20. JAMES GARFIELD 1881
the last of the log cabin Presidents, James A. Garfield attacked
political corruption and won back for the Presidency a measure
of prestige it had lost during the Reconstruction period.
He was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 1831. Fatherless at
two, he later drove canal boat teams, somehow earning enough
money for an education. He was graduated from Williams College
in Massachusetts in 1856, and he returned to the Western Reserve
Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) in Ohio as a classics
professor. Within a year he was made its president.
Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859 as a
Republican. During the secession crisis, he advocated coercing
the seceding states back into the Union.
In 1862, when Union military victories had been few, he
successfully led a brigade at Middle Creek, Kentucky, against
Confederate troops. At 31, Garfield became a brigadier general,
two years later a major general of volunteers.
Meanwhile, in 1862, Ohioans elected him to Congress.
President Lincoln persuaded him to resign his commission: It was
easier to find major generals than to obtain effective
Republicans for Congress. Garfield repeatedly won re-election
for 18 years, and became the leading Republican in the House.
At the 1880 Republican Convention, Garfield failed to win the
Presidential nomination for his friend John Sherman. Finally, on
the 36th ballot, Garfield himself became the "dark horse"
By a margin of only 10,000 popular votes, Garfield defeated
the Democratic nominee, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.
As President, Garfield strengthened Federal authority over
the New York Customs House, stronghold of Senator Roscoe
Conkling, who was leader of the Stalwart Republicans and
dispenser of patronage in New York. When Garfield submitted to
the Senate a list of appointments including many of Conkling's
friends, he named Conkling's arch-rival William H. Robertson to
run the Customs House. Conkling contested the nomination, tried
to persuade the Senate to block it, and appealed to the
Republican caucus to compel its withdrawal.
But Garfield would not submit: "This...will settle the
question whether the President is registering clerk of the
Senate or the Executive of the United States.... shall the
principal port of entry ... be under the control of the
administration or under the local control of a factional
Conkling maneuvered to have the Senate confirm Garfield's
uncontested nominations and adjourn without acting on Robertson.
Garfield countered by withdrawing all nominations except
Robertson's; the Senators would have to confirm him or sacrifice
all the appointments of Conkling's friends.
In a final desperate move, Conkling and his fellow-Senator
from New York resigned, confident that their legislature would
vindicate their stand and re-elect them. Instead, the
legislature elected two other men; the Senate confirmed
Robertson. Garfield's victory was complete.
In foreign affairs, Garfield's Secretary of State invited all
American republics to a conference to meet in Washington in
1882. But the conference never took place. On July 2, 1881, in a
Washington railroad station, an embittered attorney who had
sought a consular post shot the President.
Mortally wounded, Garfield lay in the White House for weeks.
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried
unsuccessfully to find the bullet with an induction-balance
electrical device which he had designed. On September 6,
Garfield was taken to the New Jersey seaside. For a few days he
seemed to be recuperating, but on September 19, 1881, he died
from an infection and internal hemorrhage.