Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

James A. Garfield is remembered as one of the four "lost Presidents" who served rather uneventfully after the Civil War. Of the four lost Presidents—Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and Harrison—Garfield is best remembered for his dramatic assassination a mere 100 days after he assumed office.

From Poverty to Politics

The youngest of five children born on a poor farm on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio, Garfield is perhaps the poorest man ever to have become President. Supporting himself as a part-time teacher, a carpenter, and even a janitor through college, he was an idealistic young man who identified with the antislavery tenets of the new Republican Party. After graduating from Williams College, Garfield studied law on his own and passed the Ohio bar exams in 1861 before throwing himself into politics and winning a seat in the Ohio legislature. Garfield was a loyal Unionist who built a reputation as a Civil War hero that earned him a seat in the House of Representatives without ever having campaigned.

During Garfield's congressional terms, debates raged between legislators who demanded that all U.S. money be backed by gold and the "Silverites" and "Greenbackers," who wanted to issue paper currency and coin silver more freely in an attempt to alleviate pressing debts, especially those of struggling farmers. Garfield advocated hard money policies backed by gold, making him a favorite with eastern "Gold Bug" Republicans. He opposed cooperative farm programs such as those supported by the Grange, an agrarian organization; labor unions; the eight-hour workday; and federally funded relief projects.

Like many men in office, Garfield had a scandal to live down. He was implicated in the Credit Mobilier scandal in which congressmen who owned stock in Credit Mobilier, a construction company for the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad, were accused of turning a blind eye to corruption in the company.

In 1876, Garfield supported the reform-minded Rutherford B. Hayes for President. To soothe Democrats who were enraged by Hayes's election after disputes about the electoral returns from several key states, he supported the Compromise of 1877, which ended the military occupation of the South. Garfield also had a talent for achieving compromise between the "Stalwart" Republicans, led by Roscoe Conkling (the New York State political boss), and an opposing faction, disparagingly called "Half-Breeds" by Conkling and his allies.

Presidential Politicking

In the election of 1880, the Republican ticket looked like it would boil down to a fight between former President Ulysses S. Grant and the more moderate James G. Blaine. Garfield surprised everyone, however, by earning an ever-increasing number of votes in the convention balloting. He won the presidential nomination and eventually the election against Democrat Winfield S. Hancock, a Union general who made his mark at Gettysburg. The election was the closest on record. Garfield won by the narrowest of margins and only with the help of the New York political boss Roscoe Conkling, with whom Garfield had agreed to consult on party appointments—had New York gone Democratic, Garfield would have lost the presidency.

Both James and Lucretia Garfield were devout members of a relatively new Protestant denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "Crete" devoted herself to raising the Garfield's five children, all of whom grew up to have rather distinguished careers. Though she dreamed of refurbishing the executive mansion, Mrs. Garfield caught malaria from the swamps behind the White House before she could begin the project. Eventually, she enjoyed a complete recovery and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-six.

Since Garfield was struck down four months into his term, historians can only speculate as to what his presidency might have been like. Garfield was assassinated by Charles Julius Guiteau, an emotionally disturbed man who had failed to gain an appointment in Garfield's administration. Garfield did have time to appoint his cabinet, however, and in doing so, he refused to cave in to Stalwart pressure, enraging Senator Conkling, who resigned in protest. Had Garfield served his term, historians speculate that he would have been determined to move toward civil service reform and carry on in the clean government tradition of President Hayes. He also supported education for black southerners and called for African American suffrage, as he stressed in his inaugural address. Unfortunately, he is best remembered for his assassination. And although his killer was insane, Garfield's greatest legacy was the impact of his death on moving the nation to reform government patronage.