James A. Garfield
As the last of the log cabin Presidents, James A. Garfield attacked
political corruption and won back for the Presidency a measure of prestige it
had lost during the Reconstruction period.
He was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 1831. Fatherless at two, he
later drove canal boat teams, somehow earning enough money for an education. He
was graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1856, and he 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 was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859 as a Republican. During
the secession crisis, he advocated coercing the seceding states back into the
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.
Meanwhile, in 1862, Ohioans elected him to Congress.
President Lincoln persuaded him to resign his commission: It was easier to find
major generals than to obtain effective Republicans for Congress. Garfield
repeatedly won re-election for 18 years, and became the leading Republican in
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.
As President, Garfield strengthened Federal authority
over the New York Customs House, stronghold of Senator Roscoe Conkling, who was
leader of the Stalwart Republicans and dispenser of patronage in New York. When
Garfield submitted to the Senate a list of appointments including many of
Conkling"s friends, he named Conkling"s arch-rival William H. Robertson to run
the Customs House. Conkling contested the nomination, tried to persuade the
Senate to block it, and appealed to the Republican caucus to compel its
But Garfield would not submit: "This...will
settle the question whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or
the Executive of the United States.... shall the principal port of entry ... be
under the control of the administration or under the local control of a
Conkling maneuvered to have the Senate confirm
Garfield"s uncontested nominations and adjourn without acting on Robertson.
Garfield countered by withdrawing all nominations except Robertson"s; the
Senators would have to confirm him or sacrifice all the appointments of
In a final desperate move, Conkling and his
fellow-Senator from New York resigned, confident that their legislature would
vindicate their stand and re-elect them. Instead, the legislature elected two
other men; the Senate confirmed Robertson. Garfield"s victory was complete.
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
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.