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The James A. Garfield Administration: 1881

The James A. Garfield Administration (Republican, 1881--assassinated)
Garfield caricature
Garfield caricature
With Rutherford Hayes declining to run for a second term, the Republications chose James A. Garfield as their candidate at the convention in 1880. Garfield had a long career in the House of Representatives.

Early Life
James was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 1831. Fatherless at two, he was said to be a dreamer, with his head stuck in novels and lost in fantasy. He left home at sixteen and drove canal boat teams, where he fell overboard fourteen times in six weeks and ended up in bed seriously ill. His mother persuaded him that education was valuable, and she scraped together seventeen dollars to send him to an academy, where he discovered a lifelong love of learning. He was graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1856, and he returned to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) in Ohio as a classics professor. Within a year he was made its president. Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859 as a Republican. During the secession
crisis, he advocated coercing the seceding states back into the Union, but he did put aside his belief in pacifism to fight. In 1862, when Union military victories had been few, he successfully led a brigade at Middle Creek, Kentucky, against Confederate troops. At 31, Garfield became a brigadier general, and two years later he was a major general of volunteers. Meanwhile, in 1862, Ohioans elected him to Congress. President Lincoln persuaded him to resign his commission: It was easier to find major generals than to obtain effective Republicans for Congress. Garfield repeatedly won reelection for 18 years, and became the leading Republican in the House. A staunch abolitionist before the Civil War, Garfield became a Radical Republican after Lincoln's assassination.
The Election of 1880
In the election of 1880, the Republican ticket looked like it would boil down to a fight between former president Ulysses S. Grant and the more moderate James G. Blaine. Garfield surprised everyone, however, by earning more and more votes in the convention balloting. He won the presidential nomination, and eventually the election, against Democrat Winfield S. Hancock, a Civil War hero. The election was the closest on record. Garfield won by the narrowest of margins, and only with the help of the New York political boss Senator Roscoe Conkling, with whom Garfield had agreed to consult on party appointments (Conkling had been a prominent figure in the civil service reform issue because of his control over appointments to the Port of New York). Had New York or Indiana gone Democratic, Garfield would have lost the presidency.

The Garfields
Both James and Lucretia Garfield were devout members of the Disciple of Christ church. "Crete" devoted
NY political boss Senator Roscoe Conkling
NY political boss Senator Roscoe Conkling
Lucretia GarfieldLucretia Garfield
herself to raising the Garfield's five children, all of whom grew up to have rather distinguished careers. Though she dreamed of refurbishing the executive mansion, Mrs. Garfield caught malaria from the swamps behind the White House before she could begin the project. Eventually, she enjoyed a complete recovery and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-six.

Issue: The Economy
Garfield earned a reputation as an expert on economics while serving in the House. He generally agreed with the economic reform policies of his predecessor, although he advocated a return to the gold standard. Garfield saw the economy as a moral issue.
Issue: Civil Service Reform
Garfield believed in the idea of civil service reform in theory, but he had doubts about the use of merit examinations as a sole criteria for advancement. Garfield seemed to recognize that the spoils system supplied necessary money and workers to the political parties. Only three weeks into his administration, Garfield allowed Secretary of State James Blaine to persuade him to nominate a non-Conklingite as collector of the Port of New York. Senator Conkling was outraged and he urged his fellow senators to reject the appointment. Conkling was losing the fight when he came up with the idea of resigning from the Senate. His strategy was that the political machine he controlled in New York would send him right back with overwhelming support, and he hoped this show of force would move other senators to support him. This strategy backfired, however, as Conkling's followers deserted him and he was forced into private life.
President Garfield never had a chance to press this political advantage. On July 2, 1881, only four months into his term, Garfield was shot in the back by Charles Julius Guiteau, an emotionally disturbed man who had failed to gain an appointment in Garfield's administration. Garfield lived for two agonizing months while doctors failed to find the bullet. Eventually, he succumbed to blood poisoning. Had Garfield served his term, historians speculate that he would have been determined to move toward civil service reform and carry on in the clean government tradition of President Hayes. He was also determined to fight for the civil rights of black Southerners, as he made clear in his 1881 inaugural address. Unfortunately, he is best remembered for his assassination. And because his killer was a frustrated office-seeker, Garfield's greatest legacy was the impact of his death on moving the nation to reform government patronage. Supporters of civil service reform used the assassination to get some real legislation passed, the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.

NY Daily Graphic, 7/6/81
James Garfield Era Image Gallery
1880 Grand National Republican Banner
1880 Grand National Republican Banner
1881 Engraving of Garfield's Assassination
1881 Engraving of Garfield's Assassination
"Anything To Keep Him Afloat Till 1884," Puck, January 26, 1881
"Anything To Keep Him Afloat Till 1884," Puck, January 26, 1881, by Frederick Opper
"Quixotic Tilting," Puck, May 18, 1881
"Quixotic Tilting," Puck, May 18, 1881, by Carl Elder von Stur
"Grant as His Own Iconoclast," Puck, June 15, 1881
"Grant as His Own Iconoclast," Puck, June 15, 1881, by Carl Elder von Stur
"Struck Down at the Post of Duty," Puck, July 6, 1881
"Struck Down at the Post of Duty," Puck, July 6, 1881
"The Czar Getting Up His Little Letter of Condolence to President Garfield," Puck, July 27, 1881
"The Czar Getting Up His Little Letter of Condolence to President Garfield," Puck, July 27, 1881, by Frederick Opper
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Last modified July 21, 2012