Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

The youngest of three living children, James Abram Garfield was born on November 19, 1831, on a frontier farm in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. He spent his youth helping his near penniless, widowed mother, Eliza, work her farm outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He never knew his father, Abram Garfield, a strong man known for his wrestling abilities, who had died when James was scarcely an infant. Like his father, James was good with his fists and loved the outdoors, but he never liked farming. He dreamed instead of becoming a sailor. At age sixteen, Garfield ran away to work on the canal boats that shuttled commerce between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. During his six weeks on the boats, he fell overboard fourteen times, finally catching such a fever that he had to return home. While recovering, Garfield vowed to make his way in the world using brains rather than brawn.

Education, Early Career, and Civil War Service

Determined to succeed, Garfield worked as a carpenter and part-time teacher while attending Geauga Academy, located in Chester, Ohio. He supported himself with a part-time teaching position at a district school. From 1851 to 1854, he studied at the Eclectic Institute in Hiram, Ohio, and earned his living as a school janitor. In 1854, at the age of twenty-three, James entered Williams College in western Massachusetts as a junior; he was one of the oldest students enrolled in this institution.

In 1850, at age eighteen, Garfield experienced a religious conversion and was baptized into the denomination of his parents, the Disciples of Christ. He thrived intellectually at Williams. He relished the opportunity to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson and the challenge of confronting the strong personality of Williams's president, Mark Hopkins. He fancied himself a reformer, identifying with the antislavery beliefs of the new Republican Party.

Though a serious student, James enjoyed hunting, fishing, billiards, and drink in moderation, refusing to take the temperance pledge or to join in its cause. He also enjoyed the ladies, dating three young women simultaneously. Garfield eventually fell in love with Lucretia "Crete" Rudolph, one of his classmates at the Eclectic Institute. An attractive young lady, she possessed a keen intellect and equaled Garfield in her appetite for knowledge. While Garfield finished his studies at Williams, she taught school.

After graduating from Williams with honors in 1856, Garfield returned to the Eclectic Institute. Though formally an instructor in classical languages, he taught a wide variety of courses, including English, history, geology, and mathematics. By this time, he was a Disciples minister. From 1857 to 1861, he served as president of the institute, though he found the faculty bickering intolerable. In 1858, he and Lucretia got married. Studying law on his own, he passed the Ohio bar exam in 1861.

In 1856, Garfield campaigned in Ohio for John C. Frémont, presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican Party. Three years later, he threw himself into state politics, becoming the youngest member of the Ohio legislature.

An enthusiastic abolitionist, Garfield believed that under no circumstances could the institution of slavery be allowed to extend into any of the western territories. Although he did not condone John Brown's bloody raid on Harpers Ferry, he believed that Brown's trial and execution would "be the dawn of a better day." In the presidential election of 1860, Garfield campaigned for Abraham Lincoln. When Southern states began to withdraw from the Union, Garfield came out strongly against secession and urged the federal government to respond with force. He said, "I am inclined to believe that the sin of slavery is one of which it may be said that without the shedding of blood there is no remission." He welcomed the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, believing it would unite Northern sentiment in support of waging war on the Confederacy.

In mid-August 1861, Garfield organized the 42nd Ohio Infantry, rising from lieutenant colonel to full colonel within a few weeks. Twice he gained distinction: In January 1862 at the battle of Middle Creek, his greatly outnumbered brigade defeated the Confederates, thereby leaving him in control of eastern Kentucky. In September 1863 at Chickamauga, he made a daring ride under enemy fire. By then, he was a major general, the youngest officer to hold this rank. Garfield served as chief of staff under Major General William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, though he undermined his superior by supplying negative information to the War Department. In December 1863, Garfield resigned from the Army to take his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, to which the war hero had been elected the previous November without ever having campaigned.

Congressman Garfield

During the war years, Garfield distinguished himself as one of the most radical Republicans in Congress. Even though he had campaigned for Lincoln, he never really liked the President and considered him a "second-rate Illinois lawyer" who had failed to vigorously prosecute the war. Garfield supported the seizure of rebel property in the North and the execution or exile of Confederate leaders. In the election of 1864, while campaigning for reelection, he scarcely mentioned the President.

