An Early Exit

President James Garfield was in office only 6 months, but his home outside Cleveland, Ohio, tells the story of man with great promise.

By Scott Kirkwood

If you were placed before a police line-up that included Rutherford B. Hayes, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and James Garfield, odds are you’d struggle to pick out our 20th president from the lot. But then, you wouldn’t be alone. Todd Arrington, chief of Interpretation and Education at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, admits that before he started working at the home, he lumped Garfield into that parade of “white guys with beards” who followed Abraham Lincoln into office at the end of the 19th century. Garfield’s presidency lasted only 200 days, which is a big reason for his lack of notoriety, but he came to office at a crucial time in our nation’s history. 

Garfield was the last president to be born in a log cabin and the fifth child born to Eliza Ballou Garfield; his father died when he was only 17 months old. “Growing up poor, with a single mother trying to raise him and his siblings, Garfield had a hard-scrabble childhood,” says Arrington. “He had little education, worked hard, and dreamed of escaping his circumstances and becoming a sailor, which is unusual in a state like Ohio.” At 16, Garfield left home and worked on the canals connecting Lake Erie to cities along its coast, guiding boats pulled by draft animals—one of the preferred methods of transporting goods from town to town. But Garfield, who had never learned to swim, often found himself flailing about in the dirty and disease-ridden waterways. He almost drowned several times, and eventually contracted a serious illness (likely malaria), which forced him to return home. His mother nursed him back to health and encouraged him to give up the waterways and pursue an education. So Garfield studied history, law, mathematics, geology, geography, and several languages; many of the books he read are still at the Mentor home today. He went on to teach at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College), and became its president at the age of 27. His political career began in 1859, when he was elected to serve as a state senator.  

Then came the Civil War. Thanks to his education, political connections, and position at the Eclectic, Garfield was able to raise a regiment of soldiers (roughly 1,000 men) to serve in the Union army, and thus earn an appointment as a commanding officer. He led forces at the Battle of Middle Creek in Kentucky and fought at Chickamauga in Georgia—also a national park unit. 

When one of Ohio’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives became vacant, legend has it that President Lincoln singled out Garfield, insisting that he had enough generals in the field, but needed more support in the halls of Congress. In December, 1863, Garfield resigned his commission, and headed to Capitol Hill, where he remained until he became an unlikely presidential candidate.

More than a hundred years ago, presidential candidates weren’t selected with a series of highly contested primaries throughout the nation—they were chosen by a few dozen delegates who gathered in a room for an evening. But in June 1880, when the Republicans convened in Chicago to make their selection, a stalemate between two wings of the party (the more radical “Stalwarts” and the moderates or “Half-Breeds”) brought 35 votes and no winner. Finally, on the 36th ballot, a compromise was hatched, and the moderate Garfield was chosen to represent his party, although he had never considered himself a serious contender. 

“By the time Garfield returned home from the Republican convention, reporters were already camped out on his lawn, and citizens were coming from everywhere to find out about this man who was suddenly a nominee for president,” says Arrington. “For the next several months, between 17,000 and 20,000 people came to Mentor, Ohio, to hear him speak. Today, if you want to learn more about a candidate, you go online or you watch a cable news network, but back then, you either read partisan newspapers or found out for yourself.” For weeks, Garfield stood on his porch and gave speeches to iron and steel workers, German Republicans, African American Civil War veterans, young voters, and women’s groups, fashioning the first-ever “front-porch” campaign in a time before whistle-stop train tours were popularized. One day, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers from the African-American college, performed for Garfield, and he was so moved by their singing that he famously said, “I would rather be with you in defeat than against you and victorious.” 

But he was victorious. Garfield was elected by a healthy margin of electoral votes, but won the popular vote of 9 million by fewer than 10,000 votes; he took office on March 4, 1881. Four months later, he was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a Stalwart who had originally opposed Garfield’s selection, but eventually sought a position in the new administration—and was turned away. Guiteau decided that the only way to save the Republican Party from a moderate like Garfield was to kill him and open the way for Vice President Chester A. Arthur, another Stalwart. Guiteau was so sure that he’d be hailed as a hero, he bought the most expensive revolver he could afford, so it would look good in a museum. On July 2nd, 1881, he approached Garfield at a Washington, D.C., train station and shot him twice from behind—one bullet lodged in his back, the other grazed his arm. The first wound was serious, but not life-threatening; unfortunately, doctors did more harm than good, probing for the bullet with unsterilized fingers and contributing to an infection that would kill him weeks later. (Guiteau’s defense attorneys blamed the doctors for Garfield’s death, but the jury convicted him anyway.)

The Garfield home was on a sprawling estate of 160 acres, but is now at the center of an eight-acre site. Eighty percent of the items in the home are originals, thanks to the generosity of the Garfield family, who gave the house and its contents to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1936. That organization owned and operated the site until 1980, when an act of Congress created James A. Garfield National Historic Site. The Park Service undertook a major restoration of the site and operated it in partnership with the Historical Society until January 2008, when the federal government assumed full operational responsibility. 

“Now that the Park Service is responsible for interpretation of the site, we’re less focused on the architectural details of the home and the history of its furnishings, and more focused on Garfield’s life in the context of the times—where he stood on the issues of the day, and what he was doing while major world events were unfolding,” says Arrington. “Garfield lived during some of our nation’s most trying times—during the Civil War, Reconstruction, a time when U.S. currency wasn’t sound—so there are parallels with some of the struggles our country is facing right now. Our goal is to excite people about the history of a man they may not have thought was very interesting, and teach them more than they thought possible.”

Scott Kirkwood is editor-in-chief of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Spring 2010 issue.

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