Biography of James Garfield

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James Garfield, Canal Boy.

At the present time, the neighbourhood of Cleveland, Ohio, the busiest town along the southern shore of Lake Erie, may fairly rank as one of the richest agricultural districts in all America. But when Abram Garfield settled down in the township of Orange in 1830, it was one of the wildest and most unpeopled woodland regions in the whole of the United States. Pioneers from the older states had only just begun to make little clearings for themselves in the unbroken forest; and land was still so cheap that Abram Garfield was able to buy himself a tract of fifty acres for no more than L20. His brother-in-law’s family removed there with him; and the whole strength of the two households was immediately employed in building a rough log hut for their common accommodation, where both the Garfields and the Boyntons lived together during the early days of their occupation. The hut consisted of a mere square box, made by piling logs on top of one another, the spaces between being filled with mud, while the roof was formed of loose stone slabs. Huts of that sort are everywhere common among the isolation of the American backwoods; and isolated indeed they were, for the Garfields’ nearest neighbours, when they first set up house, lived as far as seven miles away, across the uncleared forest.

When Abram Garfield came to this lonely lodge in the primaeval woodlands, he had one son and one daughter. In 1831, the year after his removal to his new home, a second boy was born into the family, whom his father named James Abram. Before the baby was eighteen months old, the father died, and was buried alone, after the only possible fashion among such solitary settlers, in a corner of the wheat field which he himself had cleared of its stumps. A widow’s life is always a hard one, but in such a country and under such conditions it is even harder and more lonely than elsewhere. Mrs. Garfield’s eldest boy, Thomas, was only eleven years old; and with the aid of this one ineffectual helper, she managed herself to carry on the farm for many years. Only those who know the hard toil of a raw American township can have any idea what that really means. A farmer’s work in America is not like a farmer’s work in England. The man who occupies the soil is there at once his own landlord and his own labourer; and he has to contend with nature as nobody in England has had to contend with it for the last five centuries at least. He finds the land covered with trees, which he has first to fell and sell as timber; then he must dig or burn out the stumps; clear the plot of boulders and large stones; drain it, fence it, plough it, and harrow it; build barns for the produce and sheds for the cows; in short, make his farm, instead of merely taking it. This is labour from which many strong men shrink in dismay, especially those who have come out fresh from a civilized and fully occupied land. For a woman and a boy, it is a task that seems almost above their utmost powers. Nevertheless, Mrs. Garfield and her son did not fail under it. With her own hands, the mother split up the young trees into rude triangular rails to make the rough snake fences of the country–mere zigzags of wood laid one bit above the other; while the lad worked away bravely at sowing fall and spring wheat, hoeing Indian corn, and building a little barn for the harvest before the arrival of the long cold Ohio winter. To such a family did the future President originally belong; and with them he must have shared those strong qualities of perseverance and industry which more than anything else at length secured his ultimate success in life.

For James Garfield’s history differs greatly in one point from that of most other famous working men, whose stories have been told in this volume. There is no reason to believe that he was a man of exceptional or commanding intellect. On the contrary, his mental powers appear to have been of a very respectable but quite ordinary and commonplace order. It was not by brilliant genius that James Garfield made his way up in life; it was rather by hard work, unceasing energy, high principle, and generous enthusiasm for the cause of others. Some of the greatest geniuses among working men, such as Burns, Tannahill, and Chatterton, though they achieved fame, and though they have enriched the world with many touching and beautiful works, must be considered to have missed success in life, so far as their own happiness was concerned, by their unsteadiness, want of self-control, or lack of fixed principle. Garfield, on the other hand, was not a genius; but by his sterling good qualities he nevertheless achieved what cannot but be regarded as a true success, and left an honourable name behind him in the history of his country.

