Miller Center

Presidential Key Events

James A. Garfield


James A. Garfield - President James Garfield Shot

On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau as he walked through the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad station with Secretary of State James Blaine. Wounded after only four months in office, the President died from his wounds on September 19, 1881, and Vice President Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as President.

President Garfield had never paid a great deal of attention to securing himself from possible assassination, likening the possibility of the event to the risk of being struck by lightning-all but impossible to prevent and thus pointless to worry about. Even after being shot, the President did not seem to be particularly concerned, telling bystanders who had seen the attack, “I don't think this is serious. I will live.”

Guiteau, the assassin, was a deranged lawyer who fashioned himself an evangelist and had tried to make a career at it. He supported the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party, Garfield's opposition, and had tried unsuccessfully to obtain a consular appointment in Europe from the President. Guiteau came to believe that “removal” of Garfield had become a “political necessity,” due to the administration's refusal to give him the post and the fact that Garfield's assassination would place a Stalwart, Vice President Chester A. Arthur, in the White House.

After shooting Garfield, Guiteau stood by quietly and awaited apprehension. His trial began in the fall of 1881. Although his lawyers wanted him to plead insanity, Guiteau resisted. He was found guilty and executed on June 30, 1882. The Stalwarts became the target of considerable criticism following the assassination, with many arguing that they were responsible for creating an atmosphere of conflict that allowed for an individual such as Guiteau to emerge.

Had Garfield lived, he might have shifted the energies of the Republican Party toward problems that had arisen in the United States as a result of industrialization, instead of maintaining a focus on issues which lingered from the Civil War and Reconstruction. His death delayed the consolidation of party factions and the modernization of the platform. The assassination, however, helped accelerate civil service reforms. The image of Garfield's assassin as a “disappointed office seeker” motivated many to blame the inadequate civil service system for the President's murder and prompted the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883.

July 02, 1881