Over time, during his eight terms of office, Congressman Garfield tempered his youthful radicalism, becoming a seasoned politician. He developed an ability to work for compromise while still defending the core interests of his Western Reserve constituency. To some observers, Garfield's ability to walk a middle road smacked of opportunism. To others, it was the mark of a practical politician. During Reconstruction, Garfield differed from his more radical colleagues, often supporting moderation toward the defeated South. However, he eventually voted for the impeachment of President Johnson. In 1868 and 1872, he backed Ulysses S. Grant for President, though he possessed grave reservations about the general's administrative abilities and political wisdom.

As a congressman, Garfield became an expert on financial matters by serving on key committees. He held various positions, including chairman of the Banking and Currency Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and the Military Affairs Committee. He was also a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. In that capacity, he advocated hard money policies despite the soft money, or inflationary, sentiment of his home district. He opposed all efforts to inflate the supply of money through the issuance of paper currency unbacked by gold; use of the unbacked greenback dollars (printed during the Civil War) to redeem government bonds; or free and unlimited coinage of silver into coins. This hard money stance made him a favorite with eastern "Gold Bug" Republicans in their fight to keep the nation's money supply from expanding. As creditors, "Gold Bugs," usually bankers and wholesalers, did not want the money they had loaned out to be paid back with less valuable or inflated paper dollars—dollars that were worth less in their purchasing power than the dollars they had advanced to their debt-owing customers and business clients. (See the Cleveland and Harrison presidential biographies for further discussion of the money issue during the Gilded Age.)

Garfield also disliked the various cooperative farm programs supported by the Grange, the major voice of the embattled farmers and a group that advocated legislation ("Granger laws") regulating railroads. To the Ohio congressman, they represented "communism in disguise." On the tariff issue, Garfield took a middle line, advocating moderate and low tariff rates in response to the demands of his rural constituents for cheap European manufactured goods. However, when it came to the interests of his own district, he drew the line, for example, when they demanded a high tariff on pig iron. He opposed labor unions, fought the eight-hour workday for federal workers, and believed that federal troops should be used to break up strikes. During the economic depression of the 1870s, he was so concerned about government spending that he opposed federally funded relief projects.

During his congressional tenure, Garfield was also identified as one of several congressmen who had accepted stock in Credit Mobilier, a construction company for the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad that had received loans and land grants from the government. The congressmen involved were accused of using their influence to weaken congressional oversight of the company, thereby permitting the company officers to pay themselves huge expenses and salaries. Garfield admitted that he had received only $329 from the company. He also drew opposition because he voted for a retroactive salary increase and was linked to a corrupt paving contract. In 1874, his constituents returned him to the House, but this time the election was hard fought.

In the presidential election of 1876, Garfield supported Ohio's governor, Rutherford B. Hayes, for President, in part because of Hays's "sound money" position and in part because his sheer blandness might make him stronger than such polarizing rivals as Senators Roscoe Conkling of New York and James G. Blaine of Maine. Garfield served on the electoral commission that investigated the disputed electoral college returns from South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, and Oregon. He voted with the seven other Republicans on the controversial fifteen-member committee to give Hayes the election by awarding all the delegates from these disputed states to the Republicans. Indeed, he was one of the "visiting statesmen" who approved the official Republican returns of the contested state of Louisiana. To soothe enraged Democrats who controlled the House of Representatives, Garfield worked behind the scenes in support of the Compromise of 1877, which ended military occupation of the South and brought at least one southern Democrat into Hayes's cabinet.

During Hayes's administration, Garfield served as the Republican minority leader of the House, earning a reputation as a political strategist able to achieve compromise among the various factions within the increasingly splintered party. One group of Republicans rallied around Senator Conkling of New York, who, along with Senators J. Donald Cameron of Pennsylvania and John A. Logan of Illinois, concentrated on a harsh southern policy and sought the return of Ulysses S. Grant to the White House. They called themselves "Stalwarts," while labeling their party rivals mere "Half-Breeds." The "Half-Breeds," led by Senator Blaine, focused their attention on the need for a high tariff. But little separated the two factions—both sought the spoils of power and patronage.