However poor an American township may be, it is seldom too poor to afford its children a moderate and humble education. While James Garfield was still very young, the settlers in the neighbourhood decided to import a schoolmaster, whom they “boarded about” between them, after a fashion very common in rural western districts. The school-house was only a log hut; the master was a lad of twenty; and the textbooks were of the very meagrest sort. But at least James Garfield was thus enabled to read and write, which after all is the great first step on the road to all possible promotion. The raw, uncouth Yankee lad who taught the Ohio boys, slept at Widow Garfield’s, with Thomas and James; and the sons of the neighbouring settlers worked on the farm during the summer months, but took lessons when the long ice and snow of winter along the lake shore put a stop almost entirely for the time to their usual labours.

James continued at school till he was twelve years old, and then, his brother Thomas (being by that time twenty-one) went away by agreement still further west to Michigan, leaving young Jim to take his place upon the little farm. The fences were all completed by this time; the barn was built, the ground was fairly brought under cultivation, and it required comparatively little labour to keep the land cropped after the rough fashion which amply satisfies American pioneers, with no rent to pay, and only their bare living to make out of the soil. Thomas was going to fell trees in Michigan, to clear land there for a farmer; and he proposed to use his earnings (when he got them) for the purpose of building a “frame house” (that is to say, a house built of planks) instead of the existing log hut. It must be added, in fairness, that hard as were the circumstances under which the young Garfields lived, they were yet lucky in their situation in a new country, where wages were high, and where the struggle for life is far less severe or competitive than in old settled lands like France and England. Thomas, in fact; would get boarded for nothing in Michigan, and so would be able easily to save almost all his high wages for the purpose of building the frame house.

So James had to take to the farm in summer, while in the winter he began to work as a sort of amateur carpenter in a small way. As yet he had lived entirely in the backwoods, and had never seen a town or even a village; but his education in practical work had begun from his very babyhood, and he was handy after the usual fashion of American or colonial boys–ready to turn his hand to anything that happened to present itself. In new countries, where everybody has not got neighbours and workmen within call, such rough-and-ready handiness is far more common than in old England. The one carpenter of the neighbourhood asked James to help him, on the proud day when Tom brought back his earnings from Michigan, and set about the building of the frame house, for which he had already collected the unhewn timber. From that first beginning, by the time he was thirteen, James was promoted to assist in building a barn; and he might have taken permanently to a carpenter’s life, had it not been that his boyish passion for reading had inspired him with an equal passion for going to sea. He had read Marryatt’s novels and other sailor tales–what boy has not?–and he was fired with the usual childish desire to embark upon that wonderful life of chasing buccaneers, fighting pirates, capturing prizes, or hunting hidden treasure, which is a lad’s brilliantly coloured fancy picture of an everyday sailor’s wet, cold, cheerless occupation.

At last, when James was about fifteen, his longing for the sea grew so strong that his mother, by way of a compromise, allowed him to go and try his luck with the Lake Erie captains at Cleveland. Shipping on the great lakes, where one can see neither bank from the middle of the wide blue sheet of water, and where wrecks are unhappily as painfully frequent as on our own coasts, was quite sufficiently like going to sea to suit the adventurous young backwoodsman to the top of his bent. But when he got to Cleveland, a fortunate disappointment awaited him. The Cleveland captains declined his services in such vigorous seafaring language (not unmixed with many unnecessary oaths), that he was glad enough to give up the idea of sailoring, and take a place as driver of a canal boat from Cleveland to Pittsburg in Pennsylvania, the boat being under the charge of one of his own cousins. Copper ore was then largely mined on Lake Superior, where it is very abundant, carried by ship to Cleveland, down the chain of lakes, and there transferred to canal boats, which took it on to Pittsburg, the centre of a great coal and manufacturing district in Pennsylvania, to be smelted and employed in various local arts. Young Garfield stuck for a little while to the canal business. He plodded along wearily upon the bank, driving his still wearier horse before him, and carrying ore down to Pittsburg with such grace as he best might; but it didn’t somehow quite come up to his fancy picture of the seaman’s life. It was dull and monotonous, and he didn’t care for it much. In genuine American language, “he didn’t find it up to sample.” The sea might be very well in its way; but a canal was a very different matter indeed. So after a fair trial, James finally gave the business up, and returned to his mother on the little homestead, ill and tired with his long tramping.

