James Garfield (1831-81)

Figure 1.--.

James A. Garfield was the 20th president of the United States. He was the last of the "log cabin" Presidents. He was one of the more impressive men to run for the presidency, born in poverty, he was a self made man. He was a respected scholar, Civil War hero, and reformist Congressman. He was a dark horse candidate and one of the few presidents to reach the iffice through the House of Reporesentatives. Garfield as President attacked political corruption. He won back for the Presidency a measure of prestige it had lost in the popular mind during the Reconstruction period. He died from an assassin's bullet only 6 months after he took office. He was the second president shot in office. Doctors tried to find the bullet with a metal detector invented by Alexander Graham Bell. But the device failed because Garfield was placed on a bed with metal springs, and no one thought to move him. He died on September 19, 1881.



James' father Abram was the strongest man in five counties and was a champion wrestler. Unfortuntely he died quite young after fighting a fire.


His mother Eliza Ballou was the first to attend an inaguration. James was very close to his mother throughout his life. She hated slavery.


James was born in in a log cabin near Cuyahoga County, Ohio, near Cleveland in 1831. At the time Clevland was a small, but growing town. He lost his father at 2 years of age. He was the youngest of five children. Raised by his mother, who was widowed in 1833, James grew up in poverty.


James was a self-made man. Though bright and anxious to learn, he turned 17 with but little schooling. In 1848 he struck out on his own and drove canal boat teams, but about 6 weeks later he returned home seriously ill. While convalescing he decided to get an education. Somehow he earned enough money for an education, working as a janitor and later a teacher. He attended a seminary and taught in district schools, and from 1851 to 1854 studied and taught at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, now Hiram College. Through these years Garfield was an introspective person with narrow views and a small circle of friends. Deeply religious, he zealously embraced and preached the doctrines of the Disciples of Christ. From the Eclectic, a Disciple school, he entered Williams College. He graduated with honors in 1856. He returned to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) in Ohio as a classics professor. Within a year he was made its president. Garfield read Greek and Latin and other languages. During these years Garfield turned against slavery and became interested in politics. In 1859 he was elected as a Republican to the Ohio Senate, where he denounced slavery and secession, advocating force, if needed, to preserve the Union. He studied law and was admitted to the bar. In 1858 he married Lucretia Rudolph, a former classmate. He supported Lincoln in his presidential bid in 1860.

Military Service

Garfield interupted his political career to serve in the Civil War. In 1862, when Union military victories had been few, he successfully led a brigade at Middle Creek, Kentucky, against Confederate troops. He fought at Chickamagua and Shiloh. Garfield at 31 became a brigadier general, 2 years later a major general of volunteers. After the Battle of Chickamauga, in which he performed heroically, Garfield resigned his commission to enter the U.S. House of Representatives, to which he had been elected in 1862. He provided superb military leadership, demonstrating a sound understanding of tactics, strategy, and the relationship between war and politics. From the outset he favored emancipation of the slaves and conquest of the South.

Personal Information

Garfield was a large, robust man with an outward going, hearty personality. People liked him. He was a good speaker with an excellent memory and axrespected scholar. He was a man of great character and scrupuosly honest. He did, however, except money as part of the Credit Mobile debacle. Of course at the time ethical stanbdards were diffent vthan are the case today. >Garfield was a evangelical Christian. He did some preaching. He broke with his church on the slavery issue. Evangelism did not, as today, have a esentially coservative political orientation in the 19th Century. Garfield had several affairs, including one after he was married. We are not sure how he resolved this with his deeply held religious convictions.

Political Career

Garfield was elected to the Ohio state Senate in 1859 as a Republican. During the secession crisis, he advocated coercing the seceding states back into the Union and joined the Army. During the War and while Garfield was still serving in the Army, Ohioans elected him to Congress in 1862. President Lincoln persuaded him to resign his commission. It was apparently easier to find major generals than to obtain effective Republicans for Congress. Garfield repeatedly won re-election for 18 years, and became the leading Republican in the House. Garfield served in the House from 1863 to 1880. He was broadly intelligent, national in outlook, and generally moderate in his views. He tempered idealism with practicality. He worked hard and spoke and wrote well. From 1871 to 1875 he was chairman of the committee on appropriations. He developed a reputation as a reformidt Congressman. Garfield believed that in education lay the great hope of a democracy. He was the House leader in establishing the U.S. Department (later Bureau) of Education.

