Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

James Abram Garfield

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.

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.

The Campaign and Election of 1880

President Rutherford B. Hayes had vowed to be a one-term President, and he kept his pledge. When Republicans convened in Chicago in June 1880, the fight for the nomination stood between former President Ulysses S. Grant, a Stalwart, and James G. Blaine, the Half-Breed senator from Maine. Garfield, head of the Ohio delegation and chairman of the Convention Rules Committee, backed Treasury Secretary John Sherman of Ohio, a veteran of both the House and the Senate. Though he bore the cross of dullness, Sherman might emerge as the ideal compromise candidate. Garfield nominated Sherman. The convention deadlocked through the next thirty-three ballots, with Grant leading, followed by Blaine and Sherman.

Throughout the convention balloting, Garfield had received one or two courtesy votes on each roll call. On the thirty-fourth ballot, Wisconsin cast sixteen votes for Garfield. On the next ballot, Garfield received fifty votes. The move became a stampede on the thirty-sixth ballot as the Blaine and Sherman forces rallied to the Ohio congressman, who had been elected by the Ohio state legislature to the U.S. Senate just prior to the Republican convention. Garfield won 399 votes to Grant's 306, putting him over the top and giving him the Republican nomination.

Conkling's friend and protege, Chester A. Arthur, former customs collector at the Port of New York, received the party's nomination for vice president with Garfield's endorsement. Conkling warned Arthur against accepting the slot, predicting Garfield's defeat and urging him to "drop it as you would a red hot shoe from the forge." Arthur responded that the "office of the Vice-President is a great honor than I ever dreamed of attaning." Arthur's nomination had been organized behind Garfield's back. Garfield reluctantly approved, knowing he needed Stalwart support to emerge victorious.

When Samuel J. Tilden, former New York governor and the Democratic nominee in 1876, withdrew his name from consideration, the Democrats nominated Winfield S. Hancock, a Civil War hero and career Army officer. Hancock had seen Civil War action at Antietam and Gettysburg, where he had blunted Pickett's Charge. He also fought in the Wilderness campaign and at a dozen other engagements as well. He served as the military governor of Louisiana and Texas during Reconstruction, running afoul of Radical Republicans when his policies supported whites and Democrats over blacks and carpetbaggers.

The presidential campaign revealed few differences between the candidates, except for the tariff. Hancock stumbled when he dismissed the tariff issue as "a local question." Democrats attacked Garfield for his part in the Credit Mobilier scandal. Following President Hayes's advice, Garfield kept a low profile during the campaign.

Since Garfield was, quite correctly, perceived as tied far more to the Half-Breeds than to the Stalwarts, he immediately realized that he had to mend political fences. On August 5, he met with party leaders, though not Conkling, in New York City. During an exchange of views, Garfield promised to recognize all party factions, including the Stalwarts, when presidential appointments were made. Though the terms were vague and ambiguous, pundits dubbed the conference the "Treaty of Fifth Avenue." Both Conkling and Garfield knew that the electoral votes in New York might well prove decisive in the election.

In one of the closest elections on record, Garfield beat Hancock by a mere 7,368 votes, less than one-tenth of one percent of the total votes cast. Taking such minor parties as the Greenbackers and Prohibitionists into account, Garfield received only 48.3 percent. His support was much stronger in the electoral college, where he received 214 votes to Hancock's 155. Each candidate carried nineteen states. Garfield won the northern and midwestern states while Hancock carried the South and most of the border states. Had New York gone Democratic, resulting in a shift of a few thousand votes in each state, Hancock would have won in the electoral college.

The great American novelist Thomas Wolfe, in his book From Death to Morning (1935), once referred to Garfield as one of the "lost presidents":

"Garfield, Arthur, Harrison, and Hayes, time of my father's time, blood of his blood, life of his life, . . . were the lost Americans: their gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together in the sea depths of a past intangible, immeasurable, and unknowable as the buried city of Persepolis. And they were lost. For who was Garfield, martyred man, and who had seen him in the streets of life? Who could believe that his footfalls ever sounded on a lonely pavement? Who had heard the casual and familiar tones of Chester Arthur? Where was Harrison? Where was Hayes? Which had the whiskers, which the burnsides: Which was which? Were they not lost?"

