James A. Garfield | The 20th President of the United States


James Abram Garfield, the twentieth President of the United States, served a tragically short term due to an assassination attempt that cut his presidency short. Despite his brief time in office, Garfield left a lasting impact on the nation through his political career, military service, and commitment to education and civil rights.

Early Life and Career

James Abram Garfield was born into humble beginnings on November 19, 1831, in a log cabin in Orange Township, Cuyahoga County, Ohio. He was the youngest of five children born to Abram and Eliza Ballou Garfield. Tragedy struck the Garfield family early in James’ life when his father died in 1833, leaving the family in difficult financial circumstances.

Despite the challenges, young Garfield demonstrated exceptional intelligence and a strong desire for education from a very early age. He was an avid reader and exhibited a remarkable aptitude for learning, making use of any available educational materials. His mother recognized his potential and encouraged his intellectual pursuits.

Garfield’s commitment to education led him to enroll in local schools and subsequently attend the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, later known as Hiram College. At Hiram, he showed great promise and became a teacher at the Institute to support himself financially while pursuing his studies. This experience deepened his love for teaching and set the stage for his future in education.

Following his time at Hiram, Garfield pursued further studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he excelled academically. He graduated in 1856 and returned to Hiram College to teach and assume the role of its presidency. His passion for education and dedication to providing opportunities for young minds to flourish became evident during his tenure at Hiram College.

Garfield’s career in education was marked by his commitment to broadening access to learning and promoting the ideals of a well-rounded education. However, his path eventually led him to explore other realms of public service. His natural leadership qualities and desire to effect change in a broader capacity steered him toward a career in law and politics.

After studying law and gaining admission to the Ohio bar, Garfield made a seamless transition into the political sphere. He was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1859, and during the early years of the American Civil War, he actively advocated for the Union cause. Garfield eventually decided to join the Union Army, where he demonstrated his leadership skills and rose through the ranks to become a major general.

Garfield’s early life was shaped by adversity, but his hunger for knowledge and dedication to education propelled him into a distinguished career in both teaching and public service. His humble beginnings fostered a deep empathy for those facing challenges, ultimately fueling his commitment to creating positive change in the lives of fellow Americans.

Military Service

Garfield’s military service during the American Civil War was a defining period that shaped both his character and his subsequent political career. He demonstrated remarkable leadership skills and bravery on the battlefield, eventually rising to the rank of major general in the Union Army.

Garfield’s military journey began when the Civil War erupted in 1861. Initially, he was appointed as a lieutenant colonel of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. His leadership and tactical abilities were immediately recognized, and he quickly ascended through the ranks. In February 1862, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general due to his exceptional performance at the Battle of Middle Creek in Kentucky.

Throughout the war, Garfield was involved in several crucial battles and campaigns. He displayed strategic thinking, organizational skills, and courage on the battlefield, leading his troops effectively and earning respect from both his superiors and subordinates. At the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, his leadership was instrumental in rallying Union forces during a critical moment, preventing a complete collapse of the Union lines.

In 1864, Garfield resigned from the military to take up a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, a role to which he had been elected while still in the army. This transition marked the beginning of his political career, but his experiences and achievements during the Civil War remained a foundational aspect of his character and public service.

Garfield’s military service significantly informed his approach to governance and his policies, particularly concerning veterans’ rights and military affairs. He had a deep understanding of the sacrifices and needs of veterans, and he advocated for improved veterans’ benefits and pensions during his time in Congress.

Ultimately, Garfield’s successful military career and his unwavering dedication to his nation during the Civil War propelled him into the political sphere, where he continued to serve the country, leaving an indelible mark on its history and the course of its development.

Political Career and Presidency

James A. Garfield’s political career was marked by a commitment to civil rights, education, and public service, earning him respect and influence in the realm of American politics. After the American Civil War, his trajectory in politics ascended rapidly as he became a prominent figure in the United States House of Representatives.

Garfield’s dedication to civil rights was exemplified through his active involvement in the passage of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted equal protection under the law to all citizens and played a crucial role in promoting civil liberties and combating discrimination. As a fervent supporter of civil rights, Garfield played an instrumental role in advocating for and ensuring the passage of this significant amendment.

As an educator himself, having served as a college president, Garfield was deeply invested in the promotion of education. He believed in the transformative power of education and actively supported policies that aimed to improve educational opportunities for all Americans. Garfield’s advocacy for education continued throughout his political career, reflecting his belief that an educated citizenry was essential for a prosperous and just society.

Garfield’s rise within the political arena was facilitated by his eloquence and persuasive oratory skills. He was regarded as a skilled orator and a dedicated public servant, earning him the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives. This role allowed him to effectively lead and facilitate discussions, influence legislation, and bridge the gaps between different factions within the Republican Party.

In the presidential election of 1880, Garfield emerged as a compromise candidate for the Republican Party. His nomination showcased the party’s attempt to unite its diverse factions and appeal to a broader voter base. Garfield ultimately won the presidency, narrowly defeating Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democratic nominee.

