield was nominated.

Soon after, Garfield telegraphed his wife Lucretia with the news. “Dear wife, if the result meets your approval, I shall be content.”

Speculation at the time suggested that Garfield was angling for the nomination all along. Certainly, some of Sherman’s supporters and Grant’s believed it was so. Garfield denied it, but still the accusation has persisted. One of his most recent biographers, Allan Peskin, noted that “Garfield had known of plans to nominate him for almost a year and a half and had done nothing to discourage them.” Yet he “did not act like a man who wanted to be president.”7

Perhaps the best exoneration came from the candidate himself. On October 31st, he wrote a letter to his older sons, Hal and Jim, who were studying at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire when their father was nominated. “I want you to know,” he confided, “that I neither sought nor wished the nomination. On many accounts I would have preferred to go into the Senate & enjoy the freedom of study and debate. But now that I am nominated & have borne in silence the abuse and falsehoods of the campaign, I shall be glad to be successful.”8
a drawing of a white farm house and barns setting next to a dirt road


After the Republican Convention, James Garfield came home to his Mentor, Ohio farm. He was lovingly greeted by his wife, his mother, his children. A large gathering of well-wishers welcomed him, too. Newspaper reporters described the scene for readers interested to know more about the surprise Republican candidate. As the image of Garfield’s homecoming spread across the nation, groups of farmers and businessmen, college students and Civil War veterans, suffragists and the merely curious came to Mentor to see and hear him.

Garfield knew that tradition demanded that presidential nominees refrain from campaigning publicly for the office, instead, letting other politicians and party workers speak for them around the country. Garfield respected that tradition, and yet… His warm and generous nature and his enjoyment of public speaking persuaded him to greet well-wishers and the curious from the front porch of his home.

Hundreds, indeed, thousands of people came to see him and hear him in 1880. Garfield and Arthur Clubs sprang up all over the country. Professional speakers charged the air with campaign rhetoric, and Garfield Guards led torchlight parades in city after city. Such was the excitement among Republican partisans that it was estimated at the end of the year that between 15,000 and 17,000 tramped the path through his farm or along the “Cleveland to Buffalo Road” to catch a glimpse of the nominee and to hear his melodious baritone voice. The press reported favorably on Garfield’s doings favorably, and the 1880 front porch campaign made history. In the future, presidential candidates took increasingly active public roles in promoting themselves.

Meanwhile, a dozen campaign biographies were written about the “common man,” up-from-the-bootstraps success story that was James Garfield’s life. The Democratic nominee, Civil War General Winfield Scott Hancock, conducted a traditional campaign, remaining secluded from the public, issuing occasional statements, and depending on other Democrats to make his case before the nation.

Hancock’s prospects seemed good. In September, in state elections in Indiana, Ohio, and Maine, the Democrats did very well. Republican success was uncertain as autumn descended on the nation.

Republican prospects improved, thanks to a late misstep by Hancock about his stand on the tariff; and they beat back an “October surprise” in the guise of a letter misrepresenting Garfield’s stand on Chinese immigration. It proved to be a forgery.

The November 1880 presidential election took place fifteen years after a wrenching civil war had ended, at a time when the country was emerging from hard times, when the eastern half of the nation was in a relative state of peace, and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration was at the height of its popularity. Yet this was the closest election in terms of the popular vote in American history, with a margin of less than one-tenth of one percent of the popular vote for the victorious Garfield.
portrait of two men in suits facing each other

A Short Presidency, A Long Death

Victory may have been sweet, but it also portended troubles ahead for the victor. James Garfield was the incoming leader of the nation and the head of a still divided Republican Party. The years preceding 1880 had been rent by the rivalry of Maine Senator James G. Blaine and New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. Conkling and President Hayes were often at odds as well. Conkling, ever suspicious, began pressing Garfield on government positions he wanted filled by New Yorkers. It seemed to Garfield that Conking was constantly trying to pressure him. After months of such treatment, Garfield decided to challenge Conkling directly. He appointed William Robertson, a Conkling adversary, as the new Collector of the Port of New York. Conkling did not take Garfield’s move kindly. To him the President’s actions were an attack.