Struck down by an assassin's bullet just one hundred days after his inauguration, Garfield had little time to achieve much. A good deal of time was spent over one appointment, the collectorship of the Port of New York. The port served as the greatest patronage plum in the nation, as the city's harbor collected more revenue than all other American ports combined. Garfield replaced General Edwin A. Merritt, a reformer, with William H. Robertson, president pro tem of the New York Senate and a strong Half-Breed. Since the Stalwarts saw the collectorship as a reward for support during the campaign, they were outraged. Over the years, Conkling's machine had relied upon "senatorial courtesy" to select the individual to occupy this key position. By this practice, senators, rather than the President, could choose or veto federal officials from their states. For several months, the Senate of the United States was tied up. Only when Conkling and his senatorial colleague, Thomas C. Platt of New York, resigned their offices in protest did Garfield win the fight, thereby becoming the undisputed party leader.

Garfield was able to put his financial expertise, which was acquired through his congressional committee experience, to work by recalling government bonds that were paying 6 percent interest. The Treasury was able to refinance them at 3.5 percent, which saved $10 million annually—about 4 percent of the overall budget at that time.

Amid tremendous intraparty strife, Garfield managed to appoint his cabinet. In a most polarizing move, the new President insisted upon having James G. Blaine as secretary of state. In the important Treasury post, Garfield broke openly with Conkling when he appointed William Windom of Minnesota; Garfield insisted that he wanted someone free from the influence of eastern bankers. Garfield appointed the son of Abraham Lincoln, Robert T. Lincoln, as his secretary of war, principally because of the prestige associated with the Lincoln name. For attorney general, Garfield named Wayne McVeagh, a Philadelphia lawyer and a member of the anti-Grant faction of the party. The sixty-seven-year-old Samuel J. Kirkwood, wartime governor of Iowa, took the Interior slot while William Henry Hunt, an attorney from New Orleans, was chosen as secretary of the Navy.

Thomas L. James, postmaster of New York, assumed the postmaster general's office. James had been a Stalwart, but he was loyal to Garfield. In 1881, the Post Office Department was the largest department in the federal government, housing over half the federal bureaucracy. Not surprisingly, it was prone to much corruption. As Garfield assumed the presidency, what was known as the Star Route Scandal erupted. It centered on the granting of federal contracts to private stagecoach and wagon agencies involved in serving isolated areas of the West. The affair shocked the nation, implicating members of Garfield's own party in the sale of postal route contracts in return for payoffs.

James A. Garfield's foreign policy activities were limited to filling vacant diplomatic positions, most notably his appointments of writer James Russell Lowell as U.S. minister to England and Lew Wallace, a former Union general and popular writer, to the post in Turkey. Garfield had hoped that Wallace might write a novel equal to his best-seller Ben Hur based on his experiences in the region. During Garfield's short term in office, Secretary of State Blaine was so involved with patronage matters that he had little time to deal with Latin American affairs, the Chinese immigration issue, or fishing disputes with the British in the Pacific—all of which demanded his attention.

On July 2, 1881, at 9:20 a.m., James A. Garfield was shot in the back as he walked with Secretary of State Blaine in Washington's Baltimore and Potomac train station. The proud President was preparing to leave for Williams College—he planned to introduce his two sons to his alma mater. The shots came from a .44 British Bulldog, which the assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, had purchased specifically because he thought it would look impressive in a museum. Garfield's doctors were unable to remove the bullet, which was lodged in the President's pancreas. On September 19, 1881, the President died of blood poisoning and complications from the shooting in his hospital rooms at Elberon, a village on the New Jersey shore, where his wife lay ill with malaria.

Guiteau, age thirty-nine at the time, was known around Washington as an emotionally disturbed man. He had killed Garfield because of the President's refusal to appoint him to a European consulship. In planning this violent act, Guiteau stalked Garfield for weeks. On the day Garfield died, Guiteau wrote to now President Chester A. Arthur, "My inspiration is a godsend to you and I presume that you appreciate it. . . . Never think of Garfield's removal as murder. It was an act of God, resulting from a political necessity for which he was responsible." At his trial, the jury deliberated one hour before returning a guilty verdict. Sentenced to be hanged, Guiteau climbed the scaffold on June 30, 1882, convinced that he had done God's work.

Because Garfield never knew his father, he always held a special place in his heart for his mother, to whom he credited his success. Eliza Ballou Garfield, the first mother of a President to attend her son's inauguration, survived her son's death by seven years. She lived at the White House with her son's family during Garfield's brief term of office. She was a frail woman who dressed only in black and wore a lace handkerchief on her head to hide her thinning white hair. Garfield, a strong man, standing over six feet in height, personally carried his mother up and down the White House stairs.

When Garfield was assassinated in 1881, he had four sons and one daughter who ranged in age from nine (Abram) to nineteen (Harry). Two other children had died in infancy. His daughter Mary "Mollie", age fourteen in 1881, met her husband, Joseph Stanley-Brown, who was Garfield's presidential secretary, while living in the White House. The other two boys, James, age sixteen, and Irvin, age eleven, kept the President and his wife busy and happy with their youthful escapades.