While he was at home, the schoolmaster of the place, who saw that the lad had abilities, was never tired of urging him to go to school, and do himself justice by getting himself a first-rate education, or at least as good a one as could be obtained in America. James was ready enough to take this advice, if the means were forthcoming; but how was he to do so? “Oh, that’s easy enough,” said young Bates, the master. “You’ll only have to work out of hours as a carpenter, take odd jobs in your vacations, live plainly, and there you are.” In England there are few schools where such a plan would be practicable; but in rough-and-ready America, where self-help is no disgrace, there are many, and they are all well attended. In the neighbouring town of Chester, a petty Baptist sect had started a young school which they named Geauga Seminary (there are no plain schools in America–they are all “academies” or “institutes”); and to this simple place young Garfield went, to learn and work as best he might for his own advancement. A very strange figure he must then have cut, indeed; for a person who saw him at the time described him as wearing a pair of trousers he had long outworn, rough cow-hide boots, a waistcoat much too short for him, and a thread-bare coat, with sleeves that only reached a little below the elbows. Of such stuff as that, with a stout heart and an eager brain, the budding presidents of the United States are sometimes made.

James soon found himself humble lodgings at an old woman’s in Chester, and he also found himself a stray place at a carpenter’s shop in the town, where he was able to do three hours’ work out of school time every day, besides giving up the whole of his Saturday holiday to regular labour. It was hard work, this schooling and carpentering side by side; but James throve upon it; and at the end of the first term he was not only able to pay all his bill for board and lodging, but also to carry home a few dollars in his pocket by way of savings.

James stopped three years at the “seminary” at Chester; and in the holidays he employed himself by teaching in the little township schools among the country districts. There is generally an opening for young students to earn a little at such times by instructing younger boys than themselves in reading, writing, and arithmetic; and the surrounding farmers, who want schooling for their boys, are glad enough to take the master in on the “boarding round” system, for the sake of his usefulness in overlooking the lads in the preparation of their home lessons. It is a simple patriarchal life, very different from anything we know in England; and though Ohio was by this time a far more settled and populated place than when Abram Garfield first went there, it was still quite possible to manage in this extremely primitive and family fashion. The fact is, though luxuries were comparatively unknown, food was cheap and abundant; and a young teacher who was willing to put his heart into his work could easily earn more than enough to live upon in rough comfort. Sometimes the school-house was a mere log hut, like that in which young Garfield had been born; but, at any rate, it was work to do, and food to eat, and that alone was a great thing for a lad who meant to make his own way in the world by his own exertions.

Near the end of his third year at Chester, James met, quite accidentally, with a young man who had come from a little embryo “college,” of the sort so common in rising American towns, at a place called Hiram in Ohio. American schools are almost as remarkable as American towns for the oddity and ugliness of their names; and this “college” was known by the queer and meaningless title of the “Eclectic Institute.” It was conducted by an obscure sect who dub themselves “The Disciples’ Church,” to which young Garfield’s father and mother had both belonged. His casual acquaintance urged upon him strongly the desirability of attending the institute; and James, who had already begun to learn Latin, and wished to learn more, was easily persuaded to try this particular school rather than any other.

In August, 1851, James Garfield, then aged nearly twenty, presented himself at the “Eclectic Institute,” in the farm-labourer’s clothes which were his only existing raiment. He asked to see the “president” of the school, and told him plainly that he wished to come there for education, but that he was poor, and if he came, he must work for his living. “What can you do?” asked the president. “Sweep the floors, light the fires, ring the bell, and make myself generally useful,” answered the young backwoodsman. The president, pleased with his eagerness, promised to try him for a fortnight; and at the end of the fortnight, Garfield had earned his teaching so well that he was excused from all further fees during the remainder of his stay at the little institute. His post was by no mean an easy one, for he was servant-of-all-work as well as student; but he cared very little for that as long as he could gain the means for self-improvement.

