President James Garfield: Facts & Biography

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over the early and professional life of James Garfield. You'll learn where he was born, how he was raised, what war he served in, and what political positions he held.

James Garfield

The most famous Garfield is probably an orange cartoon cat. But there is a more important Garfield. It's James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States of America.

What do you think? Was James Garfield:

A. one of the youngest presidents?

B. one of the oldest presidents?

C. one of the shortest-serving presidents?

D. one of the longest-serving presidents?

You'll find out this answers as we go over a brief biography of the man and his life in this lesson.

Early Life

James Abram Garfield was born in a log cabin in Orange, Cuyahoga County, Ohio on November 19th, 1831. He was born to Abram Garfield and Eliza Ballou Garfield. While born in a humble log cabin, and part of a struggling family in general, his family had a rich history as they were some of the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Bad news was to come around the time Garfield was two years of age. His father passed away and his family was left completely destitute. But his mother would not let her children starve. She worked hard on their family farm to make ends meet and ensured that Garfield did so as well in school and life in general.

But Garfield had other plans, at least in the beginning. He wanted to become a sailor. So, at age 16, he ran away from home. He went to work on some canal boats. Unfortunately, he didn't have any 'sea legs' as he constantly fell overboard, eventually getting very ill as a result. This is when Garfield realized he'd rather just use the stuff between his ears to make ends meet rather than his brawn.

Garfield, around age 16.
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And so, Garfield ended up graduating from Williams College (Massachusetts) in 1856. He became a teacher and principal thereafter. He wound up marrying one of his former classmates and friends, Lucretia Rudolph, on November 11, 1858. During his time as a teacher, Garfield spoke frequently at churches throughout Ohio, advocating against the expansions of slavery to new territories.

Military, Presidency & Later Life

Garfield was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1859 and worked for the Union cause during the Civil War. For example, he recruited men for battle and served as colonel in the Forty-second Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He also fought at the Battle of Shiloh and at Chickamauga, Georgia, developing a reputation as a war hero.

Owing to this reputation, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives without campaigning and apparently had to be convinced by Abraham Lincoln to leave the field and take up his seat in Congress. Eventually, Garfield became the House minority leader.

In the election of 1880, Garfield was initially a dark-horse candidate. Soon after, however, he won the nomination and presidency against a Union general by the name of Winfield S. Hancock. At least by popular vote, Garfield won by an extremely slim margin, less than 2,000 votes total; and only because of some adept political deal-making.

Garfield as an adult.
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It's very hard to say what Garfield would've been like as president, though. See, he was shot in the back, on July 2, 1881 at 9:20 a.m. His assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, was an apparently mentally disturbed lawyer who thought he was owed a political appointment by Garfield for no solid reason. Garfield passed away on September 19th, 1881 from complications stemming from the shooting. Thus, he is the shortest-serving president next to William Henry Harrison.

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