James A. Garfield (1831–1881) was the 20th president of the United States. Although his term, and life, were cut short by an assassin just a few months after being elected, his legacy as both a soldier and a leader remain.
Garfield is fondly known as the last of the log cabin presidents. At the age of two he became fatherless and his mother had to raise him and his siblings on her own. A self-made man, the future president studied a host of different subjects, including law. He’d always wanted to be a ship captain, but never found the opportunity – though he paid for his education by driving canal boat teams in Ohio. Instead, he taught Greek and Latin at the Eclectic Institute and, in 1857, became the president of the school. He also became an ordained Christian minister.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Garfield joined the Union with the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He first served as a lieutenant colonel but achieved the rank of major general. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln asked Garfield to resign his military commission so that he could accept his nomination to the House of Representatives. Garfield was at first reluctant, but began his political career serving as a Republican in the House, the following year. He served in Congress for 18 years until 1881.
The Republican Party was relatively new and still smarting from the Civil War. Although Garfield was considered a moderate Republican, he had to figure out a way to satisfy the two factions within his own party: the Stalwarts, who were the old-guard conservatives, and the Half-Breeds who were more progressive, and so-named because the Stalwarts viewed them as only half Republican.
The 1880 presidential convention was fraught with tension and confusion. Garfield was campaigning for John Sherman, a fellow Republican and also a longtime friend. However, because of the rift between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, it took 36 ballots to finally choose a nominee. The delegates made a surprise move and chose Garfield as their dark horse nominee, and to mollify the Half-Breed faction, chose Chester A. Arthur as the vice-presidential nominee. Garfield barely won the election with little more than 10,000 popular votes and was inaugurated on March 4, 1881.
Trying to maintain a balance between the two factions of his party, Garfield decided to strengthen federal authority over the New York Customs House. This was the stronghold of Senator Roscoe Conkling, a Stalwart leader who objected vehemently when the president named his arch-rival, William H. Robertson, to run the Customs House. Even though Garfield appointed several of Conkling’s friends to other positions, the senator fought Robertson’s appointment.
Conkling tried pleading with other members to refuse the appointment to no avail. He then tried to have the Senate confirm the uncontested nominations from the president and adjourn the meeting without acting on Robertson’s appointment. Garfield was having none of it and withdrew all but Robertson’s nominations, which meant the Senators would have to either confirm Robertson or sacrifice all of Conkling’s friends who had been nominated.
Conkling still didn’t give up and tried one last desperate measure. He and a senator from New York resigned, thinking their actions would vindicate their stand and the body would re-elect them. Instead, two other men were elected in their place and the Senate confirmed Robertson.
On July 2, 1881, just four months after his inauguration, President Garfield was shot by a disgruntled attorney, Charles Guiteau, who did not get the political appointment he wanted. He fired two shots at the president while Garfield was on the way to a Williams College reunion. As Garfield fell to the ground, the assassin yelled out, “I am a Stalwart and Arthur is president now!” Guiteau was convicted of the murder and then executed by hanging in 1882.
Garfield did not die right away. He lay suffering in the White House for nearly three months. Doctors were unable to locate the bullet in his back. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried to find the bullet with a metal detector he’d created, also without luck. Garfield, at the age of 49, died from an infection and internal bleeding.