James Garfield (1831-81) was sworn in as the 20th U.S. president in March 1881 and died in September of that same year from an assassin's bullet, making his tenure in office the second-shortest in U.S. presidential history, after William Henry Harrison (1773-1841). Born in an Ohio log cabin, Garfield was a self-made man who became a school president in his mid-20s. During the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), he fought for the Union and rose to the rank of major general. Garfield, a Republican, went on to represent his home state in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1863 to 1881. In 1880, a divided Republican Party chose Garfield as its dark horse presidential nominee. After winning the general election, his brief time in office was marked by political wrangling. In July 1881, Garfield was shot by a disgruntled constituent and died less than three months later.
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Did You Know?
The only person to serve less time in the White House than James Garfield was William Henry Harrison, America's ninth president. Several weeks after his March 4, 1841, inauguration, Harrison caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. He died on April 4, after just a month in office.
James Abram Garfield was born on November 19, 1831, in a log cabin in Orange, Ohio, near Cleveland. His father, Abram Garfield, died less than two years later, so his mother, Eliza Ballou Garfield, raised young James and her older children while also managing the family’s small farm.
As an avid reader of adventure novels, Garfield aspired to become a sailor. Instead, as a teen, he settled for a position towing barges up the Ohio Canal to help support his impoverished family. From 1851 to 1853, Garfield attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio. He then spent two years at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and proved himself to be a strong student and skilled public speaker. After graduating from Williams in 1856, Garfield returned to the Eclectic Institute and taught Greek and Latin, as well as other subjects. A year later, in 1957, he was named president of the school.
In addition to his duties at the Eclectic Institute, Garfield became an ordained Christian minister and studied law independently (he would be admitted to the Ohio Bar Association in 1860). In 1858, he married Lucretia Rudolph (1832-1918), who worked as a teacher and had been a classmate of his at the Eclectic Institute. The couple would have seven children.
In 1859, Garfield, a member of the Republican Party (which was founded in the 1850s by antislavery leaders) was elected to the Ohio Senate. With the threat of an American civil war looming, he used his position as state senator to advocate for forcing seceding Southern states to rejoin the Union.
The U.S. Civil War
When the U.S. Civil War (1861-65) broke out, Garfield joined the Union army and served as a lieutenant colonel with the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Despite a lack of military experience, he proved to be an effective leader. In November 1861, his brigade drove Confederate forces out of eastern Kentucky at Paintsville and Prestonsburg.
He also saw action at the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), the Siege of Corinth (late April-May 1862) and the Battle of Chickamauga (September 1863). In 1862, while still serving in the army, Garfield was elected to represent his home state in the U.S. House of Representatives. Initially reluctant to resign his post, Garfield was eventually convinced to do so by President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), and left the military in late 1863, having achieved the rank of major general.
Garfield began serving in the House in December 1863, and would remain in Congress until 1881. During this time, he served on a number of important congressional committees. However, his career was not without its challenges. In a political period marked by scandal and corruption, Garfield's ethics were called into question when he was accused (but never found guilty) of accepting bribes in the Crédit Mobilier scandal of 1872.
A moderate Republican, Garfield had to appease both wings of his own party: the Stalwarts, who were the conservative, old-guard Republicans, and the Half-Breeds, who were moving toward progressivism. This was especially difficult maneuvering when Garfield served on the congressional committee charged with settling the disputed Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-93)-Samuel Tilden (1814-86) presidential election of 1876. Despite his challenges in the House, Garfield was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1880. He never took his seat, however, because of the events that transpired at the Republican convention in 1880.
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