To write the career of James A. Garfield during the trying hours of the Rebellion is to write at once a history of intrepid bravery, exquisite coolness in danger and sure success in action. His career has been rarely equaled by any American who entered the war as a civilian and laid down his sword with the rank of a major-general. His record, while bearing testimony to the marvelous spirit that always pervades a great people in a great crisis, and brings to the front a leader for every emergency, is a strangely complete illustration of how perfectly a man of brains and determination may succeed in some difficult walk in life, for which special and particular training have been always considered necessary.
The great interest that President Garfield always took in education, even after he ceased to teach, and grew to influence as a statesman, is well known to those who have only a general acquaintance with his life. Still the extent of his interest, and the value of his contributions to educational discussions and literature, is known to very few.
This expectation was manifested in the Pendleton Act of 1883. Although limited in scope, it was the first substantive effort toward ridding the federal civil service of the blatant conflicts of interest created when the norms was to hire government employees routinely on the basis of their political loyalties. Ironically, however obvious the wisdom of such a reform was to many people of the time, it took the impetus created by the assassination of President James A. Garfield by a disappointed office seeker who expected a reward for political service to lead to the passage of that initial template for eliminating conflicts of interest.
From the time of the election through his inauguration on March 4, 1881, Garfield was embroiled in political haggling over the formation of his cabinet. This wrangling was fueled by concerns of Garfield's friends and foes that his kindhearted nature would yield to all sorts of pressure, leaving him at the mercy of certain Republican factions. Even more troubling was the possibility that a new cabinet officer might take advantage of Garfield's trust and use his position to further his own presidential ambitions.
Through repeated balloting at the Republican convention of 1880, delegates remained deadlocked in their effort to name a presidential candidate. Finally, after thirty-five ballots, they were ready for a compromise. Rejecting both front-running choices, James Blaine and Ulysses S. Grant, the delegates endorsed James A. Garfield, an Ohio congressman whose current aspirations were limited to becoming a senator.
Garfield served in Congress during the Gilded Age when corruption ran rampant in politics. He was implicated in a scandal that rocked the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872-1873, in which members of Congress were given shares in the Credit Mobilier construction company with the expectation that they would lend their political support to the company's railroad ventures. Although it was never proven, Garfield was accused of accepting a $329 bribe.
James Abram Garfield (1831-1881) is sometimes remembered as the last of the log-cabin presidents. At other times, he is recalled as the victim of a mad assassin. But he spent too little time in the White House---less than 200 days (nearly half on his deathbed)---to leave much of a stamp on the office or on our national memory.
He transferred to Williams College in Massachusetts, graduated and became a professor at Hiram and within a year he was a married man as well as the President of the school. He was elected to the Ohio Senate and with the start of the civil war became a volunteer serving with the union army as an officer. His heroic leadership led to a promotion to brigadier general and then major general.
Since Garfield was struck down four months into his term, historians can only speculate as to what his presidency might have been like. Garfield was assassinated by Charles Julius Guiteau, an emotionally disturbed man who had failed to gain an appointment in Garfield's administration. Garfield did have time to appoint his cabinet, however, and in doing so, he refused to cave in to Stalwart pressure, enraging Senator Conkling, who resigned in protest.
Garfield raised a volunteer force to fight on the Union side in the Civil War and saw action at Shiloh and Chickamauga. In 1863, he was elected to Congress and left the service at the specific request of Abraham Lincoln to assume his seat. Garfield would be reelected to the House seven more times. As an increasingly influential political figure, Garfield was a supporter of "hard money" policies, Radical Republican reconstruction programs, black civil rights, and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.