Public opinion seemed to be with the President, but Charles Guiteau saw the situation differently. In his view, Garfield’s public challenge to Conkling was doing damage to the Republican Party, and that meant that Garfield had to be “removed.”
Guiteau’s view was motivated by more than Washington politics, however. Having on one occasion given a speech at a rally in New York, this emotionally disturbed man believed that he had played an important role in Garfield’s victory. He deserved a job in the government as a reward for his services. A position at the American Consulate in Paris, France seemed suitable. The trouble was that Charles Guiteau had no training for such work.

While President Garfield was in the White House, Guiteau made repeated attempts to have an interview with the President, but he never did. Through the spring Guiteau nursed his resentment, as he followed the political fight between the President and Conkling. Soon he began to dream, and in his dreams, he claimed God told him that he was to “remove” James Garfield. Guiteau began stalking the President on the streets of the Capital. On July 2nd, having read in the newspapers earlier in the week that President Garfield would be at the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station that morning, Charles Guiteau waited for his latest chance to shoot the President.

As the President walked through the Ladies Waiting Room of the station, accompanied by Secretary of State James G. Blaine, Guiteau fired twice. The first bullet grazed Garfield’s right arm. The second penetrated his back. Garfield collapsed. Attended by physicians called quickly to the scene, he was taken back to the White House where he remained under the care of Dr. D. Willard Bliss. Garfield’s condition remained perilous, especially as the measures Dr. Bliss took proved ineffective at best and contributory to the President’s declining condition at worst.

On September 6th, President Garfield was removed from Washington and taken to Long Branch, New Jersey, where it was hoped the salt air, the sound of the waves meeting the beach, and the ocean breezes would aid his recovery. It was not to be. Despite a brief rally, James Abram Garfield died at 10:35 p.m. on Monday, September 19th, his wife, and daughter at his side. He had served a mere 200 days as President of the United States.

As a youth, James Garfield had discovered a talent for writing and speaking. Service in the army between 1861 and 1863 confirmed his loyalty to the United States and his determination to rid it of the abomination of slavery. His years in Congress broadened his understanding of, and concern for, the financial well-being of the nation he had fought to preserve.
portrait of President James A. Garfield

Summing Up

He had been a preacher, a teacher, a debater, a state senator, a military man, a Congressman. With so many sterling qualities and achievements, the question remains whether he would have made a “great” President. It is impossible to know. Certainly, James Garfield possessed the capacity for intelligent, thoughtful leadership.

The 1880s were years during which the nation was feeling its way through economic and technological changes. Successive Congresses were closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, and debates over national finances, the nature of money, assistance to farmers, the problem of immigration, the needs of the industrial laboring class, remained intense and unresolved. How might President Garfield have managed, without clear majorities in Congress?

The continuing expansion of the railroads across the Great Plains and the West came with questions about corporate profits versus the ordinary citizen, and with moral concerns over the destruction of Native American tribes. The echoes of the Civil War continued to reverberate politically and socially, as the American people, in the South, but also in the North, began moving away from earlier commitments to achieve a measure of racial equality, justice, and harmony.

The American army and navy had been greatly reduced after the Civil War, and now the debate began over how – and whether - the United States should begin to position itself on the world stage.

In the aftermath of a bloody conflict that had ended in 1865, this was the United States in 1880 and 1881. This was the nation James Garfield was called upon to lead.

In the face of an uncertain time, we can yet return to what is knowable: that James Garfield was a man of broad experience and ability, that he possessed a fine mind, and, perhaps, a finer heart; that during the life he had been given, he had grown as a scholar, as a public servant, as a son and brother, as a husband and father, and as a human being.

When he lay dying in late September 1881, James Abram Garfield unburdened his troubled mind with a question to Almon F. Rockwell, his Williams classmate who sat by his side. “Do you think my name will have a place in history?” His friend replied, “Yes, a grand one, but a grander place in human hearts.”9

James A Garfield National Historic Site

Last updated: September 29, 2021