ames Garfield was born in Orange (now Moreland Hills), Ohio, to Eliza Ballou
Garfield and Abram Garfield, who were farmers. When his father died in 1833,
young James was raised in the countryside by his poverty-stricken mother. She
remarried in 1842, but soon left her new husband, a man whom her son would
forever hate. Garfield underwent a religious conversion when he was eighteen and
became a member of the Disciples of Christ. Educated at local academies as a
boy, he entered the Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) in 1851, then in 1854
transferred as a junior to Williams College (Massachusetts), graduating in 1856.
He took a job teaching ancient languages at the Eclectic Institute and was
appointed its president in 1857, serving in that capacity until 1861. He married
Lucretia Rudolph the next year. He also studied law, passing the Ohio bar in
1860, and became an ordained minister.
In 1859 Garfield was elected as a Republican to the Ohio state senate, where he
was a strong anti-slavery voice. When the Civil War began, he joined the
Forty-second Ohio Volunteer Infantry as a colonel and rose to the rank of major
general. The last promotion was based on his heroic ride amidst enemy fire to
deliver vital information during the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia (September
18-20, 1863). In 1862, while still serving in the Union Army, Garfield was
elected to Congress by a landslide. He was subsequently reelected to eight
consecutive terms. In his early years in Congress, Garfield was a Radical,
advocating emancipation, confiscation of Confederate property, deportation or
execution of Confederate leaders, Radical Reconstruction, and the impeachment of
Thereafter, Garfield's views moderated and he became increasingly interested in
financial policy. As chair of the House Appropriations Committee, chair of the
Banking and Currency Committee, and member of the Ways and Means Committee, he
endorsed hard money and lower tariffs. His intelligence, experience, oratorical
skill, and congeniality combined to elevate him into a position of leadership
among Congressional Republicans.
In 1866 Garfield became the first lawyer to present his first case at the bar of
the U. S. Supreme Court, doing so as Lambdin Milligan's counsel in Ex Parte
Milligan. The high court unanimously ruled that his client, a civilian during
the Civil War, had been unconstitutionally arrested and tried by military
officials in Indiana, which was not a military theater of war.
In the early 1870s, Garfield was implicated in the Crédit Mobilier scandal and
rumored to be involved in the De Golyer paving-contract scandal. No malfeasance
was found, but he barely won reelection in 1874. Two years later he was
appointed as one of the House Republican members of the Electoral Commission
that decided the presidential election of 1876.
On January 13, 1880, the Ohio legislature selected Garfield to represent the
state in the U. S. Senate. To secure the senatorial position, he had foregone
his own presidential ambitions in favor of fellow-Ohioan John Sherman, for whom
he served as floor manager at the 1880 Republican National Convention. For
thirty-three ballots, the convention deadlocked between Ulysses S. Grant,
seeking a third term, James Blaine, a perennial favorite, and Sherman. At that
point, Garfield, who had nominated Sherman, started receiving a few votes
himself. Finally, on the thirty-sixth ballot, the Sherman and Blaine forces
joined together to nominate Garfield. To placate Grant's "Stalwart"
faction, one of their own, Chester Arthur, was nominated as vice president. In
the general election against Democrat Winfield Hancock, Garfield earned a
comfortable victory in the electoral college, although winning with only a
fraction of a percent margin in the popular vote. After his election as
president, Garfield declined the Senate seat.
When Garfield did not appoint a New Yorker to a major cabinet position,
particularly secretary of the treasury, Senator Roscoe Conkling, head of the New
York Republican machine and a leading Stalwart, became enraged. The Garfield-Conkling
feud dominated more substantive developments during the Garfield administration,
such as the "Star Route" investigation, refinancing of the national
debt, and closer relations with Latin America. The critical point occurred when
the president named Judge William Robertson, a political foe of Conkling, to the
important patronage position of Collector of the Port of New York. It was
traditional for presidents to consult with senators concerning patronage
appointments in their respective states. Conkling and Thomas Platt, New York's
other U.S. senator, resigned their offices in protest, assuming reelection by
the state legislature as a vindication of their position. To their surprise,
however, the state legislature declined to re-elect them.
On July 2, 1881, President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled
office-seeker. Garfield underwent three operations, but got blood poisoning from
the probing of his wounds by physicians' fingers and unsterilized medical
instruments. He lingered for weeks before dying on September 17. His assassin
pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but was found guilty and executed.
Garfield was succeeded in office by Vice President Arthur.