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.

Early Years

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.

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.

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 1857, 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.

Congressional Career

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.

Presidential Election of 1880

The 1880 presidential convention found Garfield campaigning for his longtime friend and fellow Republican John Sherman (1823-1900). Because of the party’s split between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, it took 36 ballots to choose a nominee. The delegates, in a surprise move, chose Garfield as the party’s dark horse presidential nominee. To satisfy the Stalwart faction, delegates chose New York Customs House collector Chester A. Arthur (1829-86) as the Republican vice-presidential nominee.

In the presidential election later that year, Garfield defeated his Democratic opponent, General Winfield Scott Hancock (1824-86), by fewer than 10,000 popular votes.

Presidency and Assassination

Following his inauguration on March 4, 1881, Garfield spent most of his time on the job assembling his cabinet and making other appointments. Without a clear referendum in the election, and due to the split in the Republican Party, Garfield had to appease both Stalwarts and Half-Breeds in his appointments. The Half-Breeds were more instrumental in earning Garfield’s nomination, and he appointed their leader, Senator James G. Blaine (1830-93) of Maine, as his secretary of state. Garfield also named other Half-Breeds to important posts. As members of the Stalwarts faction received less significant posts, their leader, Senator Roscoe Conkling (1829-88) of New York, tried to block Garfield’s nominations. Conkling later resigned in protest.

After nearly four months of political wrangling and maneuvering, Garfield sought to finally move forward with his agenda for civil service reform and other initiatives. However, a disgruntled attorney who was refused a political appointment changed all that. On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau (1841-82) fired two shots at Garfield while the president was en route to a Williams College reunion. As Garfield fell to the ground, Guiteau exclaimed, “I am a Stalwart and Arthur is president now!” (Guiteau was later convicted of Garfield’s murder and executed by hanging in 1882.)

Garfield lay in the White House mortally wounded and near death for almost three months. Doctors were unable to locate the bullet in his back. Even inventor Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) tried–unsuccessfully–to find the bullet with a metal detector he designed. On September 19, 1881, Garfield, age 49, died from an infection and internal hemorrhage. He was buried in Cleveland.

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