In the rankings of the Presidents of the United States of America, the countdown from Worst to First- is now at #32 the 20th President James A. Garfield. Some of the historical rankings of the presidents by-pass Garfield since he served such a short time before being assassinated but I have chose to include him. It is hard to rank him but I am ranking him at #32 and not lower due to potential.  If they can give Barry the Nobel Peace Prize on potential, I can rank James Garfield on his potential.

James Garfield was born in a log cabin in Orange, Ohio on November 19th, 1831. His father died when he was eighteen months old. He grew up in poverty. He would work several jobs as a teenager including one which nearly killed him-working on a canal boat.

Growing up Garfield was often picked on because of his not having a father and being so poor. He would be sensitive to slights all of his life. As a teenager he would lose himself in books, reading anything he could get his hands on.

At age seventeen Garfield’s life changed. He was home from the canal job recuperating from an illness and his mother and a local education official convinced him to take a year off from the canal work and go to school. He would not go back to the canal job.

James Garfield had an interesting and varied life up until his presidency. He went to college at Hiram College and would become a teacher there.During the early 1850’s he was also a traveling preacher in the area. He was a member of the Disciples of Christ Church. He had went to church earlier in his life to please his mother but in his late teens was ‘born again.” After that he went to Williams College in Massachusetts and graduated as the salutatorian of his class, then he returned home to Ohio to teach again at Hiram and then become the president of the college.

In 1858 Garfield married Lucretia, they would have seven children, five of whom made it to adulthood. Garfield then started studying for the law and was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1861.

While at Williams College, Garfield became interested in politics. Back in Ohio he would be elected to the state senate, serving until 1861. When the American Civil War broke out Garfield quit the legislature and joined the army. He would rise to the rank of Major General before leaving in December 1863 when he became a member of the U.S.House of Representatives. He would serve nine terms representing Ohio in Congress before being elected president in 1880 [he was elected to the US Senate also in 1880 but declined that position since he won the presidency.}

While in the U.S. House of Representatives Garfield became a leader. He was Chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services from 1869-71 and then Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations from 1871-75. When the Republicans lost control of the House, Garfield was a minority leader.

The GOP National Convention in 1880 was held in Chicago. Garfield went to the convention as the leader of the Ohio delegation. He would be Sherman’s campaign manager and give the nominating speech for fellow Ohioan John Sherman. The three main contenders for the nomination were former President Ulysses S. Grant,  Senator John Sherman of Ohio and Senator James Blaine from Maine. The last thing on Garfield’s mind was that he’d leave Chicago as the nominee.

The speech that Garfield gave for Sherman impressed the delegates. It was low key and it made him a candidate. No one was getting the enough votes to get nominated and on the 36th ballot-they compromised and Garfield was the surprise nominee. Chester Alan Arthur of New York would be his running mate. Arthur was chosen to appeal to the other side of the Republican Party, Arthur was viewed negatively by many as a career party machine politician.

The 1880 Presidential Election would be between James Garfield and a hero of the American Civil War- Winfield Scott Hancock- the hero of the Battle of Gettysburg. Both candidates pretty much agreed on the issues except for the tariffs. The GOP was for high tariffs. The popular vote was close with Garfield 48.3% to Hancock’s 48.2% and both candidates carried seventeen states each but Garfield carried the states that counted winning in the Electoral College by a healthy margin 214-155.

What was James Garfield like?  He was a big burly man. 6’ and when he became president around 210 pounds. He had brown hair, blue eyes, a beard. Garfield was a touchy person, when he was talking to someone he’d give them a hug, put his arm around their shoulders. He was a skilled debater. Garfield was not a self promoter and was known as a man who was easy to get along with. He was a very religious man, a scholar. During the period after James K. Polk up until William McKinley a period of fifty years there was one great president- Abraham Lincoln. Most of the presidents during that period were big failures or barely passable. There are a lot of people who believe James Garfield could have been an exception, that he could have been a successful or even a great president. We will never know. He would only serve 200 days in office.

Garfield was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. In his cabinet he had one name we will all recognize today- as Secretary of War his choice was Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Father Abraham. He chose as his Secretary of State the failed GOP presidential candidate James Blaine. Garfield’s goal was to choose a cabinet that would satisfy the warring factions of the Republican Party- between Blaine and Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York {Chet Arthur was a part of the Conkling Machine} Since most of the votes that nominated Garfield came from the Blaine faction, of course Blaine got the plumb job as Secretary of State and would be Garfield’s closest adviser. Blaine was also obsessed with knowing all the coming’s and going’s at the White House and would plant spies in the White House to get this information that he desired.

One of Garfield’s big issues was doing something to reform the civil service system. He wouldn’t live long enough to do so and it would be his successor Chet Arthur who would stun everyone doing something about it. Arthur was viewed at the time as a man who was a big supporter of the spoils system. More on Chet Arthur in the days ahead.

On the morning of July 2, 1881 Garfield was walking through the Baltimore and Potomac Train Station in Washington with Secretary of State James Blaine. Garfield was going to go to Williams College to introduce his sons to the college. He was shot from behind by a nut ball named Charles Guiteau. Guiteau had been lobbing unsuccessfully for a European consulship. Guiteau was obviously an emotionally disturbed man. He was a nobody, a less than a nobody and he thought he was going to get a consulship? Guiteau shot Garfield with a .44 British Bulldog. Why did he choose that gun? He saw it in a museum and liked how it looked. Guiteau also visited the jail in Washington before the assassination to check out where he was headed. The assassination had been planned out for weeks.

A question has to be asked- why wasn’t President Garfield protected? It was only 16 years since the Lincoln assassination but everyone kind of viewed that as a fluke, caused by the Civil War. No one was going to assassinate a president again.

It is believed today that Garfield would have probably recovered from his wounds and resumed his presidency- if his doctor’s hadn’t basically killed him. His doctor’s wanted to get the bullet out of him and kept poking him with unsanitary probes and fingers. This brought on infections. The bullet was lodged in his pancreas.The doctor’s at the time didn’t know any better. Again with what he know today, Garfield recovers.

Garfield would die a slow agonizing death. He was shot on July 2nd and would linger on until September 19th when he would die at the age of 49. Guiteau would be found guilty and sentenced to hanging. He was hanged on June 30, 1882.

A great book on Garfield and the assassination is Candice Millard’s “Destiny of the Republic” and PBS has a great documentary “Death of A President” which was part of their outstanding American Experience series. Both go into far more detail than I have. Highly recommended.

below a picture of the assassin Charles Guiteau.



  • Some trivia to tell your friends about the 20th POTUS James A. Garfield.
  • Garfield was the first left-handed president.
  • Ohio was pumping out the presidents at this time in American history. Garfield was the third president in a row from Ohio, following Grant and Hayes.
  • When President Garfield was inaugurated his mother was in attendance, the first time that a mother had been present at the Inaugural.
  • Garfield is the first president to review an inaugural parade from a stand in front of the White House.
  • Even though he was only president for a short time, Garfield did appoint one Supreme Court Justice- Stanley Matthews, from Garfield’s home state of Ohio.
  • Garfield was the second assassinated president and the fourth president to die in office. Four presidents  died in office during a 40 year period 1841-81.
  • Garfield is the only setting member of the House of Representatives to be elected president.