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James A. Garfield Biography

Twentieth (20th) President of the United States

Years Served as President: 1881

Vice President: Chester A. Arthur

Party: Republican

Age at Inauguration: 49

Home State: Ohio

James Garfield portrait

Date of Birth: November 19, 1831

Died: September 19, 1881

Married: Lucretia Rudolph

Children: James, Harry, Abram, Mary, Irvin

Nickname: Boatman Jim, Preacher President

What is James A. Garfield known for?

James A. Garfield was assassinated only 200 days into his presidency. His assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, was a former supporter and American writer who was angry that Garfield had not appointed him to his administration.

Charles J Guiteau
Charles J Guiteau

Early Life

James A. Garfield was born in 1831 in a log cabin near Cleveland, Ohio. After his father died less than two years, his mother Eliza raised James and his siblings while managing their small farm.

As a boy, James wanted to become a sailor. In his teenage years, he towed barges up the Ohio Canal to help support his family.

He then attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in Hiram, Ohio for three years. Next, he spent two years at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He gained a reputation for being a strong student and an excellent public speaker.

Garfield house Hiram
Garfield’s house in Hiram, Ohio

After graduating, Garfield taught Greek, Latin, and other subjects at the Eclectic Institute. He later became president of the college.

In addition, Garfield studied law and also became an ordained Christian minister.

Family Life

In 1858, Garfield married Lucretia Rudolph. She was a teacher who had been Garfield’s classmate at the Eclectic Institute.

The couple had seven children.

James A. Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph

Military and Political Career

The following year, Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate. As a senator, he advocated for forcing Southern states who had seceded to rejoin the Union.

When the Civil War began, Garfield joined the army. He served with the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and demonstrated excellent leadership skills.

He fought in the Battle of Shiloh, the Siege of Corinth, and the Battle of Chickamauga. While still fighting, Garfield was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

He didn’t want to leave the army at first, but Abraham Lincoln persuaded him to accept his seat in Congress. Garfield left the military in 1863 as a major general.


Garfield served in the House of Representatives from 1863-1881, becoming a leader among House Republicans. In 1880, he was elected to the Senate. However, he never took his seat.

Presidential Election

At the 1880 presidential convention, Garfield campaigned for his friend John Sherman. But in a surprise move, the delegates chose Garfield as the Republican nominee.

Later that year, Garfield won the presidential election. He defeated the Democratic nominee Winfield Scott by about 10,000 popular votes.


Garfield spent most of his time as president organizing his cabinet. He emphasized that political positions should go to the most qualified, not just to people who had supported him during his campaign.

President Garfield's cabinet
President Garfield’s cabinet

On July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot while on the way to a Williams College reunion. The assassin was Charles Guiteau, who was angry that he had not received a job as the consul to Paris.

Garfield lay wounded in the White House for nearly three months. Doctors couldn’t locate the bullet that was lodged in his back.

He died of infection and internal hemorrhage on September 19, 1881 at age 49. Garfield is buried in Cleveland.

Fun Facts About James A. Garfield

The “A” in James A. Garfield stands for Abram, his father’s name.

Seven U.S. presidents were born in log cabins. Garfield was the last of the “Log Cabin Presidents.”

James Garfield's birthplace
James Garfield’s birthplace

Garfield was ambidextrous, meaning he could write with both hands. He would sometimes perform a trick, writing in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other.

When Garfield was shot, he cried, “My God, what is this?”

Inventor Alexander Graham Bell even tried to find the bullet inside Garfield’s back with a metal detector he had created. Still, the bullet could not be located.

Alexander Graham Bell

William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States, was the only president to serve less time in the White House than Garfield. Harrison died of pneumonia after about a month in office.

There were three different presidents during the year 1881: Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur.

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