Garfield, James Abram

views updated


James Abram Garfield was a soldier and congressman who became the twentieth president of the United States. His inability to perform the duties of office following an assassination attempt on July 2, 1881, raised, for the second time in U.S. history, the question of presidential succession.

Garfield was born November 19, 1831, in a log cabin near the town of Orange in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. He was the fourth and final child of Abram Garfield and Eliza Ballou Garfield. Garfield's father's ancestors were among the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1827 the father carried their pioneering spirit to Ohio, where he worked on an Ohio Canal construction crew. By the time Garfield was born, his father was a struggling farmer and a founding member of the local Disciples of Christ church. In 1833, when Garfield was just two years old, his father died suddenly, leaving the family in poverty.

Garfield's mother, a descendant of an old Rhode Island family, was a remarkable woman. After her husband's death, she ran the small family farm on her own and saw to it that Garfield and his siblings worked hard, attended church, and finished school.

After completing his studies at the local school in Orange, Garfield enrolled at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College), at Hiram, Ohio. He eventually went on to Williams College, in Massachusetts. After graduating from Williams with the class of 1856, he returned to the institute at Hiram and assumed the duties of teacher and later principal. On November 11, 1858, he married Lucretia Rudolph, his childhood friend, fellow student, and pupil.

In addition to teaching and tending to the administration of the institute, Garfield frequently served as a lay speaker in Disciples of Christ churches throughout northern Ohio. Like many members of his church, Garfield advocated free-soil principles and was a firm supporter of the newly organized republican party. (Free-Soilers were opposed to the expansion of slavery in the western states and territories.)

With his natural speaking ability, Garfield soon found himself in the political arena. In 1859 he was elected to the Ohio state senate. As the United States neared civil war, Garfield put his speaking abilities to work for the Union, recruiting men and raising troops for battle.

In the summer of 1861, he followed his own advice and recruited a group of volunteers from his former school. He assembled the Forty-second Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and served as the unit's lieutenant colonel and later colonel. Though he had no military experience, Garfield did have a voracious appetite for knowledge and

access to books that could guide his command. He and his men fought at the Battle of Shiloh, in western Tennessee. Garfield left the field when he became ill. After recovering he returned as chief of staff under Major General William S. Rosencrans, with whom he fought at Chickamauga, Georgia.

After Chickamauga, Garfield was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, and he was elected, in absentia, to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. It has been suggested that Garfield was reluctant to surrender his command and take the seat, but he acquiesced when President abraham lincoln pointed out that brigadier generals were in far greater supply than administration Republicans.

In December 1863 Garfield took his seat in the Thirty-eighth Congress as the Republican representative from the nineteenth congressional district of Ohio. When the Republicans became the minority party in the House after the election of 1864, Garfield and Congressman James G. Blaine, of Maine, emerged as minority party leaders. Garfield distinguished himself as chairman of the committee on appropriations, and he established himself as an expert on the budget. He also focused his attention on legislation related to Reconstruction policies in the South, protective tariff issues, and the maintenance of a sound currency. When Blaine was elected to the Senate in 1876, Garfield became the House minority leader—a position he held for the remainder of his congressional service.

Garfield held his House office for eighteen years, for the most part easily winning the nomination of his party and the vote of the electorate as each term concluded. Only once during his time in the House was his reelection in question. In the early 1870s, the Republican party was discredited by allegations of scandal in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant—including the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Crédit Mobilier of America was a construction company established to build the Union Pacific Railroad. It became known that Garfield was among a group of congressmen who had accepted stock in Crédit Mobilier, in exchange for legislative consideration. Garfield ultimately refused the stock, but it took him two years to do so. His critics maintained that he decided not to take the stock only because the issue had placed him in political hot water.

During the same period, Garfield accepted a retainer for legal services from a Washington, D.C., company seeking to supply paving materials in the nation's capital. He argued that because he had no direct connection to city government, there was no conflict of interest. Not everyone shared his opinion.

Though many public servants of the day conducted personal business while in office, Garfield found it increasingly difficult to distinguish clients who wanted his legal advice from those who wanted his political influence. Garfield was reelected in 1874, despite the controversy, but to avoid future problems, he ceased taking outside legal clients. The incident also fueled Garfield's desire to eliminate political patronage in the civil service system.

