James Garfield, the son of a poor farmer, was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on 19th November, 1831. After a brief formal education, Garfield worked as a helmsman on the Ohio Canal.
Garfield returned to education and studied at Geauga Seminary (1849-51) and the Hiram Institute (1851-54). After graduating from Williams College in 1858, Garfield became professor of ancient languages and literature in Hiram College. At the age of 25, Garfield became president of Hiram College. He also became involved in politics and joined the Free Soil Party.
A strong opponent of slavery, Garfield was one of the founders of the Republican Party and in 1859 was elected to the Ohio legislature. On the outbreak of the American Civil War Garfield joined the Union Army and was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel. He helped recruit the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and commanded a brigade at Shiloh (April, 1862). After fighting at Chickamauga (September, 1863), Garfield was promoted to the rank of major general.
Garfield left the army after he was elected to the 38th Congress and over the next few years became a prominent member of the Radical Republicans. This group favoured the abolition of slavery and believed that freed slaves should have complete equality with white citizens.
Garfield opposed the policies of President Andrew Johnson and argued in Congress that Southern plantations should be taken from their owners and divided among the former slaves. He also attacked Johnson when he attempted to veto the extension of the Freeman's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts.
In November, 1867, the Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 that Andrew Johnson be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. The majority report contained a series of charges including pardoning traitors, profiting from the illegal disposal of railroads in Tennessee, defying Congress, denying the right to reconstruct the South and attempts to prevent the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Garfield supported Johnson's impeachment but was unhappy that his replacement would be Benjamin Wade. Garfield warned that Wade was "a man of violent passions, extreme opinions and narrow views who was surrounded by the worst and most violent elements in the Republican Party." Despite this objections, Garfield voted for impeachment. However, the 35 to 19 vote, was one short of the required two-thirds majority for conviction.
Garfield remained a member of Congress for seventeen years. During this time her served as chairman of the Banking Committee (1869-71) and in 1880 was asked to organize the campaign of John Sherman, who was attempting to become the Republican Party presidential candidate. During the campaign Garfield was so impressive that he became one of the candidates and after 36 ballots defeated Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine for the nomination. To preserve party unity, the conservative Chester Arthur, became the vice-presidential candidate.
The Democratic Party nominated Winfield S. Hancock, who like Garfield had been a senior officer during the American Civil War. It was a close election and Garfield won by 4,449,053 votes to 4,442,030. In his inaugural speech Garfield returned to the issue that had first brought him into politics: "The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both."
Garfield attempted to select a Cabinet that would retain the unity of the Republican Party. However, Roscoe Conking, the leader of the Stalwart group, was unhappy with some of Garfield's choices and refused to serve in his administration.
On 2nd July, 1881, Garfield was waiting for a train in Washington with Robert Lincoln, his Secretary of War, when Charles J. Guiteau, shot him in the back. A supporter of Roscoe Conking, Guiteau, surrendered to the police with the words: "I am a Stalwart. Chester Arthur is now the president of the United States. After a four month struggle James Garfield died on 19th September, 1881 and Chester Arthur became president.