James Garfield: Presidency, Accomplishments & Assassination

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses the presidency and assassination of James Garfield. Learn more about the 20th president of the United States and his death after only four months in office, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

James Garfield

Garfield's Nomination

James Garfield had no intention of being president of the United States. The only reason the Ohio congressman and newly elected senator was at the Republican National Convention was to nominate Treasury Secretary John Sherman for president. When the convention opened in June 1880, Sherman's opponents were President Ulysses S. Grant, who was running for a third term, and the former speaker of the house, James Blaine. Garfield was known as a powerful speaker, although he had nothing prepared as he rose to speak about Sherman. Still, the excitement in Chicago's Interstate Exposition Building grew as he spoke. When Garfield said, 'Gentlemen of the Convention, what do we want?' someone shouted, 'We want Garfield!' Even though Garfield insisted he did not want to be president, when the votes were counted on June 8, he was the Republican Party presidential nominee.

The 1880 Election

In 1880, it was considered to be in poor taste for a candidate to campaign for himself. However, Garfield broke with tradition by holding 'front porch' speeches for reporters and voters at his house in Mentor, Ohio. Freed slaves were among Garfield's biggest supporters because of his advocacy for civil reform, including better access to education for African Americans. Still, the contest with Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock was very close. Had it not been for Roscoe Conkling, Garfield probably would not have won. Conkling, a powerful political figure in New York, was a strong Garfield supporter and many New Yorkers followed his lead. Garfield won 214 electoral votes to Hancock's 155 and his margin of victory in the popular vote was a slim 7,368 votes.

Garfield's Presidency

Given that Garfield was only in office for 100 days before he was shot, there was very little that he accomplished other than establish his Cabinet. When Roscoe Conkling realized that he was not going to be part of the Cabinet, he was furious. He expected to be rewarded for helping Garfield win the election. When that did not happen, he unsuccessfully tried to block Garfield's nominations. One of Garfield's appointments helped bring some unity to the Republican Party, which was plagued by internal fighting. James Blaine, who Garfield defeated for the party's nomination, was made secretary of state. It was Blaine who personally told a persistent, mentally unstable, lawyer named Charles Guiteau that he should stop requesting an appointment to the President's Cabinet.

Guiteau Shoots the President

Guiteau believed that it was his life's mission to make Garfield the president. The fact that he survived the collision between two ships as he traveled to New York to campaign for Garfield made that clear to him. After he gave a brief speech, which confused the accomplishments of Grant and Garfield, he considered his duty to Garfield complete. After Garfield took office, Guiteau went to the White House every day to request an appointment to the Cabinet. He thought he would make a fine ambassador to France. Repeatedly rejected, Guiteau decided that God wanted him to kill Garfield. On July 2, 1881, Garfield was scheduled to go to his alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts, to give a speech. Instead, Guiteau followed him to the train station and shot him.

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