The Remarkable Life of James Garfield

On November 2, 1880, James Abram Garfield was elected president of the United States. Until recently all I knew about Garfield was that he was the second president to be assassinated and that his presidency lasted only a few months. Then I had the good fortune to come across ‘Destiny of the Republic by the brilliant author Candice Millard.

Millard weaves together the amazing stories surrounding the death of Garfield from the reasons he didn’t have secret service protection to the epic failings of the attending medical team. Millard also provides us a complete picture of a man who while virtually unknown today had the potential to be one of our greatest presidents.  

Born in Mentor, Ohio in 1831, Garfield was the last president to be born in a log cabin. His father died when he was eighteen months old. The impoverished family struggled to maintain its subsistence farm and the impoverished James was constantly tormented by bullies. He quit school at age 16 to support his family and spent two years doing extremely physical work on the Erie Canal.

Because James had always been a voracious reader his mother convinced him to return to Cleveland and enroll at the Eclectic Institute, today Hiram College. Administrators recognized his substantial intellect particularly his immense facility for languages and started paying him to teach courses to his fellow undergraduates. The ambitious Garfield transferred to Williams College as a third-year student and despite his lower-class roots became well respected by the socially conscious New Englanders.

Upon graduation from Williams in 1856 Garfield rejoined the faculty at the Eclectic Institute and within a year was inaugurated as the college’s president. He somehow also found time to study law and become elected to the Ohio State Senate.

A staunch abolitionist, Garfield volunteered for the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. Demonstrating great leadership, he was promoted to Brigadier General at the age of 30. In the summer of 1863 Garfield developed a severe case of jaundice and returned home to convalesce. While he recuperated his friends collaborated to secure Garfield the republican nomination for congress. Soon the reluctant candidate was on his way to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Congressman Garfield became a fervent supporter of voting rights and in 1865 introduced a resolution to end the requirement that African-Americans in Washington D.C. carry passes. He once observed “The elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution. No thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people.”  We can only speculate what President Garfield might have done to further the interests of African Americans.

In 1880 the reluctant congressman became the reluctant president. At the republican convention Garfield campaigned for John Sherman (brother of General William Sherman). After thirty-six rounds of voting Garfield was chosen as a compromise nominee despite his urging delegates not to vote for him. He won the presidency by only 10,000 popular votes.  The slim margin was partially due to Garfield’s eschewal of campaigning- instead he ran a “Front Porch Campaign” where citizens traveled to his Ohio home to hear him speak.

Garfield Trivia

  • Garfield is the only sitting congressman to be elected president. He is also the only person to have been a congressman, senator and president in the same year (he had been elected to the senate just prior to the presidency).
  • Garfield was the first left handed president and the first ambidextrous president. He amazed friends by simultaneously writing prose in Greek with one hand and in Latin with the other.
  • In 1876, The New England Journal of Education published an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem by Congressman Garfield.
  • Garfield juggled Indian Clubs to maintain fitness. Developed in Persia, the clubs were shaped like bowling pins and were a popular resistance exercise routine.

The Assassination

On July 2, 1881, Garfield finished breakfast, sang a few Gilbert and Sullivan songs with his teenage sons and headed to the train station.

To be continued.