Hiram was a small town, as ugly as its name. Twelve miles from a railway, a mere agricultural centre, of the rough back-country sort, all brand new and dreary looking, with a couple of wooden churches, half a dozen wooden shops, two new intersecting streets with wooden sidewalks, and that was all. The “institute” was a square brick block, planted incongruously in the middle of an Indian-corn plantation; and the students were the sons and daughters of the surrounding farmers, for (as in most western schools) both sexes were here educated together.

But the place suited Garfield far better than an older and more dignified university would have done. The other students knew no more than he did, so that he did not feel himself at a disadvantage; they were dressed almost as plainly as himself; and during the time he was at Hiram he worked away with a will at Latin, Greek, and the higher mathematics, so as to qualify himself for a better place hereafter. Meanwhile, the local carpenter gave him plenty of planing to do, with which he managed to pay his way; and as he had to rise before five every morning to ring the first bell, he was under no danger of oversleeping himself. By 1853, he had made so much progress in his studies that he was admitted as a sort of pupil teacher, giving instruction himself in the English department and in rudimentary Greek and Latin, while he went on with his own studies with the aid of the other teachers.

James had now learnt as much as the little “Eclectic Institute” could possibly teach him, and he began to think of going to some better college in the older-settled and more cultivated eastern states, where he might get an education somewhat higher than was afforded him by the raw “seminaries” and “academies” of his native Ohio. True, his own sect, the “Disciples’ Church,” had got up a petty university of their own, “Bethany College”–such self-styled colleges swarm all over the United States; but James didn’t much care for the idea of going to it. “I was brought up among the Disciples,” he said; “I have mixed chiefly among them; I know little of other people; it will enlarge my views and give me more liberal feelings if I try a college elsewhere, conducted otherwise; if I see a little of the rest of the world.” Moreover, those were stirring times in the States. The slavery question was beginning to come uppermost. The men of the free states in the north and west were beginning to say among themselves that they would no longer tolerate that terrible blot upon American freedom–the enslavement of four million negroes in the cotton-growing south. James Garfield felt all his soul stirred within him by this great national problem–the greatest that any modern nation has ever had to solve for itself. Now, his own sect, the Disciples, and their college, Bethany, were strongly tinctured with a leaning in favour of slavery, which young James Garfield utterly detested. So he made up his mind to having nothing to do with the accursed thing, but to go east to some New England college, where he would mix among men of culture, and where he would probably find more congenial feelings on the slavery question.

Before deciding, he wrote to three eastern colleges, amongst others to Yale, the only American university which by its buildings and surroundings can lay any claim to compare, even at a long distance, in beauty and associations, with the least among European universities. The three colleges gave him nearly similar answers; but one of them, in addition to the formal statement of terms and so forth, added the short kindly sentence, “If you come here, we shall be glad to do what we can for you.” It was only a small polite phrase; but it took the heart of the rough western boy. If other things were about the same, he said, he would go to the college which offered him, as it were, a friendly grasp of the hand. He had saved a little money at Hiram; and he proposed now to go on working for his living, as he had hitherto done, side by side with his regular studies. But his brother, who was always kind and thoughtful to him, would not hear of this. Thomas had prospered meanwhile in his own small way, and he insisted upon lending James such a sum as would cover his necessary expenses for two years at an eastern university. James insured his life for the amount, so that Thomas might not be a loser by his brotherly generosity in case of his death before repayment could be made; and then, with the money safe in his pocket, he started off for his chosen goal, the Williams College, in one of the most beautiful and hilly parts of Massachusetts.

