James A. Garfield’s 49 years went fast.
He became a college president at age 25, was Ohio’s youngest state senator at age 28, the Union’s youngest general at age 30, the nation’s second youngest Congressman at age 31, and the United States’ second-youngest president to that date at age 49.
Among many other deeds, Garfield farmed, worked as a janitor and carpenter, guided mules along the Ohio & Erie Canal, served as a lay preacher, published a mathematical proof, dashed through enemy fire, led outnumbered troops to victory, taught himself law, argued his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, won a lasting precedent in that case, invented the front porch campaign, and helped create the national education department and geological survey.
His great-great-grandson, Tim Garfield of Twinsburg, wonders, “How did he keep going?”
He didn’t. In 1881, his first year in the White House and just two months before his 49th birthday, President James A. Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau and died due to poor medical care, just six months after taking office.
James A. Garfield Day
Last month, the Ohio legislature declared Nov. 19, the slain president’s birthday, to be a yearly James A. Garfield Day, starting in 2024. The day will honor the only U.S. President from the Western Reserve, despite the ambitions of Mark Hanna, Newton D. Baker, Dick Celeste, Louis Stokes, and Dennis Kucinich.
Todd Arrington manages the James A. Garfield Presidential Site in MentorJames A. Garfield Day was proposed by Benjamin Todd Arrington, manager of Mentor’s James A. Garfield National Historical Site (nicknamed “Lawnfield” by reporters during Garfield’s presidential campaign). It follows the state’s recent declaration of a U.S. Grant Day, starting next April 27.
Republican Jerry Cirino led the bill for Garfield Day through the Ohio Senate. Cirino grew up in Cleveland’s Little Italy and often visited the James A. Garfield Memorial in the adjacent Lake View Cemetery. Now he serves Lawnfield’s district.
“He did some wonderful things for his country,” Cirino says of Garfield. “He brought a wealth of experience at a very young age. He had a lot of ideas. It’s very unfortunate that he didn’t live long enough to accomplish a lot of things in his administration.”
Garfield Day was sponsored in the Ohio House of Representatives by Republican Jamie Callender of Concord Township and Democrat Daniel Troy of Willowick.
“He probably would have been the best Ohio president,” Troy says of Garfield. Then again, he says, “The others weren’t exactly shining stars.”
Still, Troy and Cirino say they’d consider honoring Ohio’s other presidents if the families or communities asked.
Garfield championed civil service instead of patronage, but Ohio’s Garfield Day won’t be a day off for the state’s civil servants.
Garfield is the only former Ohio legislator to become president. Troy told his colleagues that the example should give them hope.
Feats and flaws
Lawnfield’s Arrington wrote a book about Garfield called “The Last Lincoln Republican,” which describes Ohioans’ support for emancipation and civil rights during the divisive years of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Arrington says Garfield’s efforts seem particularly relevant today, when the nation is polarized again over not only racial justice, and much more.
The replica of President James Garfield's childhood cabin has period furnishingsDespite his accomplishments, Garfield was no saint. He derided Native Americans. He was accused of undercutting superiors in his party, the Army, and the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, now Hiram College.
In Congress, Garfield took $5,000 from a federal bidder. He also took a loan and either stocks or options from Credit Mobilier, an outfit greasing the way for the transcontinental railroad. He docked the pay of political appointees for a campaign flyer that ironically championed civil service.
“He’s not perfect by any means,” Arrington sums up, but “there’s a lot to admire about him.”
The last presidential log cabin
James Abram Garfield was born in 1831 in a log cabin, the last presidential birthplace of its kind. The cabin was in Orange Township on what’s now part of Moreland Hills’ village campus, where a replica stands.
His frontier childhood was challenging. He was named for a dead brother. At age two, he lost his father. His small, tough mother, Eliza, fled with her four surviving children from an abusive second husband.
Garfield was blue-eyed, sandy-haired, brilliant, studious, and prone to doubts and distractions. He slashed himself and nearly struck a cousin with a poorly aimed axe. At 16, he ran away to the canal, fell overboard before long, caught malaria, and slunk home.
He grew to be six feet tall, with a head two feet around. He became a janitor and student at the Eclectic. He went on to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he was voted head of its debate society and launched a string of election wins that ended only with his death.
Garfield returned to the Eclectic to teach and soon became the institute’s president. While there, he hid a runaway slave and tried to rescue two others, who turned out to be white pranksters.
The food is new and artificial, but most of the furnishings at the James A. Garfield Presidential Site were his.After years of courting and delaying commitment, Garfield finally married Lucretia Rudolph. They had seven children, two of whom died in childhood. The husband apparently cheated on her at least once.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Garfield reportedly calmed a vengeful mob in New York City.
From 1863 to 1880, Garfield served in Congress. He rose to appropriations chairman and minority leader. He strengthened the wartime draft, opposed unions, and supported “hard money” backed by gold.
In 1880, Ohio’s John Sherman called for state lawmakers to give Garfield a seat in the U.S. Senate, effective the next year. In return, Garfield nominated Sherman for President in June 1880 at a contentious, sweltering Republican convention in Chicago. But, starting in the second round, Garfield himself began to get some votes, despite his protests. On the 36th vote—still the latest in Republican history—Garfield was nominated.
Campaigning from Lawnfield, he hosted about 17,000 visitors. He beat his democratic foe, General Winfield Scott Hancock, by less than 0.1% of the popular vote and by 214 electors to 155. He is still the only person to go straight from the U.S. House to the White House.
Briefly in charge
In Garfield’s short presidency, he refinanced war debts, saving an estimated sum of more than $10 million per year, or more than 3% of the federal budget. He supported probes of his campaign manager and other Republicans. He worked out agreements with Great Britain and Canada. And he was besieged at a very open White House by jobseekers, especially the persistent Charles Guiteau.
On July 2, Garfield went to a train station to join an ailing Lucretia at the Jersey shore. There, Guiteau shot him.
Rejecting the new idea of sterilization, Dr. Doctor (his real first name) Willard Bliss kept probing his patient vainly for one of Guiteau’s bullets with unwashed hands and tools. Over three months, Garfield lost about 100 pounds. On Sept. 19, he finally died at the shore with Lucretia at his bedside.
Garfield’s casket was displayed at the Capitol and Cleveland’s Public Square. At the latter, he drew an estimated 150,000 viewers—roughly equal to Cleveland’s population. Soon a grieving nation raised money for the Garfield Memorial and for a presidential library at Lawnfield.
Many of Garfield’s six children became prominent. They included James A. Garfield, a U.S. interior secretary; Harry, a Willams College president; and Abram, a leading Cleveland architect.
A replica of James Garfield's childhood cabin stands at the Moreland Hills village campus, across a stream from the original cabin's siteTo thwart future Guiteaus and slash patronage, the Pendleton Act of 1883 created civil service jobs, tests, and protections. Today, some critics call for slashing those jobs and protections, accusing the holders of liberal bias. Arrington, himself a federal civil servant, sees Garfield’s legacy at risk. “We work for the American people and take an oath to support the Constitution, not any one person who gave us our jobs.”
Despite Garfield’s flaws, “his story is inspiring,” says Kathy Goss, head of Lake Vice Cemetery, where the Garfield Memorial is being restored. “He overcame tremendous adversity.”
Associate Professor James Thompson runs Hiram’s Garfield Center for Public Leadership. Thompson says of Garfield, “He was a genuinely decent person. He was seeking to do good as he moved through the ranks.”
Says Arrington, “Had he lived, who knows what kind of president he would have been? Look at the promise, the potential.”
Preserving his memory
The Garfield Trail of Ohio is a nonprofit representing Garfield’s replica cabin, Hiram College, Lawnfield and Lake View. But there’s no physical Garfield Trail—not even at Garfield Park in Mentor— named for the late Mayor Eleanor B. Garfield, the president’s granddaughter-in-law—or Garfield Park Reservation in Garfield Heights, which occupies land donated by a Garfield relative who helped settle the area.
This year, several events will honor Garfield’s 132nd birthday.
This Friday, Nov. 10, at 11 a.m., a wreath will be laid for him in Lake View Cemetery’s Community Mausoleum as part of a Veterans Day ceremony.
To learn more about President Garfield, there are many biographies, including “Garfield” by the late Allan Peskin of Cleveland State University and the recent “President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier,” by C.W. Goodyear.
Segall probes even deeper into Garfield’s life in his essay “The Western Reserve’s Self-Made President.”