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James Abram Garfield

Garfield, James Abram, 1831–81, 20th President of the United States (Mar.–Sept., 1881). Born on a frontier farm in Cuyahoga co., Ohio, he spent his early years in poverty. As a youth he worked as farmer, carpenter, and canal boatman. After graduation (1856) from Williams College, he became a teacher of ancient languages and literature at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute at Hiram, Ohio (renamed, largely through his influence, Hiram Institute; now Hiram College), and later (1857–61) was its principal. He was also a lay preacher of the Disciples of Christ, was admitted (1859) to the bar, and was elected an antislavery state senator. During the Civil War he served in the Union army and was a major general of volunteers when he resigned (1863) to take his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a regular Republican, unhesitatingly following his party's postwar program of radical Reconstruction and later of hard-money deflationism and opposition to civil service reform. On the tariff issue he was evasive. Garfield was prominent in the settlement of the disputed election of 1876 (in which Rutherford B. Hayes was ultimately adjudged the winner), but in 1880 he was still only moderately well known nationally.

Garfield, who never sought the presidency, was campaign manager for John Sherman in the Republican convention but on the 36th ballot was himself chosen as compromise candidate for president. Former President Grant, who had wanted the nomination, and his supporter, Roscoe Conkling, gave Garfield only formal aid in the election—and allegedly even that was conditioned on a promise of a share in the president's political favors. After Garfield had defeated W. S. Hancock and was president, he passed over Conkling's "Stalwarts" in his appointments and appointed James G. Blaine, Conkling's political enemy, secretary of state. War was thus declared between the president and the most important faction of the Republican party. Garfield won the first round of the fight, getting his appointee for the New York port collectorship approved over Conkling's objections. He began prosecution of the star route postal frauds. Constantly harassed by office seekers, President Garfield met his death through one of them. On July 2, 1881, he was shot by Charles J. Guiteau. On Sept. 19 he died, and Chester A. Arthur succeeded to the presidency. Garfield was a brilliant orator and an able, knowing, and charming man. He had shown little originality or force in his 17 years as congressman, and his early death prevented him from showing whether or not he might have demonstrated statesmanship as president.

See his diary, ed. by H. J. Brown and F. D. Williams (1967–81); T. C. Smith, Life and Letters of James A. Garfield (1925, repr. 1968); biographies by J. M. Taylor (1970) and A. Peskin (1978); K. D. Ackerman, Dark Horse (2003); C. Millard, Destiny of the Republic (2011).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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