James Garfield was a professor, a school president, studied law, was ordained as a minister, and became our country’s 20th president. In an election in which the popular vote was very clearly split between North and South, he won by less than 10,000 votes. President Garfield was shot less than four months after taking office, and served for less time than anyone except William Henry Harrison.
James Garfield was born in a log cabin, the last president to be able to make that claim. The cabin was in Ohio, and it was 1831, two years before his father was to die, leaving his mother to try to run the family farm. The family was poor, but he graduated from Williams College and became a professor of ancient languages at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, where he had taken classes. In 1857, James Garfield became the school’s president, and supported its name change to Hiram College.
Garfield became interested in the recently formed Republican Party, and was elected to the state legislature in 1859. He became a served in the army during the Civil War, and was elected to the US House of Representatives between being commander of a brigade at the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Chickamauga, where his service won him a promotion to major general. After serving nine terms and becoming chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he was elected to the US Senate in 1880.
That same year, James Garfield made the nominating speech for John Sherman at the Republican presidential convention, which featured a three-way race between Sherman, Ulysses S Grant, and James G. Blaine. Grant, the former president, led the votes for 35 ballots, but could not attain a majority. On the 36th ballot, Garfield was nominated.
In his four active months in office, Garfield began the prosecution of the Star Route trials, which Chester Arthur continued. He supported education and the vote for African Americans, mentioning both these items in his inaugural address. The manner of his death helped bring about major reforms in this area under his successor, Chester Arthur.
How could his death have influenced this? On July 2, 1861, James Garfield was shot by a man who had hoped to be appointed as ambassador to France, Charles J. Guiteau, who was mentally unstable. Garfield’s death, eleven weeks later, is now thought to be due to poor medical care which caused complications, rather than deadly injury.