The children all grew up to be successful and productive citizens. In 1908, Harry, a professor of politics at Princeton, became the president of Williams College. During World War I, he also served as Woodrow Wilson's fuel administrator. In 1907, James became secretary of the Interior under President Theodore Roosevelt. Irvin became a successful corporate lawyer in Boston, and Abram, a graduate of MIT, worked as an architect in Cleveland. Mary, whose husband became a prominent investment banker, was active in civic affairs in New York and Pasadena, California.

In the decade prior to Garfield's election in 1880, Republicans and Democrats were nearly equal in number in the Senate and the House of Representatives. In most years, a slight majority of Democrats in the House faced a bare majority of Republicans in the Senate. This equal division in government reflected a similar division among the nation's 50.2 million people. The population had increased by 10 million in the 1870s—of which nearly 3 million were immigrants. As had been the case for most of the century, the two national parties neatly divided the nation's states in the presidential elections—nineteen states to nineteen.

Republicans, Democrats, and Party Bosses

Voters who cast Republican ballots typically identified with the party's claim to having saved the Union from the rebels. They responded to "waving the bloody shirt," a reference to a Republican congressman who had displayed the bloody shirt of a Northerner beaten by Southern white supremacists. Republicans supported federal pensions to Union Army veterans and cultivated the Grand Army of the Republic, the national organization of Union veterans. They also liked to think of themselves as morally superior to Democrats, usually supporting temperance and calls for decency and morality in politics. On the money issue, most Republicans were opposed to paper currency and the free coinage of silver. On tariffs, they usually came down on the side of protection.

Democrats, on the other hand, more frequently defined themselves in terms of what they opposed rather than what they supported. Most Democrats rejected government intervention in the economy, especially protective tariffs and government land grants to railroads. In the North, Irish and German Democrats opposed prohibition, and southern Democrats opposed federal enforcement of voting rights for African Americans.

On election day, each party turned out massive numbers of voters. In 1880, nearly 80 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots. Open voting enabled party bosses to check how their people voted and to punish disloyal voters with the loss of jobs and other forms of political intimidation. Most voters supported one party or the other on the basis of ethnicity, race, or religion. Catholic immigrants generally voted Democratic, as did most southern whites. Old-stock Protestants in the North, most Scandinavian and British immigrants as well as most African Americans generally voted for Republican candidates.

Agrarian Votes

In the 1870s, thousands of midwestern and southern farmers found little reason to support either the Republicans or the Democrats in because neither party seemed able to address the depression in agricultural prices. Farmers who had borrowed heavily to modernize their farms in the 1860s and 1870s found the prices they received for corn, wheat, and cotton dropping badly. At first, many discontented farmers joined the Grange movement, which supported state legislation to regulate rail rates for farm products, cooperative retail and wholesale stores, and the cooperative marketing of crops. When, in the mid-1870s, internal bickering doomed the organization, angry farmers joined the Greenback movement, which ran third-party candidates in the congressional elections of 1878 and the presidential election of 1880. The Greenback Party supported printing paper currency unbacked by gold, which had been done during the Civil War, as a means of raising farm prices. They reasoned that if currency grew more rapidly than the economy (the production of goods), prices would rise as more dollars chased fewer and fewer goods. This would be good for farmers and most debtors. In the presidential election of 1880, Greenback candidate James B. Weaver of Iowa, a Greenback congressman, got only 3.4 percent of the popular vote, or 308,578 votes. (For more information on the electorate in the post-Civil War era to 1900, see the American Franchise section in the Grover Cleveland biography.)

Murdered within months of his inauguration, Garfield served as President too briefly for him to have left much of an impact. Still, his legacy is far more ambiguous than most people realize. His replacement of Merritt shows him not only lacking judgment but acting as a spoilsman himself. His secretary of state, James G. Blaine, conducted foreign policy in, at best, an offhand manner, adding to the burdens of his successor, Chester A. Arthur. Nevertheless, Garfield appeared to be increasingly dependent upon Blaine as his short-lived presidency emerged. Since Garfield was passionately devoted to hard money and a laissez-faire economy, it is doubtful whether he could have really coped with the recession that began in 1881. He might have advanced the cause of civil rights, but without again stationing federal troops in the South, his options were limited.

For his reputation, it might have been just as well that he died when he did. He died in the prime of his life, still politically untested. The times did not demand a President in the heroic mold, and Garfield could therefore be remembered as a martyr above all else, as one who truly gave his life for his nation.