Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.
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.
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.
Garfield was taken to the White House with a bullet wound in his arm and a bullet behind his pancreas. In 1881, doctors understood very little about the importance of sterilization. Over the next several days, they probed the wound in Garfield's back with unsterilized hands and instruments, trying to locate the bullet. Doing this caused an infection. Alexander Graham Bell even tried to use a metal detector to locate the bullet. Unfortunately, doctors told Bell that the bullet was on Garfield's right side. It was actually on the left. As the infection grew worse and Garfield became more ill, he was taken to New Jersey with the hopes that cooler weather would help his recovery. It was too late. Garfield died on September 19, 1881 and Vice-President Chester Arthur became president. Guiteau was executed on June 30, 1882.
James Garfield Overview
|People, Places & Events||Explanations|
|Republican National Convention||convention where Garfield was nominated|
|John Sherman||was to be nominated at the convention in 1880 by Garfield|
|Ulysses S. Grant||was trying to run for a third term|
|'Front porch' speeches||Garfield broke with tradition by holding meetings with reporters and voters at his house in Mentor, Ohio|
|Winfield Scott Hancock||the democratic nominee that year|
|Roscoe Conkling||without Conkling's support Garfield probably would not have won; a powerful political figure in New York and strong Garfield supporter whose lead many New Yorkers followed|
|James Blaine||who Garfield defeated for the party's nomination, was made secretary of state|
|Charles Guiteau||mentally unstable lawyer who believed he was responsible for getting Garfield elected|
|White House||residence and offices of the president|
|Williams College||destination of Garfield when Guiteau shot him at the train station on July 2, 1881|
|Alexander Graham Bell||tried to use a metal detector to locate the bullet|
|Chester Arthur||became president when Garfield died on September 19, 1881|
After this lesson is completed, students should be able to:
- Recall the convention nominations for the republican candidates
- Describe Garfield's race for election and how closely it ended
- Identify the background story of Garfield's assassin
- Name who then became president
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