a web book by Rabbi Shmuel Jablon

President James A. Garfield was a truly American story...He rose from being a poor boy growing up in a log cabin (the last U.S. President to do so) to become a college president, general, congressman and later President of the United States!

Yet, the story is also a sad American tale of what could have been...President Garfield was shot by an assassin just 120 days into his presidency.  After a painful 80 days, he passed away.  People can only guess what he may have accomplished as president.

This web page is an introduction to the life of Garfield.


James Abram Garfield was born November 19, 1831.  His father passed away when James was a toddler.  The family was unable to move from the simple log cabin on the Western Reserve.  Garfield loved to read, especially the Bible.  He was known as being a smart young man, but schools were rare in his part of Ohio.  Because of his hard work, he was able to get an education, eventually attending Hiram College and Williams College.  He even ended up as president of Hiram!

In 1858, Garfield married Lucretia (who he called "Crete").  They had known each other for more than five years.

In 1859, Garfield was elected as a Republican to the State Senate of Ohio.  This was a very hard time for America as the arguments between the North and the South were growing worse.  After Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency, South Carolina and ten of her fellow southern states seceded (left the Union).  Lincoln and his fellow Republicans believed the United States was a covenant between all its citizens, and states couldn't simply leave.  The U.S. Army prepared to fight against the Confederacy to keep them in the Union.

As a state senator, Garfield supported the Union effort.  In 1861, he volunteered as a lieutenant colonel in Ohio's Volunteer Infantry.  He rose all the way to being a General.


In 1863, Garfield was elected to Congress.  He wasn't sure if he should leave the Army.  However, President Lincoln told him that it was crucial for there to be more congressmen who understood how important it was for the Union to stay together.  Therefore, Garfield resigned as General and became a Congressman.  He served in Congress for 17 years.

Even after the war was over, there were many, many issues that divided the country.  For example, even though there would no longer be slavery (thanks to the thirteenth amendment), would Black Americans be protected from those who wanted to hurt them?  Would they get to vote?

In 1879, then Congressman Garfield wrote an article about some of these issues.  He talked about the "enfranchisement" of Blacks.  Enfranchisement and suffrage mean the right to vote.  For a real challenge, have a look at a section of this interesting article.


Garfield also believed that American money shouldn't just be paper, but that every piece of paper should be backed by gold actually in America.  This was known as "honest money" since someone with American money would know it was actually worth something.


Garfield was a strong Republican.  He believed that the Democrats were not totally loyal to the Union during the Civil War, and that many Democrats had been traitors.  He said they had supported the Confederates and slavery, and should not be brought back into power.  Throughout his career he encouraged people all over the country to vote for Republican candidates.  One speech was even reprinted after his death to help the Republican candidate for president.  To read this challenging article, click here.


In 1880, Garfield was nominated by the Republican Party to be President of the United States.  This was a total surprise.  When the convention met in Chicago, people thought that they would choose between former President Grant, James Blaine and Garfield's choice- John Sherman.  But no candidate could get enough votes.  Finally, all of those who had been against Grant left their own candidates and supported Garfield.  When the delegates from Wisconsin gave him their votes, the former U.S. General had more than the 379 delegates to be the Republican nominee.  As patriotic music was played, Garfield was announced as the nominee for President!  Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, a major paper in New York, described the scene.  There were wild celebrations, bands playing, flags flying and cannons booming.  Delegates sang "Rally 'Round the Flag," and added the verse: "Freedom forever, hurrah boys, hurrah.  Down with the traitors, up with the Stars.  And we'll rally 'round the flag, boys, rally once again.  Shouting the battle cry of freedom."

Remember, this was just 15 years after the end of the Civil War.  Garfield's role as a General and patriot was very important to his party.  Many people were also happy as Garfield was viewed as an honest man who would not be controlled by "machine politicians" who were dishonest. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper praised him as being the best of the Republican party and one of the wisest men in American politics.  They were also happy that Former President Grant would not be able to try to win a third term as president- something even George Washington did not try.

In order to try to get the people who had supported Grant (known as "Stalwarts") to support Garfield, the Republican Party nominated Chester Arthur from New York to be Vice President.  Arthur was a "Stalwart" and a friend of Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York.

The campaign for the presidency was an interesting one.  In those days, the candidate was expected to stay at home.  Garfield lived in Mentor, Ohio at a home and farm he had bought so his children could learn the value of work.  Garfield stayed at his home during the campaign.  But he arranged for trains to bring visitors to him.  People came from hundreds of miles to hear him speak. 

This became known as the "Front Porch Campaign."  He also had a campaign office with telegraphs set up at his home.  This allowed him to communicate with people throughout the country.  You can tour his home HERE.



