James Garfield

James Garfield

James Garfield, the son of a poor farmer, was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on 19th November, 1831. After a brief formal education, Garfield worked as a helmsman on the Ohio Canal.

Garfield returned to education and studied at Geauga Seminary (1849-51) and the Hiram Institute (1851-54). After graduating from Williams College in 1858, Garfield became professor of ancient languages and literature in Hiram College. At the age of 25, Garfield became president of Hiram College. He also became involved in politics and joined the Free Soil Party.

A strong opponent of slavery, Garfield was one of the founders of the Republican Party and in 1859 was elected to the Ohio legislature. On the outbreak of the American Civil War Garfield joined the Union Army and was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel. He helped recruit the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and commanded a brigade at Shiloh (April, 1862). After fighting at Chickamauga (September, 1863), Garfield was promoted to the rank of major general.

Garfield left the army after he was elected to the 38th Congress and over the next few years became a prominent member of the Radical Republicans. This group favoured the abolition of slavery and believed that freed slaves should have complete equality with white citizens.

Garfield opposed the policies of President Andrew Johnson and argued in Congress that Southern plantations should be taken from their owners and divided among the former slaves. He also attacked Johnson when he attempted to veto the extension of the Freeman's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts.

In November, 1867, the Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 that Andrew Johnson be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. The majority report contained a series of charges including pardoning traitors, profiting from the illegal disposal of railroads in Tennessee, defying Congress, denying the right to reconstruct the South and attempts to prevent the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Garfield supported Johnson's impeachment but was unhappy that his replacement would be Benjamin Wade. Garfield warned that Wade was "a man of violent passions, extreme opinions and narrow views who was surrounded by the worst and most violent elements in the Republican Party." Despite this objections, Garfield voted for impeachment. However, the 35 to 19 vote, was one short of the required two-thirds majority for conviction.

Garfield remained a member of Congress for seventeen years. During this time her served as chairman of the Banking Committee (1869-71) and in 1880 was asked to organize the campaign of John Sherman, who was attempting to become the Republican Party presidential candidate. During the campaign Garfield was so impressive that he became one of the candidates and after 36 ballots defeated Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine for the nomination. To preserve party unity, the conservative Chester Arthur, became the vice-presidential candidate.

The Democratic Party nominated Winfield S. Hancock, who like Garfield had been a senior officer during the American Civil War. It was a close election and Garfield won by 4,449,053 votes to 4,442,030. In his inaugural speech Garfield returned to the issue that had first brought him into politics: "The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both."

Garfield attempted to select a Cabinet that would retain the unity of the Republican Party. However, Roscoe Conking, the leader of the Stalwart group, was unhappy with some of Garfield's choices and refused to serve in his administration.

On 2nd July, 1881, Garfield was waiting for a train in Washington with Robert Lincoln, his Secretary of War, when Charles J. Guiteau, shot him in the back. A supporter of Roscoe Conking, Guiteau, surrendered to the police with the words: "I am a Stalwart. Chester Arthur is now the president of the United States. After a four month struggle James Garfield died on 19th September, 1881 and Chester Arthur became president.

Primary Sources

(1) James Garfield, letter to Burke A. Hinsdale (15th January, 1861)

I do not now see any way this side a miracle of God which can avoid a civil war with all its attendant horrors. Peaceable dissolution is utterly impossible. Indeed, I cannot say as I would wish it possible. To make the concessions demanded by the South would be hypocritical and sinful. They would neither be obeyed nor respected. I am inclined to believe that the sin of slavery is one of which it may be said that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission. I believe the doom of slavery is drawing near - let war come - and the slaves will get a vague notion that it is waged for them.

(2) James Garfield met Abraham Lincoln for the first time in 1861. He wrote a letter to Burke A. Hinsdale describing his thoughts on the man (17th February, 1861)

On the whole I am greatly pleased with the man. He clearly shows his want of culture - and the marks of western life. But there is no touch of affectation in him and he has a peculiar power of impressing you that he is frank, direct and thoroughly honest. His remarkable good sense, simple and condensed style of expression and evident marks of indomitable will, give me great hopes for the country.

(3) James Garfield, like many officers in the Army of the Potomac, was highly critical of his commander, General George McClellan (13th October, 1862)

All my former opinions of McClellan are confirmed. His late campaign in Maryland has been most shameful. He has lain perfectly idle 27 days since the last battle with a force almost twice the number of the rebel army and has been constantly been asking for reinforcements. All three (Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Halleck) desire to get rid of McClellan and two or three times have been at the point of removing him, but have lacked the courage. Stanton would have done it but was not allowed - the President would have done it, but feared the Border States and the army - Halleck would have done it, but claimed the responsibility should not be placed on his shoulders. It is still being agitated and I think it is to be done soon, but I believe they are waiting for the elections to be over - lest it may strengthen the Peace Democrats who will praise McClellan to the skies.

(4) Henry Villard worked for the New York Tribune during the American Civil War. In his memoirs he wrote about James Garfield, a man he met for the first time in 1863.

General Garfield, not much over thirty years old, presented a far more commanding and attractive appearance than General Rosecrans. Very nearly, if not fully, six feet high, well formed, of erect carriage, with a big head of sandy hair, a strong-featured, broad and frank countenance, set in a full beard and lighted up by large blue eyes and a most pleasing smile, he looked like a distinguished personage. his manners were very gentlemanly and cordial, and altogether he produced and sustained a most agreeable impression.