During the three years that Garfield was at this place, he studied hard and regularly, so much so that at one time his brain showed symptoms of giving way under the constant strain. In the vacations, he took a trip into Vermont, a romantic mountain state, where he opened a writing school at a little country village; and another into the New York State, where he engaged himself in a similar way at a small town on the banks of the lovely Hudson river. At college, in spite of his rough western dress and manners, he earned for himself the reputation of a thoroughly good fellow. Indeed, geniality and warmth of manner, qualities always much prized by the social American people, were very marked traits throughout of Garfield’s character, and no doubt helped him greatly in after life in rising to the high summit which he finally reached. It was here, too, that he first openly identified himself with the anti-slavery party, which was then engaged in fighting out the important question whether any new slave states should be admitted to the Union. Charles Sumner, the real grand central figure of that noble struggle, was at that moment thundering in Congress against the iniquitous extension of the slave-holding area, and was employing all his magnificent powers to assail the abominable Fugitive Slave Bill, for the return of runaway negroes, who escaped north, into the hands of their angry masters. The American colleges are always big debating societies, where questions of politics are regularly argued out among the students; and Garfield put himself at the head of the anti-slavery movement at his own little university. He spoke upon the subject frequently before the assembled students, and gained himself a considerable reputation, not only as a zealous advocate of the rights of the negro, but also as an eloquent orator and a powerful argumentative debater.

In 1856, Garfield took his degree at Williams College, and had now finished his formal education. By that time, he was a fair though not a great scholar, competently read in the Greek and Latin literatures, and with a good knowledge of French and German. He was now nearly twenty-five years old; and his experience was large and varied enough to make him already into a man of the world. He had been farmer, carpenter, canal driver, and student; he had seen the primitive life of the forest, and the more civilized society of the Atlantic shore; he had taught in schools in many states; he had supported himself for years by his own labours; and now, at an age when many young men are, as a rule, only just beginning life on their own account, he had practically raised himself from his own class into the class of educated and cultivated gentlemen. As soon as he had taken his degree, his old friends, the trustees of the “Eclectic Institute” at Hiram, proud of their former sweeper and bell-ringer, called him back at a good salary as teacher of Greek and Latin. It was then just ten years since he had toiled wearily along the tow-path of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Canal.

As a teacher, Garfield seems to have been eminently successful. His genial character and good-natured way of explaining things made him a favourite at once with the rough western lads he had to teach, who would perhaps have thought a more formal teacher stiff and stuck-up. Garfield was one of themselves; he knew their ways and their manners; he could make allowances for their awkwardness and bluntness of speech; he could adopt towards them the exact tone which put them at home at once with their easy-going instructor. Certainly, he inspired all his pupils with an immense love and devotion for him; and it is less easy to inspire those feelings in a sturdy Ohio farmer than in most other varieties of the essentially affectionate human species.

From 1857 to 1861, Garfield remained at Hiram, teaching and working very hard. His salary, though a good one for the time and place, was still humble according to our English notions; but it sufficed for his needs; and as yet it would have seemed hardly credible that in only twenty years the Ohio schoolmaster would rise to be President of the United States. Indeed, it is only in America, that country of peculiarly unencumbered political action, where every kind of talent is most rapidly recognized and utilized, that this particular form of swift promotion is really possible. But while Garfield was still at his Institute, he was taking a vigorous part in local politics, especially on the slavery question. Whenever there was a political meeting at Hiram, the young schoolmaster was always called upon to take the anti-slavery side; and he delivered himself so effectively upon this favourite topic that he began to be looked upon as a rising political character. In America, politics are less confined to any one class than in Europe; and there would be nothing unusual in the selection of a schoolmaster who could talk to a seat in the local or general legislature. The practice of paying members makes it possible for comparatively poor men to offer themselves as candidates; and politics are thus a career, in the sense of a livelihood, far more than in any other country.

In 1858, Garfield married a lady who had been a fellow-student of his in earlier days, and to whom he had been long engaged. In the succeeding year, he got an invitation which greatly pleased and flattered him. The authorities at Williams College asked him to deliver the “Master’s Oration” at their annual festival; an unusual compliment to pay to so young a man, and one who had so recently taken his degree. It was the first opportunity he had ever had for a pleasure-trip, and taking his young wife with him (proud indeed, we may be sure, at this earliest honour of his life, the precursor of so many more) he went to Massachusetts by a somewhat roundabout but very picturesque route, down the Great Lakes, through the Thousand Islands, over the St. Lawrence rapids, and on to Quebec, the only town in America which from its old-world look can lay claim to the sort of beauty which so many ancient European cities abundantly possess. He delivered his address with much applause and returned to his Ohio home well satisfied with this pleasant outing.