Garfield took an active role in the 1876 presidential election of rutherford b. hayes. When Senator john sherman, of Ohio, was named to the Hayes cabinet, Garfield expressed an interest in filling his vacant Senate seat. Needing Garfield in the House, Hayes discouraged him from pursuing the matter. Near the close of Hayes's term, there was talk that Sherman would seek to regain his Senate seat, but he chose instead to seek his party's nomination for the presidency. It was widely presumed that Sherman supported Garfield's election to the Senate in exchange for Garfield's support at the Republican convention, but no such deal was struck.

In due course the Ohio legislature elected Garfield to the U.S. Senate for a six-year term to begin in 1881, and he attended the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago as head of the Ohio delegation. Because of home state support for Sherman, Garfield reluctantly agreed to act as Sherman's floor manager and to canvass for delegates on his behalf—even though Senator Blaine, Garfield's old friend and colleague, was also seeking the party's nomination.

Garfield was a formidable and well-known figure at the convention. His persuasive skill on the floor did not go unnoticed. He kept Sherman's chances alive by fighting for the delegates' freedom to vote their choice, and by opposing a unit rule that forced delegations to cast all their votes for the candidate holding the majority of votes within a state delegation. Former president Grant, who was also running for nomination, and his supporters, called the Stalwarts, supported the unit rule because Grant held the majority in many delegations.

Garfield managed to block the nominations of Blaine and Grant, but he could not secure a majority for Sherman. With the convention deadlocked, twenty Wisconsin delegates made a bold move on the thirty-fifth ballot and, in protest, cast twenty votes for Garfield.

On the next ballot, Garfield found himself the unanimous choice of the convention and the unwitting beneficiary of his own floor maneuvering. chester a. arthur was named his running mate. Blaine followers supported the ticket, and most Sherman followers were willing to overlook the manner in which the nomination had been secured, but Grant's forces never forgave Garfield for his opposition.

Garfield pacified unhappy Sherman supporters by surrendering his new Senate seat, enabling Sherman to return to his old post. Throughout the summer of 1880, Garfield attempted to meet with the national committee and with Grant supporters, but he was never given an audience. In November Garfield returned to his farm in Mentor, Ohio, to wait them out.

Finally, on the eve of the election, Grant was persuaded to recognize Garfield as the party's choice. Grant and his followers were invited to the Garfield farm for a historic meeting, often called the Mentor Summit. What was said at the meeting—and what was promised—has been the subject of much debate. Grant thought he had extracted a personal promise from Garfield that, in exchange for Grant's support, the Stalwarts would be named to influential posts in the new administration.

With the help of Grant's supporters, Garfield won the election by a narrow margin over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock. Between the election and the inauguration, Garfield busied himself with the selection of his cabinet. All factions of the party called on the president-elect to lobby for their preferred nominees, but Grant Stalwarts remained assured that Garfield would bow to their influence. Garfield's first known appointment, making Blaine secretary of state, caused an uproar among the Grant faction and was viewed as a breach of the promises made at Mentor. Garfield nevertheless remained committed to building a conciliation cabinet that would balance everyone's interests and eliminate political patronage jobs—and kept the rest of his choices well guarded until inauguration day, March 4, 1881.

The first months of his term continued to be plagued with appointment and confirmation battles. Grant supporters continued to believe that he should have been the party's presidential nominee and that in an election deal Garfield had agreed to consult Grant about appointments. Those in the Senate who supported Grant rallied to systematically reject undesirable appointments, but Garfield was equally stubborn. Of the Stalwarts' attempt to derail his nomination for collector of customs for the port of New York City, Garfield said, "They may take him out of the Senate head first or feet first, but I will never withdraw him."

Though confirmation battles consumed a majority of Garfield's time, he also carried out other presidential duties and commitments. On July 2, 1881, he was en route to a speaking engagement at his alma mater Williams College, when lawyer Charles J. Guiteau shot him at a Washington, D.C., railroad station. Described as an erratic character, Guiteau shouted to a crowd at the railroad station that he was a Stalwart.

