James A Garfield

20th president - 1881


A dark horse candidate, who won the Republican nomination as a compromise between rival factions supporting Ulysses Grant, John Sherman and James Blaine, Garfield grew up in great poverty – he was the last president to be born in a log cabin – and rose through hard work to the highest office in the land via a successful Civil War, in which he rose to the rank of major-general, and a long spell as a Republican Congressman. He remains the only sitting member of the House of Representatives to have been elected president.

Although Garfield had been mildly implicated in the 1873 Crédit Mobilier scandal, he took an impressively straightforward approached to the presidency, rooting out corruption among Republicans involved in the awarding of mail route contracts ("Go ahead, regardless of where or whom you hit," he told those investigating the scandal; "I direct you not only to probe this ulcer to the bottom, but to cut it out"), and winning a power struggle with the head of the New York Republican party over the appointment of the collector of the Port of New York. Then, after fewer than four months in office, he was shot at a Washington railroad station by an embittered attorney, Charles J Guiteau, who had been turned down for a diplomatic post. He spent 80 days on his death-bed, watched over by his wife and probed with unsterilised instruments by well-meaning surgeons. He died from infection and internal haemorrhage.

In his words

"A brave man is a man who dares to look the Devil in the face and tell him he is a Devil."

"I would rather believe something and suffer from it, than to slide along into success without opinions."

"The people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption."

"My God! What is there in this place [the White House] that a man should ever want to get into it?"

"The elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change since the adoption of the constitution in 1787." (Inaugural address, 4 March 1881)

In others' words

"No man ever started so low that accomplished so much, in all our history." Rutherford Hayes

"Garfield has shown that he is not possessed of the backbone of an angle-worm." Ulysses Grant


Garfield was alarmingly accident-prone. When he was 16, he spent six weeks working on a canal boat between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and fell overboard 14 times – despite never having learnt to swim.

While Garfield lay mortally wounded in the White House, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried unsuccessfully to find the assassin's bullet in his body, using an induction-balance electrical device that he had designed.

Garfield liked to entertain friends by writing in Latin and Greek simultaneously – one with each hand.

He used to exercise by juggling Indian clubs.

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