Presidential Election of 1880

At the 1880 Republican Convention, Garfield failed to win the Presidential nomination for his friend John Sherman. Finally, on the 36th ballot, Garfield himself became the "dark horse" nominee. He told GAR veterans, "Vote the way you shot." By a margin of only 10,000 popular votes, Garfield defeated the Democratic nominee, another Civil war veteran--Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.


Civil Service reform

As President, Garfield acted to strengthened Federal authority over the New York Customs House. This meant a bitter battle with the corupr political establishment. [Millard] The Custom's House controling the most important port in America was the tronghold of Senator Roscoe Conkling. At the time, the cprimary source of Federal Revebnue was customs duries. Enormous sums of money was at stake. Conkling was leader of the Stalwart Republicans and dispenser of patronage in New York. When Garfield submitted to the Senate a list of appointments including many of Conkling's friends, he named Conkling's arch-rival William H. Robertson to run the Customs House. Conkling contested the nomination, tried to persuade the Senate to block it, and appealed to the Republican caucus to compel its withdrawal. But Garfield would not submit: "This...will settle the question whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States.... shall the principal port of entry ... be under the control of the administration or under the local control of a factional senator." Conkling maneuvered to have the Senate confirm Garfield's uncontested nominations and adjourn without acting on Robertson. Garfield countered by withdrawing all nominations except Robertson's; the Senators would have to confirm him or sacrifice all the appointments of Conkling's friends. In a final desperate move, Conkling and his fellow-Senator from New York resigned, confident that their legislature would vindicate their stand and re-elect them. Instead, the legislature elected two other men; the Senate confirmed Robertson. Garfield's victory was complete.

Foreign affairs

The central figure in his cabinent was James G. Blaine, the fabled man from Main, who served as Secretary of State. The Secretary of War was Robert Todd Lincon, President Lincoln's eldest son. In foreign affairs, Garfield's Secretary of State invited all American republics to a conference to meet in Washington in 1882. But the conference never took place.


An embittered attorney who had sought a consular post in a Washington railroad station shot the President (July 2, 1881). It was a great irony that the champion of civil servicec reform was shot by a diappointed office seaker. Mortally wounded, Garfield lay in the White House for weeks. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried unsuccessfully to find the bullet with an induction-balance electrical device which he had designed. The assasination may have been the nation's first great media event. The nation followed the medical releases closely, sometimes on an hourly basis. Garfield was taken to the New Jersey seaside (September 6). For a few days he seemed to be recuperating, but on September 19, 1881, he died from an infection and internal hemorrhage.

Marriage: Lucretia Rudolph Garfield (1832-1918)

Lucretia was a strong, principed woman. This cause some problems early in their marrage, which had it ups and downs. An illustration of her character is that during a prolonged absence a letter from her husband arrived. She refused to open it until she finished a book she was reading, Uncle Tom's Cabin which deeply moced her.

Garfield eventually came to see her as the ideal wife and mother of her children. In the fond eyes of her husband, President James A. Garfield, Lucretia "grows up to every new emergency with fine tact and faultless taste." She proved this in the eyes of the nation, though she was always a reserved, self-contained woman. She flatly refused to pose for a campaign photograph, and much preferred a literary circle or informal party to a state reception.

Her love of learning she acquired from her father, Zeb Rudolph, a leading citizen of Hiram, Ohio, and devout member of the Disciples of Christ. She first met "Jim" Garfield when both attended a nearby school, and they renewed their friendship in 1851 as students at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, founded by the Disciples.

But "Crete" did not attract his special attention until December 1853, when he began a rather cautious courtship, and they did not marry until November 1858, when he was well launched on his career as a teacher. His service in the Union Army from 1861 to 1863 kept them apart; their first child, a daughter, died in 1863. But after his first lonely winter in Washington as a freshman Representative, the family remained together. With a home in the capital as well as one in Ohio they enjoyed a happy domestic life. A 2-year-old son died in 1876, but five children grew up healthy and promising; with the passage of time, Lucretia became more and more her husband's companion.

In Washington they shared intellectual interests with congenial friends; she went with him to meetings of a locally celebrated literary society. They read together, made social calls together, dined with each other and traveled in company until by 1880 they were as nearly inseparable as his career permitted.