Immediately on his return, the speech-making schoolmaster was met by a very sudden and unexpected request that he would allow himself to be nominated for the State legislature. Every state of the Union has its own separate little legislative body, consisting of two houses; and it was to the upper of these, the Senate of Ohio, that James Garfield was asked to become a candidate. The schoolmaster consented; and as those were times of very great excitement, when the South was threatening to secede if a President hostile to the slave-owning interest was elected, the contest was fought out almost entirely along those particular lines. Garfield was returned as senator by a large majority, and took his seat in the Ohio Senate in January, 1860. There, his voice was always raised against slavery, and he was recognized at once as one of the ablest speakers in the whole legislature.

In 1861, the great storm burst over the States. In the preceding November, Abraham Lincoln had been elected President. Lincoln was himself, like Garfield, a self-made man, who had risen from the very same pioneer labourer class;–a wood-cutter and rail-splitter in the backwoods of Illinois, he had become a common boatman on the Mississippi, and had there improved his mind by reading eagerly in all his spare moments. With one of those rapid rises so commonly made by self-taught lads in America, he had pushed his way into the Illinois legislature by the time he was twenty-five, and qualified himself to practise as a barrister at Springfield. His shrewd original talents had raised him with wonderful quickness into the front ranks of his own party; and when the question between the North and South rose into the region of practical politics, Lincoln was selected by the republicans (the anti-slavery group) as their candidate for the Presidency of the United States. This selection was a very significant one in several ways; Lincoln was a very strong opponent of slavery, and his candidature showed the southern slaveowners that if the Republicans were successful in the contest, a vigorous move against the slave-holding oligarchy would at once be made. But it was also significant in the fact that Lincoln was a western man; it was a sign that the farmers and grangers of the agricultural west were beginning to wake up politically and throw themselves into the full current of American State affairs. On both these grounds, Lincoln’s nomination must have been deeply interesting to Garfield, whose own life had been so closely similar, and who was destined, twenty years later, to follow him to the same goal.

Lincoln was duly elected, and the southern states began to secede. The firing upon Fort Sumter by the South Carolina secessionists was the first blow struck in that terrible war. Every man who was privileged to live in America at that time (like the present writer) cannot recall without a glow of recollection the memory of the wild eagerness with which the North answered that note of defiance, and went forth with overpowering faith and eagerness to fight the good fight on behalf of human freedom. Such a spontaneous outburst of the enthusiasm of humanity has never been known, before or since. President Lincoln immediately called for a supply of seventy-five thousand men. In the Ohio Senate, his message was read amid tumultuous applause; and the moment the sound of the cheers died away, Garfield, as natural spokesman of the republican party, sprang to his feet, and moved in a short and impassioned speech that the state of Ohio should contribute twenty thousand men and three million dollars as its share in the general preparations. The motion was immediately carried with the wildest demonstrations of fervour, and Ohio, with all the rest of the North, rose like one man to put down by the strong hand the hideous traffic in human flesh and blood.

During those fiery and feverish days, every citizen of the loyal states felt himself to be, in reserve at least, a possible soldier. It was necessary to raise, drill, and render effective in an incredibly short time a large army; and it would have been impossible to do so had it not been for the eager enthusiasm with which civilians of every sort enlisted, and threw themselves into their military duties with almost incredible devotion. Garfield felt that he must bear his own part in the struggle by fighting it out, not in the Senate but on the field; and his first move was to obtain a large quantity of arms from the arsenal in the doubtfully loyal state of Missouri. In this mission he was completely successful; and he was next employed to raise and organize two new regiments of Ohio infantry. Garfield, of course, knew absolutely nothing of military matters at that time; but it was not a moment to stand upon questions of precedence or experience; the born organizers came naturally to the front, and Garfield was one of them. Indeed, the faculty for organization seems innate in the American people, so that when it became necessary to raise and equip so large a body of men at a few weeks’ notice, the task was undertaken offhand by lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers, and schoolmasters, without a minute’s hesitation, and was performed on the whole with distinguished success.