Garfield lingered for eleven weeks. Daily reports from physicians showed that he was unable to carry out his responsibilities. By August the question of Garfield's succession was being discussed in the press and debated by constitutional scholars. It was agreed that the vice president was constitutionally allowed to assume the president's powers and duties, but it was not clear whether he should serve as acting president until Garfield recovered, or assume the office itself and displace Garfield altogether. The pertinent provision of the Constitution—Article II, Section 1, Clause 6—was ambiguous, and expert opinion was still divided over the precedent set by john tyler, who had taken the oath of office in 1841 after the death of President william h. harrison, rather than merely assuming Harrison's duties until the next election.

Because Congress was not in session, the issue could not be debated there, but it was addressed by Garfield's cabinet members on September 2, 1881. They agreed that it was time for the vice president to assume Garfield's duties, but they too were divided as to the permanence of the vice president's role. The problem was never resolved because Garfield died September 19, 1881, before any action was taken by the cabinet or the vice president. Following the precedent set by Tyler, Arthur took the oath of office and assumed the presidency, following Garfield's death.

"All free governments are managed by the combined wisdom and folly of the people."
—James Garfield

Garfield's unexpected nomination, bitter election, and tragic death often overshadow his previous accomplishments and his presidential agenda. His efforts to build a conciliation cabinet and to purge administrative agencies of old patronage jobs made him a strong advocate of civil service reforms. Ironically, the appointment battles preceding his murder probably caused Congress to pass civil service reforms in 1883 that were far broader in reach and scope than anything Garfield had envisioned.

further readings

Peskin, Allan. 1999. Garfield: A Biography. Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press.

James Abram Garfield

views updated

James Abram Garfield

James Abram Garfield (1831-1881) was an American Civil War general before becoming the twentieth president of the United States. He was assassinated after 6 months in office.

James A. Garfield was born in the log cabin of American myth on Nov. 19, 1831, near Cleveland, Ohio. Although his family dated back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, his immediate ancestors had not prospered, and Garfield's upbringing was plagued by dire poverty. His father died when James was 2 years old, and he was early put out to labor to help keep the family intact.

Garfield matriculated at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, later called Hiram College. He graduated from Williams College and, before he was 30, became a lay preacher for the Disciples of Christ. He taught school briefly and returned to Hiram as a professor and head of the college, but he did not enjoy the life. "You and I know," he wrote a friend, "that teaching is not the work in which a man can live and grow." Still, Garfield remained bookish throughout his life, and while by no means brilliant or original, he emerges as truly distinctive in his occasional writings, letters, and diary. These reveal a perspicacious mind, shrewd insight into his contemporaries' personalities, and a rare comprehension among politicos of the day of the vast changes through which the United States was going.

War and Politics

In 1859 Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate and became a leading Union supporter in the Civil War. He accepted a commission as colonel and, typically, set about studying military strategy and organization. His readings must have been well selected because his rise in rank was rapid even for the Civil War era. An active role in the Battle of Middle Creek on Jan. 10, 1862, made him a brigadier general, and, in April, he fought during the bloody second day at Shiloh. After that he left the lines to become chief of staff through the Chickamauga campaign, organizing a division of military information and being promoted to major general.

Garfield's military career reflected the dexterity with which he would later escape political crises unscathed, for although he was closely associated with several disasters that ruined associates, he himself escaped blame. Indeed, in December 1863 Garfield was elected to the House of Representatives in recognition of his military service and, until his death, was never again out of Federal office. His Ohio district was safe for Republicans, so Garfield could concentrate on the affairs of office, and he was the leader of his party in the House during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Garfield was capable of neatly straddling a volatile issue. He was never so strong on the high-tariff issue as were most of his Republican colleagues and, as late as his presidential campaign of 1880, he remained publicly equivocal on the issue of Federal patronage. The Federal jobs at the disposal of the party in power were the life-blood of politics during the "gilded age." One wing of the Republican party—the "stalwarts"—called for no dalliance on the question, claiming the jobs as the just due of those who worked to put the party in power. Another wing of reformers, the "doctrinaires," felt that the quality of government would be improved if Federal jobs were assigned on the basis of merit. Garfield attempted to placate both sides.

