An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States James Garfield

Mar 25, 2013 by

James Garfield

James Garfield

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Today we will look at James Garfield, the twentieth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

James Garfield was born November 19, 1831 in what is now Moreland Hills, Ohio. When Garfield was only eighteen months old, his father died. Garfield’s mother never remarried, and she could not afford to give him more than a rudimentary education at the local village school. When he was 16, Garfield left home to work as a canal driver. After six weeks he left that job and enrolled at the Geauga Seminary in Chester, Ohio. After two years there Garfield accepted a teaching position in a nearby community, and held that position for two years. In 1851 Garfield gained admission into what is now known as Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio. Leaving Hiram in 1854, Garfield transferred to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. After graduating in 1856, Garfield became the pastor at the Franklin Circle Christian Church in Cleveland, Ohio. After a short period of time in that capacity, Garfield accepted a position on the faculty at Hiram College.

In 1858, he married one of his former classmates at Hiram College. While on the faculty at Hiram College, Garfield became involved in politics. He was asked by the Republican Party to run for the Ohio State Senate in 1859, and won election to that office. While serving in the Ohio legislature, Garfield began to study law. He was admitted to the bar in Ohio in 1861. When the Civil War broke out in April of that year, Garfield sought a commission in the military, but did not receive an appointment until July. At that time he was given the lieutenant colonelcy of the 42nd Ohio Infantry, and was soon given command of that regiment. Assigned to the army commanded by Major General Don Carlos Buell, Garfield was given the task of driving Confederate forces out of eastern Kentucky. Garfield began his campaign in November of 1861, and on January 9, 1862 he achieved his goal when he won a decisive victory at Middle Creek, Kentucky. Moving with Buell’s army in the spring of 1862 to support Ulysses S. Grant’s offensive in southern Tennessee, Garfield saw action on the second of the battle at Shiloh. Falling ill after the battle, Garfield went home to Ohio to recuperate.

When he regained his health, Garfield went back to his regiment (which was by that time part of an army commanded by Major General William Rosecrans). Impressed with Garfield’s intellect, Rosecrans made him his chief of staff. Acting in that capacity at the Battle of Chickamauga in September of 1863, Garfield risked his life to ride to a beleaguered portion of the Union line to help stabilize the situation. In spite of Garfield’s heroics at the Battle of Chickamauga, when Rosecrans was relieved of his command Garfield was not named as his successor. This no doubt influenced Garfield to resign his commission in December of 1863.

Garfield had been elected to the US House of Representatives in November of 1862, and according to the rules of that time period his term in office would commence in December of 1863. Garfield thus transitioned from the army to Congress at that time. Garfield served in the House of Representatives until 1879, when the Ohio legislature appointed him to the US Senate. No sooner had he secured this position, however, when members of the national Republican Party began to discuss the possibility of him becoming their party’s nominee for president in the election of 1880. After numerous indecisive rounds of balloting, Garfield was selected as the party’s candidate, and in November of 1880 he defeated Winfield Scott Hancock in the election. He took office in March of 1881.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

Garfield is known for two unfortunate ironies. At the time there were over 100,000 federal employees, appointed and dismissed on the whims of the administration. Garfield opposed this so-called “Spoils System,” and advocated that employees be selected according to merit. But Garfield would not see this idea come to fruition; in July of 1881 Charles Guiteau, an individual who had sought a position with the federal government and had been rejected, shot Garfield. Garfield’s wounds, however, were not necessarily fatal. Indeed, if both bullets had been found and removed, Garfield might well have been survived. One bullet was easily located, but the other escaped detection.

Alexander Graham Bell designed a device to electronically identify where the other bullet had ended up, but the presiding doctor only used the device to examine the right side of Garfield’s body. Sadly, the bullet was lodged in Garfield’s left side. These unfortunate developments are what Garfield is best known for.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Garfield was exceptionally gifted intellectually. Remarkably, he could write Greek with one hand while simultaneously writing Latin with the other. He was also personally a very courageous man. Finally, he was a man of principle. He refused to seek office, waiting instead to be asked to stand for election.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Some historians feel that Garfield was hypocritical. They point to the fact that Garfield supported James G. Blaine’s candidacy for president in 1876, but switched his allegiance to Hayes when Garfield became ill. Likewise, there is speculation that he traded his support for John Sherman’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination for Sherman’s seat in the US Senate.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Garfield did not live long enough as president to really have created a legacy of accomplishment, but he did make one appointment that was important: his Secretary of the Navy, William Hunt. Hunt felt that the US Navy had fallen into a deplorable condition, and he worked tirelessly to make it a force that would have to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. This would pay enormous dividends for the United States in the 1890s during the Spanish-American War.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Garfield, because of his short term in office (only William Henry Harrison served for less time), is generally rated in the bottom quartile of presidents. This is less of an assessment of him than it is a reflection of how little any president can accomplish in only a few months.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

When it was determined that Guiteau had assassinated Garfield because he was a frustrated office seeker, Congress moved to create the Civil Service system for most federal positions. Thus in death Garfield helped make the United States a much better country.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our twentieth President?

Garfield was like William Henry Harrison in many respects. War heroes with distinguished records of public service, Harrison and Garfield both passed away before a definitive verdict on their presidential leadership could be arrived at.

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