When Garfield had organized his regiments, the Governor asked him to accept the post of colonel to one of them. But Garfield at first mistrusted his own powers in this direction. How should he, who had hitherto been poring chiefly over the odes of Horace (his favourite poet), now take so suddenly to leading a thousand men into actual battle? He would accept only a subordinate position, he said, if a regular officer of the United States army, trained at the great military academy at West Point, was placed in command. So the Governor told him to go among his own farmer friends in his native district, and recruit a third regiment, promising to find him a West Point man as colonel, if one was available. Garfield accepted the post of lieutenant-colonel, raised the 42nd Ohio regiment, chiefly among his own old pupils at Hiram, and set off for the seat of operations. At the last moment the Governor failed to find a regular officer to lead these raw recruits, every available man being already occupied, and Garfield found himself, against his will,
compelled to undertake the responsible task of commanding the regiment. He accepted the task thus thrust upon him, and as if by magic transformed himself at once from a schoolmaster into an able soldier.

In less than one month, Colonel Garfield took his raw troops into action in the battle of Middle Creek, and drove the Confederate General Marshall, with far larger numbers, out of his intrenchments, compelling him to retreat into Virginia. This timely victory did much to secure the northern advance along the line of the Mississippi. During the whole of the succeeding campaign Garfield handled his regiment with such native skill and marked success that the Government appointed him Brigadier-General for his bravery and military talent. In spite of all his early disadvantages, he had been the youngest member of the Ohio Senate, and now he was the youngest general in the whole American army.

Shortly after, the important victory of Chickamauga was gained almost entirely by the energy and sagacity of General Garfield. For this service, he was raised one degree in dignity, receiving his commission as Major-General. He served altogether only two years and three months in the army.

But while Garfield was at the head of his victorious troops in Kentucky, his friends in Ohio were arranging, without his consent or knowledge, to call him away to a very different sphere of work. They nominated Garfield as their candidate for the United States House of Representatives at Washington. The General himself was unwilling to accede to their request, when it reached him. He thought he could serve the country better in the field than in Congress. Besides, he was still a comparatively poor man. His salary as Major-General was double that of a member of the House; and for his wife’s and children’s sake he hesitated to accept the lesser position. Had he continued in the army to the end of the war, he would doubtless have risen to the very highest honours of that stirring epoch. But President Lincoln was very anxious that Garfield should come into the Congress, where his presence would greatly strengthen the President’s hands; and with a generous self-denial which well bespeaks his thorough loyalty, Garfield gave up his military post and accepted a place in the House of Representatives. He took his seat in December, 1863.

For seventeen years, General Garfield sat in the general legislature of the United States as one of the members for Ohio. During all that time, he distinguished himself most honourably as the fearless advocate of honest government, and the pronounced enemy of those underhand dodges and wire-pulling machinery which are too often the disgrace of American politics. He was opposed to all corruption and chicanery, especially to the bad system of rewarding political supporters with places under Government, which has long been the chief blot upon American republican institutions. As a person of stalwart honesty and singleness of purpose, he made himself respected by both sides alike. Politically speaking, different men will judge very differently of Garfield’s acts in the House of Representatives. Englishmen especially cannot fail to remark that his attitude towards ourselves was almost always one of latent hostility; but it is impossible for anybody to deny that his conduct was uniformly guided by high principle, and a constant deference to what he regarded as the right course of action.

In 1880, when General Garfield had already risen to be the acknowledged leader of the House of Representatives, his Ohio supporters put him in nomination for the upper chamber, the Senate. They wished Garfield to come down to the state capital and canvas for support; but this the General would not hear of. “I never asked for any place yet,” he said, “except the post of bell-ringer and general sweeper at the Hiram Institute, and I won’t ask for one now.” But at least, his friends urged, he would be on the spot to encourage and confer with his partisans. No, Garfield answered; if they wished to elect him they must elect him in his absence; he would avoid all appearance, even, of angling for office. The result was that all the other candidates withdrew, and Garfield was elected by acclamation.

