Monday, September 6, 2010
James A. Garfield
James Abram Garfield (1831-1881) was a large, athletic, good-looking man with blond hair and beard who was warmhearted and genial. He accomplished much before becoming President of the United States; he was successful as a professor, college president, Civil War general, and U.S. Congressman. He was read much and wrote well; he even composed a little poetry. He was capable of writing Lain with one hand while writing Greek with the other and often did so to entertain friends. Garfield was the last President of the United States to have a log cabin as his birthplace. He had a short tenure as President because he was assassinated a few months after taking office. He was the second President to be assassinated, and the fourth to die in office. Until Garfield's death, a "spoils system" was a big part of national politics. When a new President took office, thousands of civil servants were fired and were replaced by political supporters of the new Chief Executive. Garfield was not a reformer, but he recognized a problem with the system. He wrote the following in his diary a short time before he was shot, "Some civil service reform will come by necessity after the wearisome years of wasted Presidents have paved the way for it." A "disappointed job seeker" assassinated the President and shocked the nation. Congress began civil service reform two years later. Garfield was born on November 19, 1831, in a log cabin on a farm in Orange, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the youngest of five children of pioneers from the East. His father died before Garfield was two years old, and his mother continued working the thirty-acre farm to provide for her family. She was the first woman to attend a presidential inauguration of a son. Garfield did odd jobs during school vacations while a teenager and then left home at age 16 to find adventure as a sailor on the Great Lakes. After a ship's captain yelled at him and chased him away, he worked for six weeks for his cousin driving the horses that pulled a barge in the Ohio Canal. He said, "I fell into the canal just fourteen times and had fourteen almost miraculous escapes from drawings." James returned home with malaria and entered Geauga Academy in Chester when he recovered. He started teaching in the district school after his first term. He enrolled at age twenty in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio, and studied there for three years. He spent the next two years at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, under the guidance of the college president. After his graduation from Williams in 1856, Garfield became a professor of ancient languages and literature at Hiram College. The next year he became president of the college; he was twenty-six years old. While he was president, he studied some law and preached some sermons for his church. Garfield married Lucretia Rudolph, one of his former students at Hiram, on November 11, 1858. She was the daughter of an Ohio farmer and taught school while he completed his education. The couple had seven children, losing two as infants. James became a soldier shortly after the Civil War started when the governor commissioned him a lieutenant colonel of Ohio volunteers. He was made the youngest brigadier general in the Union Army after winning a minor battle in Kentucky in 1862. He was chief of staff under General William S. Rosecrans and rode under heavy fire to deliver an important message to General George H. Thomas during the Battle of Chickamauga. He was made a major general after the battle. While still in the army in 1862, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives but did not resign his commission until December 1863. He was re-elected to the House eight times. In 1880 Garfield was elected by the Ohio legislature to the U.S. Senate. Before he was ever seated in the Senate, he attended the Republican National Convention and was chosen as the presidential candidate on the 36th ballot. He won the presidential election by 1,898 votes. Garfield was planning to leave Washington D.C. on July 2, 1881, to attend the twenty-fifth reunion of his class at Williams College. He was at the railroad station when Charles J. Guiteau fired two pistol shots at him. Guiteau was arrested immediately. A jury convicted him for the murder, and he was hanged in 1882. One of the assassin's bullets lodged in Garfield's back and one grazed his arm. He was near death for eighty days but remained calm and cheerful through the hot Washington summer. Even though the Constitution says that when a President's "inability to discharge the powers and duties" of his office, "the same shall devolve on the Vice President," Chester A. Arthur did not step in because he didn't want to disturb Garfield or create a major political controversy. Arthur's decision was supported by the Cabinet. Garfield performed only one official act while he lay dying: he signed an extradition paper. Alexander Graham Bell tried to locate the bullet in Garfield's bag with an electrical device but was unsuccessful. With modern equipment and medicines, Garfield's life might have been saved before infection set in. He was moved to a cottage on the seashore in Elberon, New Jersey, where he died on September 19, 1881. He was buried in Cleveland, Ohio. Mrs. Garfield and her children benefited from a large fund raised by friends. Facts and quotes for this post are from an article by H. Wayne Morgan in World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, pp 40-43.