During his short-lived presidency, Garfield was determined to address the prevailing challenges of his time. He sought to heal the internal divisions within the Republican Party, which had been deeply divided on key issues such as civil service reform, tariff policy, and currency reform. Garfield was a proponent of civil service reform, advocating for a merit-based system to eliminate political patronage and ensure a more efficient and competent government.

Tragically, Garfield’s presidency was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on July 2, 1881. Despite the brevity of his time in office, his legacy continued to influence subsequent administrations, particularly in the realms of civil rights, education, and the ongoing pursuit of a more efficient and accountable government.

Assassination and Legacy

The Assassination

The assassination of President James A. Garfield was a harrowing event that unfolded on July 2, 1881, at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. Charles J. Guiteau, a delusional and disgruntled office seeker, shot Garfield twice. The first bullet grazed Garfield’s arm, but the second lodged deep in his abdomen, inflicting a severe and ultimately fatal wound.

Guiteau’s motives were rooted in his misguided belief that he was owed a government position for his support of Garfield during the election. Frustrated by repeated rejections for various positions, he sought revenge, leading to the tragic and senseless act of violence against the President.

Garfield’s injuries were exacerbated by inadequate medical care, as the medical understanding and practices of the time were limited and often harmful. The president endured months of suffering, enduring sepsis, infections, and a relentless fever.

The Nation’s Reaction and Mourning

The news of President Garfield’s assassination shocked and deeply saddened the nation. Americans followed the developments of Garfield’s condition through extensive media coverage, sparking an outpouring of sympathy and prayers for his recovery. The prolonged suffering and eventual death of the President profoundly impacted the American psyche, leaving a scar on the nation’s collective consciousness.

The country united in grief and anger against the senseless act of violence that had robbed them of a beloved leader. Garfield’s funeral was a somber and significant event, with a vast number of Americans paying their respects to the fallen President.

Garfield’s Enduring Legacy

Despite his brief presidency, James A. Garfield’s legacy remains influential and impactful. One of his most notable contributions was his advocacy for civil service reform. Garfield believed in creating a merit-based system for government appointments, which would end the prevalent practice of patronage. This vision laid the foundation for the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, which established the Civil Service Commission and marked a significant step towards a more professional and impartial government.

Garfield’s dedication to education was another hallmark of his legacy. As a self-taught scholar, he valued learning and advocated for widespread education. He firmly believed in providing educational opportunities for all, regardless of background or socioeconomic status.

The James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, preserves the home where Garfield lived and provides a glimpse into his life and contributions. This historic site stands as a testament to his enduring influence on American society and serves as a place for education and reflection on his presidency and the values he championed.

James A. Garfield’s untimely death brought about a deep sense of loss, but his legacy continues to live on through the reforms he advocated and his unwavering commitment to education and civil rights. His tragic assassination serves as a poignant reminder of the fragility of leadership and the importance of continually striving for a better, more just society.

Marriage and Family

James A. Garfield’s personal life, particularly his marriage and family, played a significant role in shaping his character and values. He had a loving and supportive family, and his marriage to Lucretia Rudolph Garfield was a central aspect of his life.

Marriage to Lucretia Rudolph Garfield

James Garfield met Lucretia “Crete” Rudolph while they were both students at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) in Ohio. They married on November 11, 1858, and had a strong and enduring relationship throughout their lives. Lucretia was known for her intelligence, strong will, and devotion to her family.

Lucretia was a crucial support to Garfield throughout his political career, often helping him draft speeches and manage his correspondence. Despite her shy and reserved nature, she played an essential role in the social and political spheres during Garfield’s time in office, actively engaging with the Washington community and advocating for causes important to her.

Family Life

James and Lucretia Garfield had seven children together: Eliza Arabella, Harry Augustus, James Rudolph, Mary, Irvin McDowell, Abram, and Edward. Tragically, two of their children died in infancy.

Garfield was deeply committed to his family and took an active interest in the upbringing and education of his children. He stressed the value of education and encouraged his children to pursue learning and intellectual growth. This emphasis on education was a reflection of Garfield’s own journey from a humble background to a distinguished academic and political career.

James Garfield’s upbringing, family values, and marriage to Lucretia greatly influenced his approach to politics and public service. He believed in the importance of family stability, education, and maintaining a strong moral compass, which he carried with him throughout his political career.

Achievements & Failures of James A. Garfield’s Presidency

James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, served a tragically short presidency from March 4, 1881, until his death on September 19, 1881. Despite his brief time in office, Garfield’s presidency was marked by both notable achievements and unfortunate failures.


Civil Service Reform:

One of President Garfield’s significant achievements was his commitment to civil service reform. He sought to end the spoils system, a practice where government jobs were awarded based on political loyalty rather than merit. Garfield advocated for a system that would provide appointments based on qualifications and competency, laying the groundwork for the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, which established a merit-based system for federal employment.

Economic Policies:

Garfield pursued economic policies aimed at addressing the nation’s fiscal challenges. He advocated for a reduction in protective tariffs, supporting a moderate approach to balancing revenue needs while promoting trade and economic growth. His administration worked on developing a more coherent fiscal policy to manage the nation’s finances effectively.