Garfield's election to the Presidency brought a cheerful family to the White House in 1881. Though Mrs. Garfield was not particularly interested in a First Lady's social duties, she was deeply conscientious and her genuine hospitality made her dinners and twice-weekly receptions enjoyable. At the age of 49 she was still a slender, graceful little woman with clear dark eyes, her brown hair beginning to show traces of silver.

In May she fell gravely ill, apparently from malaria and nervous exhaustion, to her husband's profound distress. "When you are sick," he had written her seven years earlier, "I am like the inhabitants of countries visited by earthquakes." She was still a convalescent, at a seaside resort in New Jersey, when he was shot by a demented assassin on July 2. She returned to Washington by special train--"frail, fatigued, desperate," reported an eyewitness at the White House, "but firm and quiet and full of purpose to save."

During the three months her husband fought for his life, her grief, devotion, and fortitude won the respect and sympathy of the country. In September, after his death, the bereaved family went home to their farm in Ohio. For another 36 years she led a strictly private but busy and comfortable life, active in preserving the records of her husband's career. She died on March 14, 1918.


The Garfields had seven children. Five of them survived to adulthood.

Eliza (1860-63)

Their first child, a daughter. Eliza was named after a Dickens character, Little Trott. She died tragically of diptheria in 1863.

Harry A. (1863-1942)

Harry was called Hal. He trained as a businessman and attorney, but his career was primarilt in education. He taught at Princeton and Williams College where he became president. He married Belle Hartford Mason and they had four children. While teaching at Princron, he vecame friendly with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson eventually became president of Princeton. Later as President, Wilson appointed Harry Garfield as fuel administrator, an important assignment during World War I.

James Rudolph (1865-1950)

James was called Jimmy. He was with his father when he was assasinated Jimmy was only 15 years old at the time. He studied at Columbia University and practiced law. He had a few minor appointed positions when President Theodore Roosevelt noticed him. The two were to become close associates. Roosevelt appointed him to be Secretary of the Interior. (In the United States Interior meand parks, forrests, and Indian affairs and has nothing to do with the police.) This was an important position in the cabinent of this conservatiion-minded president.

Mary (1867-1947)

Mary was called Molly. She married a man who had been worked as a secretary in her father's White House. They lived in New York before moving to Pasadena, California. They had three children. Her husband became an investment banker.

Irvin M. (1870-1951)

Irwin was about 10 years when his father moved into the White House. He is right up on the list of White House terrors (along with Tad and Willie Lincoln). He loved to tear down the White House staircase on his high-wheeled bicycle, a luxury item for children at the time. Riding one of thise bicycles seems a bit tricky. Racing dwn the White House stair case sounds like a real adventure. From the staircase he would careen through the East Room. He married Susan Emmons. They lived in Boston and had three children. He became a lawyer and had a successful business career.

Abram (1872-1958)

Abram studied at Willams College and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He became a respected architect gaining appointment to commissions formed by two presidents. He married Sarah Granger andthey had two children. After her death he remairred to a much younger woman, Helen Grannis Mathews. There weee no more children.

Edward (1874-76)

Another child, Edward, died of the whooping cough before reaching his second year.

Children's Clothes

A photograph taken about 1880 shows the four surviving boys and Molly. The two younger boys wear kneepants suits. Kneepants for boys had become increasingly common in the 1870s and by the 1880s most boys wore kneepants rather than long pants. The younger boys wear large white, but not lace collars. One of the boys, Irvin, has a large bow, but his younger brother Abram does not.


Brown, Harry James, and Williams, Frederick D. eds. The Diary of James A. Garfield, 4 vols. (Mich. State Univ. Press 1967-1982)

Hendrik, B. V. The Road to Respectability: James A. Garfield and His World (Bucknell Univ. Press 1988)

McElroy, Richard L. James A. Garfield--His Life and Times (Daring Bks. 1986)

Millard, Candice. Destiny of the cRepublic (2011), 352p.

Peskin, Allan, Garfield (Kent State Univ. Press 1978)

Wead, Doug. All the President's Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America's First Familirs (Atria: New York, 2003), 456p.

Williams, Frederick D. ed. The Wild Life of the Army: Civil War Letters of James A. Garfield (Mich. State Univ. Press 1964)


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Created: July 19, 1999
Last changed: 8:44 AM 9/24/2011