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James Garfield - 20th President of the United States

Portrait of James Garfield (National Archives)
Portrait of James A. Garfield (National Archives)

James Abram Garfield (November 19, 1831-September 19, 1881) was the 20th Presidentof the United States, the first left-handed President, and the second U.S. President to be assassinated.

He was born in Orange, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, southeast of Cleveland. He was named for his older brother James Ballou Garfield, who died in infancy, and his father, Abram Garfield. His father died in 1833, when James Abram was 18 months old, and he grew up cared for by his mother and an uncle.

From 1851-1854 he attended the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later named Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio. He then transferred to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1856, as an outstanding student who enjoyed all subjects except chemistry. He then taught at the Eclectic Institute. He was an instructor in classical languages for the 1856-1857 year, and was made president of the Institute from 1857 to 1860.

On November 11, 1858, he married Lucretia Randolph. They had five children. A son, James Rudolph Garfield, followed him into politics and became Secretary of the Interior under Theodore Roosevelt.

Garfield decided that being an academician was not his desire, and studied law privately, becoming admitted to the bar in Ohio in 1860. Even before admission to the bar, he entered politics, becoming an Ohio state senator in 1859, serving until 1861. He was an enthusiastic Republican all his political life.

With the start of the Civil War, Garfield entered the Union Army, reaching the rank of major general. However, in 1863, he re-entered politics, being elected to the House of Representatives that year. He succeeded in gaining re-election every two years up until 1878. In the House of Representatives during the Civil War period and the following Reconstruction Era, he was one of the most hawkish Republicans, seeking to defeat and later weaken the South at every opportunity. In 1876, when James G. Blaine moved from the House to the Senate, Garfield became the Republican floor leader of the House.

He found a proof for the Pythagorean Theorem in 1876.

In 1876 he was a Republican member of the Electoral Commission that awarded 22 electoral votes to Rutherford B. Hayes in his contest for the Presidency against Samuel J. Tilden.

In 1880, his life underwent a major change. It began with the impending end of the term of Ohio's Democratic Senator, Allen G. Thurman (who had also served on the 1876 Electoral Commission). Since the Ohio legislature was to choose a Senator, and had recently changed from Democratic to Republican control, Thurman would not be reelected. Garfield was its choice. But before he could ever sit in the Senate, the Republicans held their Presidential nominating convention, and he was a leader among those in the convention who opposed renominating former President Ulysses S. Grant for a third term. He supported the Secretary of the Treasury, John Sherman of Ohio, but when neither Grant, Sherman, nor Blaine could win the majority of the delegates' votes, Garfield was nominated as the Republican candidate for the presidency himself. Consequently he declined the seat in the United States Senate to which he had just been elected by the Ohio Legislature. (Ironically, the seat then went to John Sherman, whose candidacy for the Presidency Garfield had advocated.) He defeated the Democratic candidate, Winfield Scott Hancock, by 214 electoral votes to 155. (The popular vote was much closer, and Garfield received 4,453,295 votes to Hancock's 4,414,082. Greenback Labor candidate James B. Weaver received 308,578 popular votes and Prohibition candidate Neal Dow received 10,305.) Several other sources give somewhat different totals; for example, one shows: Garfield 4,446,158; Hancock 4,444,260; Weaver 305,997; Dow 9,674; others 4,331. See also U.S. presidential election, 1880 for yet another set of figures. It appears that there are as many variants as sources consulted. He took office in 1881.

Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau on July 2, 1881, just a few months after taking office.

Garfield's assassin was apparently upset by being passed over as the United States consul in Paris. One of the bullets that struck Garfield lodged in his back and could not be found. (Alexander Graham Bell devised a metal detector in an attempt to find the bullet, but the metal bedframe he was lying on confused the instrument.) He became increasingly ill over a period of several months because of infection and died on September 19, 1881 in Elberon, New Jersey.


Photographs and Documents of President James Garfield

Gen. James A. Garfield photograph (National Archives)
Gen. James A. Garfield photograph (National Archives)

Message of President James A. Garfield nominating L. F. Prudhomme and Marshal Oliver to be Professor of Mathematics in the Navy, 03/04/1881 (National Archives)
Message of President James A. Garfield nominating L. F. Prudhomme and Marshal Oliver to be Professor of Mathematics in the Navy, 03/04/1881 (National Archives)

Photograph of Gen. James A. Garfield 
 (National Archives)
Portrait of Gen. James A. Garfield (National Archives)

Message of President James A. Garfield nominating James G. Blaine to be Secretary of State, 03/04/1881 (National Archives)
Message of President James A. Garfield nominating James G. Blaine to be Secretary of State, 03/04/1881 (National Archives)

Photo of James A. Garfield  (National Archives)
Photo of James A. Garfield (National Archives)

Quick Facts about President James Garfield

Rank: 20th (1881)
Followed: Rutherford B. Hayes
Succeeded by: Chester A. Arthur
Date of Birth November 19, 1831
Place of Birth: Orange, Ohio
Date of Death: September 19, 1881
Place of Death: Elberon, New Jersey
First Lady: Lucretia Rudolph
Occupation: teacher
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: Chester A. Arthur 

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