Foreign Relations and Diplomacy:

Garfield’s presidency saw efforts to improve relations with Latin American nations and extend diplomatic influence. He initiated discussions on reciprocal trade agreements with various countries in Latin America, aiming to boost American trade interests in the Western Hemisphere and solidify diplomatic ties.


Assassination and Health Crisis:

One of the most significant failures of Garfield’s presidency was his tragic assassination on July 2, 1881, by Charles J. Guiteau, a disappointed office-seeker. Garfield was shot twice, and although he initially survived the attack, the medical treatment he received at the time was inadequate, exacerbating his injuries. He suffered for months before ultimately succumbing to an infection and related complications on September 19, 1881.

Inability to Implement Reforms:

Garfield’s vision for civil service reform and other policy initiatives was largely thwarted due to his untimely death. He was unable to push through comprehensive reforms and see the fruition of his efforts. The reform agenda was taken up by his successor, President Chester A. Arthur, who signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act into law in 1883.

Economic Challenges:

Garfield faced economic challenges during his presidency, particularly regarding the debate over protective tariffs. Striking a balance between revenue generation and trade facilitation proved difficult, and the issue remained unresolved during his tenure. The economic policies implemented were not comprehensive or transformative, leaving the nation grappling with ongoing economic struggles.


James A. Garfield’s presidency is primarily remembered for its tragic and premature end due to assassination, preventing him from fully realizing his policy agenda. His commitment to civil service reform, though not fully realized during his presidency, paved the way for significant changes in the structure of the federal government and its approach to hiring and employment. Despite the challenges, his legacy lives on in the ongoing efforts to establish a more fair and merit-based civil service system in the United States.

Post-Presidential Life and Death

Following his presidency, Ulysses S. Grant faced financial challenges due to failed investments and the financial firm of Grant & Ward going bankrupt. In an effort to secure his family’s financial future, he wrote his memoirs, recounting his experiences during the Civil War. Mark Twain, a publisher and a friend, offered him a generous contract for the publication of these memoirs.

Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1884, and realizing he did not have much time left, he worked tirelessly to complete his memoirs. Despite the pain and suffering he endured from his illness, he completed his memoirs just a few days before his death. The memoirs were published by Mark Twain and became a critical and financial success, providing for Grant’s family after his passing.

Ulysses S. Grant passed away on July 23, 1885, at the age of 63, at Mount McGregor, New York. His death was a somber moment in American history, and the nation mourned the loss of its Civil War hero and former President.

In accordance with Grant’s wishes, his body was placed in a temporary tomb in Riverside Park in New York City. However, a monumental tomb was later constructed in his honor in New York City in 1897, now known as Grant’s Tomb. It stands as the largest mausoleum in North America and a fitting tribute to the Union General who played a critical role in preserving the United States during the Civil War.

Grant’s illness and death also shed light on the dangers of smoking, as he was a heavy cigar smoker throughout his life. His battle with cancer and the subsequent awareness raised about the hazards of smoking had a lasting impact on public health discussions in the United States.


James A. Garfield’s presidency, albeit cut short by a tragic assassination, stands as a testament to his unwavering dedication to the principles of education, civil rights, and public service. In the mere months he held the nation’s highest office, Garfield left an indelible mark on American society. His vision and actions were a reflection of a leader committed to the greater good, striving to shape a more inclusive and enlightened nation.

Garfield’s legacy in the realm of education remains particularly significant. His own journey from a humble background to becoming an advocate for learning and knowledge is a powerful narrative that continues to inspire individuals to pursue education, regardless of their circumstances. He believed in the transformative power of education to uplift individuals and society as a whole, laying the foundation for a more equitable and informed nation.

Furthermore, Garfield’s advocacy for civil rights was pioneering during a time of significant societal changes. He played a crucial role in the passage of the 14th Amendment, a cornerstone of civil rights legislation, emphasizing the importance of equal protection under the law. His commitment to ensuring that all citizens, regardless of race or background, had the same rights and opportunities helped shape the United States into a more just and inclusive society.

Garfield’s dedication to public service was a driving force throughout his career, evident from his early military service during the Civil War to his years in Congress and ultimately the presidency. He believed in using the platform of leadership to effect positive change and serve the nation with integrity and honor. His legacy encourages aspiring leaders to prioritize public interest, fostering a culture of selfless service and a government that works for the benefit of the people.

More than a century after his tragic passing, James A. Garfield’s influence remains palpable in the fabric of American society. His values and beliefs continue to guide and inspire generations, reminding us of the enduring impact that one individual’s dedication to education, civil rights, and public service can have on the betterment of a nation and its people. James A. Garfield’s legacy is a beacon, urging us to persist in the pursuit of progress, equality, and a brighter future for all.

Read also:

Rutherford Birchard Hayes | 19th President of the United States

Ulysses S. Grant – 18th President of the US

Andrew Johnson – 17th President of the US

Abraham Lincoln – 16th President of the US

James Buchanan – 15th President of the US

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get Fully Funded Scholarships

Free Visa, Free Scholarship Abroad

           Click Here to Apply