As the last of the “log cabin” American Presidents, James A. Garfield attacked political corruption and help the office of the Presidency earn back a measure of prestige and respect it had lost during the Reconstruction period.
He was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 1831. His father died when James was two years old. In order to pay for his education, he spent time driving canal boat teams. He graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1856, and he returned to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later known as Hiram College) in Ohio as a professor of the classics. Within a year, he was made its president.
Path to the White House
Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859 as a Republican. During the secession of the Southern states, he supported coercing the seceding states back into the Union.
In 1862, when the South was winning the majority of the battles, he successfully led a brigade at Middle Creek, Kentucky, against Confederate troops. At 31, Garfield rose to the t a brigadier general, two years later a major general of volunteers.
Meanwhile, in 1862, Ohioans elected him to Congress. President Lincoln persuaded him to resign his commission: It was easier to find major generals than to obtain effective Republicans for Congress. Garfield repeatedly won re-election for 18 years, and became the leading Republican in the House.
At the 1880 Republican Convention, Garfield failed to win the Presidential nomination for his friend John Sherman. Finally, on the 36th ballot, Garfield himself became the “dark horse” nominee.
By a margin of only 10,000 popular votes, Garfield defeated the Democratic nominee, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.
As American President
As American President, James Garfield strengthened Federal authority over the New York Customs House, the stronghold of Senator Roscoe Conkling, who was leader of the Stalwart Republicans. He was also in charge of dispensing patronage in New York. When Garfield submitted a list of appointments to the Senate that included many of Conkling’s friends, he named Conkling’s archrival William H. Robertson to run the Customs House. Conkling argued against the nomination, tried to persuade the Senate to block it, and appealed to the Republican caucus to compel its withdrawal.
However, Garfield would not bow to the pressure. He stated, “This…will settle the question whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States…. shall the principal port of entry … be under the control of the administration or under the local control of a factional senator.”
Conkling planned to have the Senate confirm Garfield’s the other uncontested nominations and adjourn without acting on Robertson. Garfield answered by withdrawing all nominations except Robertson’s. This gave the Senators little choice. They would have to confirm him or sacrifice all the appointments of Conkling’s friends.
In a final desperate move, Conkling and his fellow-Senator from New York resigned, depending on the fact that their legislature would vindicate their stand and re-elect them. Instead, the legislature elected two other men; the Senate confirmed Robertson. Garfield’s victory was complete.
In foreign affairs, Garfield’s Secretary of State invited all American republics to a conference to meet in Washington in 1882. However, the conference never took place. On July 2, 1881, in a Washington railroad station, an embittered attorney who had sought a consular post shot the President.
Mortally wounded, Garfield lay in the White House for weeks. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried unsuccessfully to find the bullet with an induction-balance electrical device of his own design. On September 6, Garfield was taken to the New Jersey seaside. For a few days he seemed to be recuperating, but on September 19, 1881, he died from an infection and internal hemorrhage
The graphic reveals highlights and accomplishments during James Garfield’s life: