James Garfield was born on November 19, 1831, in Cuyahoga County, Ohio to Abram and Eliza Garfield. He was the youngest of five children whose father, a wrestler, died when he was an infant. He grew up in poverty and had a difficult childhood that was further complicated by his mother’s second marriage which ended in divorce.
James was an avid reader of adventure novels and wanted to become a sailor. The closest he came to sailing the seas was when he worked as a crewman on the Ohio and Erie Canals, although he was forced to return home after six weeks due to becoming ill with malaria.
James mother gave him her life savings of $17 to help him to get an education. “I took the money,” James later wrote, “as well as the advice.” He attended smaller schools in the area until he was accepted to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, which he attended from 1851 to 1854. He supported himself as a part-time teacher, a carpenter, and even a janitor through college.
He then went to Williams College and graduated in 1856. He returned to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute as a professor of ancient languages and became the president of the college within a year.
In November 1858 James married Lucretia Rudolph, a former classmate. The couple would have seven children with four sons and a daughter living to maturity. Lucretia devoted herself to raising their five children, all of whom grew up to have distinguished careers.
Both James and Lucretia were devout members of a relatively new Protestant denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). James was once a practicing Preacher and was eventually given the nickname of, ‘The Preacher President.’
By this time James became interested in politics and began studying law and was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859, he was admitted to the bar in 1861. He spent long stretches away from home building his political career and during the first five years of his marriage he spent a total of about five months with Lucretia.
The American Civil War broke out in 1861 and James helped recruit the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and became its colonel. In 1862 he successfully led a brigade at Middle Creek, Kentucky, against Confederate troops. At 31, James became a brigadier general and two years later a major general of volunteers.
He continued with his political career and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1862. President Lincoln persuaded him to resign his commission stating it was easier to find major generals than to obtain effective Republicans for Congress. James repeatedly won re-election for 18 years and served on a number of important congressional committees and became the leading Republican in the House.
His career was not without its challenges and James had an extramarital affair in the 1860s with Lucia Calhoun, a woman in New York. He admitted the affair to his wife and it nearly destroyed their marriage and James sought Lucretia’s forgiveness. James was also accused, but was never found guilty, of accepting bribes in the Crédit Mobilier scandal of 1872.
He served nine terms in the House of Representatives until he was expectantly chosen as the Republican presidential nominee to run for the 1880 presidential election. During the 1880 presidential convention James was campaigning for his friend and fellow Republican John Sherman. The Republican Party was split between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds and couldn’t agree upon the two current candidates. In a surprise move the delegates chose James as the party’s dark horse presidential nominee.
James faced the Democrat General Winfield Scott Hancock in the election. He had his campaign biography written by author Horatio Alger and spent most of his campaigning conducting “front porch talks” on the veranda of his farm in Mentor, Ohio where citizens came to see and speak to him. James was also the first president to campaign in multiple languages and often spoke in German with German-Americans.
James received help from the New York political boss Roscoe Conkling, whom he agreed to consult with on party appointments. By a margin of only 10,000 popular votes, James defeated General Hancock and was inaugurated as the President of the United States on March 4, 1881, with Chester A. Arthur as the Vice President.
James became the first president who was left handed and could write legibly with both hands. He could also write fluent Greek with one hand and Latin with the other. To stay in shape and build muscles, James liked to juggle Indian clubs, a popular exercise device using clubs shaped like bowling pins that were swung in patterns as part of an exercise routine.
A strong advocate of racial equality, James was committed to civil rights and strongly opposed slavery. He believed the federal government should implement a universal education system for the emancipation of blacks. He also appointed several former slaves, including Frederick Douglass, to prominent government positions.
James never got the chance to make his plans a reality when on July 2, 1881 at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C., he was shot in the back, only 200 days after becoming president. The assassin, Charles Julius Guiteau was an emotionally disturbed man who had failed to get an appointment in the Garfield administration.
Despite Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, presidents still did not have personal guards or any kind of protection, and could walk through the streets of the capital like any other citizen.
Mortally wounded, James laid in the White House for weeks with his doctor trying to find the bullet lodged in his body. Alexander Graham Bell tried unsuccessfully to find the bullet with a metal detector he designed. The machine kept malfunctioning, apparently due to the metal framework of the bed James laid in. At this time most doctors did not yet believe in germ theory, and James’s wound were never cleaned and infection set in. He was given morphine every day along with a diet of brandy and rich foods. When James became unable to keep the food down, his doctor fed him beef bouillon, warmed milk, egg yolk, and opium rectally.
On September 6, 1881 volunteers laid railroad tracks up to the White House and James was taken to the New Jersey seaside, his weight went from 210 to 130 pounds since he was shot. On September 19, with Lucretia by his side, James died from widespread septic poisoning and internal hemorrhaging from a rip in his splenic artery, he was only 49 years old.
He was buried in Cleveland Ohio. His spine, showing the bullet hole, has been preserved and is kept by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.. Charles Julius Guiteau was convicted of murder and hung on June 30, 1882.
The James A. Garfield Monument was dedicated to him in Washington in 1887.
Lucretia lived comfortably for another 36 years on a $350,000 trust fund raised for her and the Garfield children by financier Cyrus W. Field. She led a strictly private, but busy and comfortable life, active in preserving the records of her husband’s career. She created a wing to her home that became a presidential library of his papers.
She died at her home in South Pasadena, California on March 14, 1918. Her casket was placed with her husband in the James A. Garfield Memorial at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.
James A. Garfield Quotes
“If wrinkles must be written on our brows, let them not be written upon the heart. The spirit should never grow old.”
“If the power to do hard work is not a skill, it’s the best possible substitute for it.”
“Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.”
“Man cannot live by bread alone; he must have peanut butter.”
“A pound of pluck is worth a ton of luck.”
“Ideas control the world.”
“The President is the last person in the world to know what the people really want and think.”
“All free governments are managed by the combined wisdom and folly of the people.”
“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”
“Poverty is uncomfortable; but nine times out of ten the best thing that can happen to a young man is to be tossed overboard and compelled to sink or swim.”
“He who controls the money supply of a nation controls the nation”
“A brave man is a man who dares to look the Devil in the face and tell him he is a Devil”
“I have had many troubles in my life, but the worst of them never came”
“Territory is but the body of a nation. The people who inhabit its hills and valleys are its soul, its spirit, its life.”
“Things don’t turn up in this world until somebody turns them up.”
“I am trying to do two things: dare to be a radical and not a fool, which is a matter of no small difficulty.”
“I mean to make myself a man, and if I succeed in that, I shall succeed in everything else.”
“Whoever controls the volume of money in any country is absolute master of all industry and commerce.”
“Justice and goodwill will outlast passion”
“The civil service can never be placed on a satisfactory basis until it is regulated by law.”
“If you are not too large for the place you occupy, you are too small for it.”
“Ideas are the great warriors of the world, and a war that has no idea behind it, is simply a brutality.”
“Fellow-citizens: God reigns, and the Government at Washington lives!”
“Suicide is not a remedy.”
“Right reason is stronger than force.”
“A law is not a law without coercion behind it.”
“A university is a student on one end of a pine log and Mark Hopkins (president of Williams College) on the other.”
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