After the election he went down to Ohio and delivered a speech to his constituents, a part of which strikingly illustrates the courage and independence of the backwoods schoolmaster. “During the twenty years that I have been in public life,” he said, “almost eighteen of it in the Congress of the United States, I have tried to do one thing. Whether I was mistaken or otherwise, it has been the plan of my life to follow my conviction, at whatever personal cost to myself. I have represented for many years a district in Congress whose approbation I greatly desired; but though it may seem, perhaps, a little egotistical to say it, I yet desired still more the approbation of one person, and his name was Garfield. He is the only man that I am compelled to sleep with, and eat with, and live with, and die with; and if I could not have his approbation I should have bad companionship.”

Only one higher honour could now fall to the lot of a citizen of the United States. The presidency was the single post to which Garfield’s ambition could still aspire. That honour came upon him, like all the others, without his seeking; and it came, too, quite unexpectedly. Five months later, in the summer of 1880, the National Republican Convention met to select a candidate for their party at the forthcoming presidential election. Every four years, before the election, each party thus meets to decide upon the man to whom its votes will be given at the final choice. After one or two ineffectual attempts to secure unanimity in favour of other and more prominent politicians, the Convention with one accord chose James Garfield for its candidate–a nomination which was quite as great a surprise to Garfield himself as to all the rest of the world. He was elected President of the United States in November, 1880.

It was a marvellous rise for the poor canal boy, the struggling student, the obscure schoolmaster, thus to find himself placed at the head of one among the greatest nations of the earth. He was still less than fifty, and he might reasonably have looked forward to many years of a happy, useful, and honourable life. Nevertheless, it is impossible to feel that Garfield’s death was other than a noble and enviable one. He was cut off suddenly in the very moment of his brightest success, before the cares and disappointments of office had begun to dim the pleasure of his first unexpected triumph. He died a martyr to a good and honest cause, and his death-bed was cheered and alleviated by the hushed sorrow and sympathy of an entire nation–one might almost truthfully add, of the whole civilized world.

From the first, President Garfield set his face sternly against the bad practice of rewarding political adherents by allowing them to nominate officials in the public service–a species of covert corruption sanctioned by long usage in the United States. This honest and independent conduct raised up for him at once a host of enemies among his own party. The talk which they indulged in against the President produced a deep effect upon a half-crazy and wildly egotistic French-Canadian of the name of Guiteau, who had emigrated to the States and become an American citizen. General Garfield had arranged a trip to New England in the summer of 1881, to attend the annual festival at his old school, the Williams College, Massachusetts; and for that purpose he left the White House (the President’s official residence at Washington) on July 2. As he stood in the station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railway, arm in arm with Mr. Blaine, the Secretary of State, Guiteau approached him casually, and, drawing out a pistol, fired two shots in rapid succession, one of which took effect on the President above the third rib. The assassin was at once secured, and the wounded President was carried back carefully to the White House.

Almost everybody who reads this book will remember the long suspense, while the President lay stretched upon his bed for weeks and weeks together, with all Europe and America watching anxiously for any sign of recovery, and sympathizing deeply with the wounded statesman and his devoted wife. Every effort that was possible was made to save him, but the wound was past all surgical skill. After lingering long with the stored-up force of a good constitution, James Garfield passed away at last of blood-poisoning, more deeply regretted perhaps than any other man whom the present generation can remember.

It is only in America that precisely such a success as Garfield’s is possible for people who spring, as he did, from the midst of the people. In old-settled and wealthy countries we must be content, at best, with slower and less lofty promotion. But the lesson of Garfield’s life is not for America only, but for the whole world of workers everywhere. The same qualities which procured his success there will produce a different, but still a solid success, anywhere else. As Garfield himself fittingly put it, with his usual keen American common sense, “There is no more common thought among young people than the foolish one, that by-and-by something will turn up by which they will suddenly achieve fame or fortune. No, young gentlemen; things don’t turn up in this world unless somebody turns them up.”



MLA Source Citation:

AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 16 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/ohio/biography-of-james-garfield.htm - Last updated on Oct 4th, 2012


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