Garfield won the election.  He was to take office on March 4, 1881 (which used to be election day).  It took him a long time to decide who would be in his cabinet.  At this time, people argued a lot about who should get what position.  Some people were insulted that they weren't asked to be in the cabinet.  Others refused to serve because they were pressured not to support Garfield.  Eventually, Garfield was able to fill every position in the cabinet.  The most famous person was Congressman James Blaine of Maine, who became his Secretary of State.

Garfield left his home in Mentor, Ohio on February 28th. 

On Inauguration Day, March 4th, he took the oath of office and made his first speech as President of the United States.  Of course, all of the newspapers in the country wrote about this.  Click HERE to see a challenging, but interesting article from a New Orleans paper.

There was also a big parade, and lots of parties.  There are fantastic photographs and even copies of his diary about this historic day on the Library of Congress' web site.  Click HERE to see the collection.

President Garfield was quite frustrated that he had to spend a lot of his time worrying about who should get jobs in the government.  Thousands of people, who wanted to be ambassadors, postmasters, government lawyers and more all tried to speak with the President.  He had to figure out not only who was best for what job, but who would be angry if their friends or supporters were not hired.  The debates and insults were fierce!  For example, there was a lot political fighting about who should be the Tax Collector of the Port of New York.  This person would be able to hire hundreds of employees...who would all be loyal to him.  This person would then be loyal to the one who got them this important job.  When Senators Conkling and Platt from New York (who were famous "Stalwarts" and not Garfield supporters) realized that someone they did not like was to get this job, they resigned!  They also accused the President of being dishonest with things he had (or had not) agreed to and of hurting the Republican Party.  Even Vice President Chester Arthur supported the "Stalwarts" in these fights.

Meanwhile, President Garfield longed to get on with the important job of leading the nation.


Sadly, we will never know if Garfield would have been a great president.  On July 2, 1881 he was shot in the Washington, D.C. train station by a man named Charles Guiteau.  He was a crazy man who had wanted to be named as an ambassador to France or Austria.  He also viewed himself as a "Stalwart."  When he didn't get a job in Garfield's administration, he began stalking Garfield to find a way to kill him.  In those days, the Secret Service wasn't there to protect the president.  Almost anyone could get as close to the president as he wanted. Therefore, it was relatively easy for Guiteau to shoot Garfield.

Guiteau was captured immediately.  He was proud of what he had done.  He said, "I did it.  I am a Stalwart, and Arthur is President now."  He was led away to jail.

Garfield's tragedy lasted a long time.  For 80 long days he suffered because of his gun shot.  He became weaker and his infection grew worse.  The entire nation waited every day for news reports of how their president was doing.  Through the newspapers, they received detailed reports of his health.  Click here to Read some samples from the Louisville Commercial (Notice the tremendous detail provided in the articles.).

The doctors of his day didn't know what to do to help him.  Alexander G. Bell tried to use a new invention to find the bullet.  Doctors put their dirty hands into the wound to try to find it (They didn't know that this caused infections.). 

President Garfield died, leaving behind his mother, wife and children.  Chester Arthur became this nation's president.  Guiteau, Garfield's killer, was later hung for his crime.

Chester Arthur taking the oath of office

Americans were shocked, angry and deeply sad. Read original news reports from The Louisville Commercial by clicking HERE

You can read a longer memorial article HERE.

Garfield was buried in Cleveland at Lake View Cemetery.  His burial site, as well as his home in Mentor, can be visited even today.  


There are lots of books written and speeches given about Garfield's life.  You can read some of Garfield's quotes that were printed in the book, From Log Cabin to White House by clicking HERE. 

You can find more information about President Garfield by visiting the White House or clicking HERE. 

You can even "ask President Garfield" a question by e-mailing his "secretary" at Lawnfield.  Just click HERE.  I asked a question, which you can read HERE.


Please select ONE of the following projects.:

#1: It is September 24, 1881 and you are a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  Your job is to write an 250-350 word obituary (an article in tribute to someone who has died) about President Garfield.  You need to write about his life- including his background, his contribution to America, and his assassination (If you would like to see an obituary really written at that time, click HERE.).  If you are a Fuchs Mizrachi School student, e-mail me your paper as a Word attachment by clicking here.

(You can see samples of two excellent articles written by students.  Click HERE to read Nurit's and click HERE to read Eric's.)

#2: In honor of the upcoming 125th anniversary of President Garfield's death, you have been hired by the "Garfield Memorial Committee" to design a 11x17 inch poster about his life.  You need to show scenes (with some words, as needed) that will show students today why Garfield was important to America.

#3: You work for Western Reserve Historical Society, the group that (among other thing) runs President Garfield's home and museum in Mentor, Ohio.  Your job is to design a brochure about the Garfield home that will attract visitors.  Of course, this means you need to show why he was interesting, in addition to what visitors will see at the house and museum (You can visit the Garfield home on line by clicking HERE.).

#4- The year is 1911.  Produce a radio program in which you interview Lucretia Garfield on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of her husband's death.  The interview should be 4-5 minutes long, and include a discussion of Garfield's life, work and death.