November 19

This Day in History

Presidential

Nov 19, 1831:

James A. Garfield is born

On this day in 1831, future President James A. Garfield is born to an impoverished family near Cleveland, Ohio. He weighed a whopping 10 pounds at birth, was a voracious reader and, as a young boy, worked driving the teams of horses that pulled barges along canals.

Garfield was a minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, a languages scholar and served as president of Hiram College in Ohio before entering politics. In 1859, he was elected to the Ohio State Senate. He served in the Union Army as a major general during the Civil War, but, with then-President Lincoln's support, resigned his commission to make a successful bid for the House of Representatives in 1862.

Garfield served in Congress during the Gilded Age when corruption ran rampant in politics. He was implicated in a scandal that rocked the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872-1873, in which members of Congress were given shares in the Credit Mobilier construction company with the expectation that they would lend their political support to the company's railroad ventures. Although it was never proven, Garfield was accused of accepting a $329 bribe. (Later, during the presidential election of 1880, his opponents used the numbers "329" as part of their anti-Garfield campaign, scribbling the numbers on the sides of buildings and on streets.) Garfield was a personal friend of Grant's successor, President Rutherford B. Hayes, and sat on the Congressional commission that awarded Hayes the presidency after a contentious election in 1876. In 1880, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate. By that time, the taint of involvement with the Credit Mobilier scandal had faded and his association with the more well-respected Hayes contributed to his ascension to the presidency in 1881.

Garfield did not have enough time to create an enduring presidential legacy. He was shot and mortally wounded by an assassin named Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881. After lingering for 80 days, he finally succumbed to his wounds on September 19, 1881. He was succeeded by Vice President Chester Alan Arthur.

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