On the money question Garfield was firm, standing unalterably for "hard" currency when many of his former constituents called for inflation. But he was less steadfast on the Southern question, alternating between "waving the bloody shirt"—exploiting Northern bitterness toward the South over the war—and supporting a more compromising attitude.

Monetary Scandal

Scandal nearly wrecked Garfield's career when he was accused of accepting money in return for supporting a congressional subsidy of the transcontinental railroad's construction company. But he managed to sidestep and survive the accusation, and he also weathered the revelation that he had accepted a legal fee from a company involved in government-contracted improvement of Washington streets. These lapses in ethics were more the result of carelessness than personal corruption, and Garfield in his last years was extremely careful to avoid any possible conflicts of interest. On the whole, he had a good record in the graft-sullied political world of the day, and reformers who could not support James G. Blaine were willing to accept Garfield.

In 1880 Garfield was elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio, but before he took his seat, he agreed to manage John Sherman's campaign to win the Republican presidential nomination. The chief Republican candidates that year were former U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant and Senator James G. Blaine. Sherman's hopes were based on an anticipated deadlock between the two front-runners, which would force the convention to turn to him as a compromise candidate. The convention did, indeed, deadlock and settle on a third person, but that person was Garfield rather than Sherman. Toward the end of his life Sherman became convinced that his manager had actively betrayed him, but close examination of the records by several historians indicates that this was not so. Garfield knew before the convention that certain parties were working for him as a compromise candidate, but he neither encouraged nor effectively discouraged the talk. He certainly had presidential ambitions, but like a good party regular, he recognized Sherman's seniority among Ohio politicians and was willing to wait his turn. When the opportunity beckoned in 1880, he was more than ready.

Election to the Presidency

The immediate problem was the party's "stalwarts." Garfield had selected one of their number, Chester A. Arthur, as his vice-presidential candidate, but the leader of the "stalwarts," New York politician Roscoe Conkling, refused to work to get the important New York vote without specific promises from Garfield on patronage. Conkling believed that he received such promises and did help elect Garfield, but soon after the election, the two fell out. Garfield named Conkling's archenemy, James G. Blaine, to be his secretary of state and increasingly relied on Blaine's counsel. In a battle over the appointment of the collector of customs for the Port of New York (one of the richest plums in the Federal patronage), Conkling resigned his Senate seat and asked the New York Legislature, in effect, to rebuke the President by reelecting him. What might have happened under normal circumstances is impossible to tell, for on July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot in the back in a Washington railroad station by a deranged man named Charles Guiteau, who claimed he had killed the President in order to put Chester A. Arthur into office.

Garfield did not die immediately. But doctors could not locate one of the bullets, and infection eventually sapped his strength. Conkling was not reelected in the shocked aftermath of the shooting, and a civil service reform bill aimed at Conkling-style politics eventually passed Congress. But Garfield never left his bed; he died at Alberon, N.J., on Sept. 19, 1881.

A well-featured, heavily bearded man whose piercing eyes are the most striking feature of his photographs, Garfield was a significant figure in the development of congressional power during the 1860s and 1870s. His premature death precludes knowledge of how his perceptions of the changes America was undergoing might have impacted the successfulness of his presidency.

Further Reading

A primary source of information on Garfield is Theodore Clarke Smith, The Life and Letters of James Garfield (2 vols., 1925). An excellent biography is Robert Granville Caldwell, James A. Garfield: Party Chieftain (1931). Earlier works on Garfield tend to be absurdly laudatory, virtually ignoring problems connected with Garfield's military career and financial dealings. Garfield is discussed in Kenneth W. Wheeler, ed., For the Union: Ohio Leaders in the Civil War (1968). The best political survey of the age is H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896 (1969). For the election of 1880 see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). □

Garfield, James Abram

views updated

Garfield, James Abram (1831–81) 20th US president (1881). He served in the Civil War until 1863, when he was elected to the House of Representatives. In 1876, he became the Republican Leader of the House. The 1880 Republican convention was deadlocked and, on the 36th ballot, he became the compromise presidential candidate. His four-month administration was characterized by party squabbles over federal jobs and political patronage. He was assassinated on July 2, 1881, and was succeeded by his Vice President, Chester A. Arthur.

About this article

James Abram Garfield

All Sources -
Updated About content Print Topic