“James Garfield born in Ohio log cabin, Nov. 19, 1831” Salon

“James Garfield born in Ohio log cabin, Nov. 19, 1831” Salon

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On this day in 1831, James Garfield, who became the nation’s 20th president in 1881, was born in a log cabin in Orange Township, now Moreland Hills, Ohio, as the youngest of five children. His father, Abram Garfield, died when he was 18 months old. He was reared by his mother, Eliza, who said: “He was the largest babe I had and looked like a red Irishman.”

Garfield later said of his early years: “I lament that I was born to poverty, and in this chaos of childhood, 17 years passed before I caught any inspiration … a precious 17 years when a boy with a father and some wealth might have become fixed in manly ways.”

Eventually, Garfield became a teacher, a language scholar and served as president of Ohio’s Hiram College before entering politics. During the Civil War, he served in the Union Army as a major general. With President Abraham Lincoln’s support, he resigned his commission to make a successful bid in 1862 for a seat in the House of Representatives.

Garfield served in Congress during the Gilded Age. He was implicated in a scandal that erupted in 1872, during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. In 1880, he won a Senate seat. By that time, the taint of the scandal had faded.

Sen-elect Garfield attended the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago as the campaign manager for John Sherman, a fellow Ohioan and the secretary of the treasury. When neither Sherman nor his major rivals — Grant and James G. Blaine of Maine — failed to garner enough votes to secure the nomination, the delegates on the 36th ballot chose Garfield as a compromise choice. In the ensuing presidential election, Garfield conducted a low-key front porch campaign, defeating Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania, another former Civil War general.

During his short time in office, Garfield made several significant diplomatic and judiciary appointments, including a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He enhanced the powers of the presidency when he defied the powerful Sen. Roscoe Conkling (R-N.Y.) by appointing William H. Robertson to the lucrative post of collector of the port of New York, starting a fracas that ended with Robertson’s delayed confirmation and Conkling’s resignation from the Senate.

Garfield advocated advances in agricultural technology, a better educated electorate, and civil rights for African-Americans. He also proposed substantial civil service reforms, eventually passed by Congress in 1883 and signed into law by his successor, Chester A. Arthur, as the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.

On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau, a lawyer who had unsuccessfully sought a consular post in Paris, shot Garfield in the back as he walked through a railroad station waiting room in Washington, located on the present site of the National Gallery of Art. After lingering for 80 days, he succumbed to his wounds at age 49 and was succeeded by Vice President Arthur.


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