An Ohio Son: President James A. Garfield

A smiling Garfield, second from left, stands with friends and family outside his wife’s family home in Hiram, Ohio, 1875. Courtesy of Hiram College via Ohio Memory.
This Currier & Ives print depicts candidate Garfield as a muscular farmer using a scythe labeled “Honesty, Ability and Patriotism” to mow down evils like Fraud, Calumny, Defamation and more. Via Ohio Memory.

Monday, November 19th will mark the birthday of James A. Garfield, a native Ohioan who served as the 20th President of the United States, as well as a congressman in the House of Representatives and a veteran of the Union Army in the Civil War. Garfield was born in Orange Township, Ohio–now a community known as Moreland Hills, outside of Cleveland–in 1831. Born at home in the family’s log cabin to Abram and Eliza Garfield, James was the youngest of five siblings, and would faces a childhood of challenge and poverty following the death of his father when he was only two years old.

As a young man, Garfield worked hard to support his mother, including as a farmhand and later a brief stint steering canal boats by mule in northeast Ohio. Despite a lack of formal education during his teenage years, he was an avid reader, and was convinced at age 18 to enroll in the Geauga Seminary in Chester, Ohio. (It was at the co-ed Geauga Seminary where he met Lucretia Rudolph, whom he would later marry.) After two years there, he worked briefly as a teacher before attending the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio. He then transferred to Williams College in Massachusetts, and upon graduation, returned to Hiram as a professor of ancient languages and literature; he also served as the college’s president until the outbreak of the Civil War.

Joining the Army as lieutenant colonel of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Garfield fought in battles including Shiloh and Chickamauga. He was promoted to the rank of major general, but resigned his commission on December 5, 1863, when Ohio voters elected him to the U.S. House of Representatives. He would serve nine consecutive terms in that office before winning the presidency in 1880, elected in spite of his initial reluctance to serve as the Republican Party nominee.

The early months of his term were spent working to soothe a warring Republican Party through careful appointments in his presidential cabinet. He also began laying groundwork for reform in the civil service system, as well as for advancing Reconstruction-era civil rights, expanding access to education, promoting free trade and enhancing naval strength.

This banner was taken from the catafalque carrying Garfield’s body during a funeral procession in Chicago on September 26, 1881. Via Ohio Memory.

His time in the land’s highest office came to a tragic end after less than six months, when he was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a political office-seeker who was angered by what he saw as Garfield’s refusal to grant him a position he merited in the new administration. Guiteau’s assassination attempt took place on July 2, 1881, while Garfield awaited a train in Washington, D.C., and though the president was not killed immediately, complications from the wound would lead to his death two months later on September 19, at the age of 49.

Although Garfield’s life and presidential career were cut all too short, he leaves a lasting legacy as an Ohioan who rose from his life’s struggles and helped shape his state and nation across several historical eras. Want to learn more? You can learn about Garfield’s legacy through Ohio Memory, the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, his memorial monument at Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery and the many other resources available about this remarkable Ohioan.

Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!

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