James A. Garfield was born on November 19, 1831, in Orange Township, Ohio. Garfield was raised by his mother as his father died when he was 17 months old. In 1851, he enrolled in Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, before transferring to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. At Williams, James became a member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity. In 1856, Garfield returned to Hiram College as a professor of classical languages. Just one year later, in 1857, he was made president of the college.
On November 11, 1858, he married Lucretia Rudolph. Together, they would have seven children. James soon discovered, however, that he was more suited to politics and the study of law than academia. In 1859, he was elected as state senator of Ohio and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1860.
During the Civil War, Garfield served under several generals and saw action at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee and Siege at Corinth (Mississippi). He served as the chief of staff under General William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland. He would eventually be promoted to major general but left the Army to serve in the House of Representatives. James would be reelected as an Ohio representative every two years for 18 years.
In 1880, Garfield’s political career was damaged by controversies surrounding the publication of the Morey letter. The Morey letter was allegedly a letter written by James Garfield indicating that he favored an increase in Chinese immigration. At the time, increased Chinese immigration was very unpopular among politicians, and Garfield failed to confirm or deny the allegations because he could not remember if he wrote it. Nevertheless, at the Republican National Convention in 1880, Garfield gained support of his party and was nominated for president. He would defeat the Democratic candidate, Winfield Scott Hancock, to become the nation’s twentieth president.
Unfortunately, Garfield had little time to accomplish anything as president. On July 2, 1881, just under four months into his presidency, he was shot in Washington, DC, by Charles J. Guiteau, an attorney who was angry because he was denied a federal job. Guiteau would later be convicted and executed for assassination. Although Garfield was not killed immediately, he slowly deteriorated over a period of several months. He died on September 19, 1881, of complications from his wounds. Some historians believe he would have survived if his medical team would have been more capable. Many believe the infections that ultimately caused his death were inadvertently introduced to his body by his own doctors. He was only 49 years old.
Today, James A. Garfield is buried in Cleveland, Ohio. He is one of only three presidents to have died before his mother.