James A. Garfield

— 20th President of the United States —

View full portraits at:
National Portrait Gallery or the White House Presidential Portrait Gallery


March 4, 1881 to September 19, 1881

BORN: November 19, 1831
Orange, Ohio
September 19, 1881, Elberon, New Jersey
Buried in Cleveland, Ohio
Lucretia Rudolph, 1858

CHILDREN: Harry, James, Abram, Irvin, Mollie

James Garfield's father was a farmer in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. He died before James was two, and the child was raised by his mother and older brother. They were very poor, and James had little chance to go to school, but he went to school wherever and whenever he could. He worked at any kind of job that would leave time for his books. He learned rapidly. He could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other at the same time.

When the Civil War began, he raised a regiment of volunteer soldiers. Garfield had no military training, but he became an excellent officer. He then went on to serve in Congress for 18 years. During much of this time, the American people did not demand very honest government from their representatives in Congress. As a result, they did not get very honest government. Many politicians came to believe the purpose of government was to make politicians and their friends rich.

At the Republican convention in 1880, no one could get a majority of the delegates' votes. Finally, the delegates nominated Garfield as a compromise. The federal government had almost no civil service (appointed government employees who were permanent and did not change with each new president). Several presidents had asked Congress for good civil service laws, but Congress would not pass them. With every new administration, many government workers were fired and new ones, who had voted for the administration, were hired. Each new president had to spend much of his time in handing out jobs.

President Garfield did this, too. Then on July 2, 1881, he was shot by a man who had been denied a job. The entire nation was shocked. As a result of the president's murder, people began to demand more honest government. They also demanded better civil service laws.

Garfield died of his injuries on September 19, 1881.

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