James Garfield was born the youngest of five children on November 19, 1831, in a log cabin in Orange Township, now Moreland Hills, Ohio. His father, Abram Garfield, known locally as a wrestler, died when Garfield was 17 months old. Of Welsh ancestry, he was reared and cared for by his mother, Eliza Ballou, who said, "He was the largest babe I had and looked like a red Irishman". Garfield's parents joined Disciples of Christ Church, which profoundly influenced their son.
James Garfield was able to receive rudimentary education at a village school in Orange, listening and discussing books read. Garfield knew he needed money to advance his learning, so age 16, he struck out on his own, drawn seaward by dreams of being a seaman, and got a job for six weeks as a canal driver near Cleveland. Illness forced him to return home and, once recuperated, he began school at Geauga Seminary, where he became keenly interested in academics, both learning and teaching, working as a carpenter to support himself financially. In 1849, he accepted an unsought position as a teacher, and thereafter developed an aversion to what he called "place seeking," which became, he said, "the law of my life."
He was graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1856, and James Garfiled 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 studied law on his own and passed the Ohio bar exams in 1861. In 1862, when Union military victories had been few, he successfully led a brigade at Middle Creek, Kentucky, against Confederate troops. At 31, Garfield became a brigadier general, two years later a major general of volunteers. Garfield was a loyal Unionist who built a reputation as a Civil War hero that earned him a seat in the House of Representatives without ever having campaigned. Garfield repeatedly won re-election for 18 years, and became the leading Republican in the House.
During Garfield's congressional terms, debates raged between legislators who demanded that all U.S. money be backed by gold and the "Silverites" and "Greenbackers," who wanted to issue paper currency and coin silver more freely in an attempt to alleviate pressing debts, especially those of struggling farmers. Garfield advocated hard money policies backed by gold, making him a favorite with eastern "Gold Bug" Republicans. He opposed cooperative farm programs such as those supported by the Grange, an agrarian organization; labor unions; the eight-hour workday; and federally funded relief projects.
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. By a margin of only 10,000 popular votes, Garfield defeated the Democratic nominee, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.
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. On July 2, 1881, in a Washington railroad station, an embittered attorney who had sought a consular post shot the President. 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. On September 6, Garfield was taken to the New Jersey seaside. For a few days he seemed to be recuperating, but on September 19, 1881, he died from an infection and internal hemorrhage.
Since Garfield was struck down four months into his term, historians can only speculate as to what his presidency might have been like. Garfield was assassinated by Charles Julius Guiteau, an emotionally disturbed man who had failed to gain an appointment in Garfield's administration. Garfield did have time to appoint his cabinet, however, and in doing so, he refused to cave in to Stalwart pressure, enraging Senator Conkling, who resigned in protest. Had Garfield served his term, historians speculate that he would have been determined to move toward civil service reform and carry on in the clean government tradition of President Hayes. He also supported education for black southerners and called for African American suffrage, as he stressed in his inaugural address. Unfortunately, he is best remembered for his assassination. And although his killer was insane, Garfield's greatest legacy was the impact of his death on moving the nation to reform government patronage.