Term: March 4, 1881 – September 19, 1881
Vice President: Chester A. Arthur
Home State: Ohio
Wife: Lucretia Rudolph
Children: Eliza Arbella, Harry Augustus, James Rudolph, Mary, Irvin M., Abram, & Edward
James Garfield was born into humble circumstances on November 19, 1831 in Moreland Hills, Ohio. His father passed away before his second Christmas and young James was raised by his mother, brother, and uncle. As a teenager, he drove canal boat teams to earn money and probably never imagined that one day he would be in a position to send White House Christmas cards. Garfield attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) in Ohio. He went on to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he was known as an exceptional student, and graduated in 1856. After a brief stint as a preacher, he became a professor and returned to his former school in Ohio and was named President of the Institute within a year. He married his wife, Lucretia, in 1858 and the couple would have seven children. Garfield entered politics and was elected to the Ohio state senate in 1859.
When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Union Army, ascended through the ranks, and was appointed to lead the 42nd Volunteer Ohio Infantry. Commanding several armies, he spent the Christmas season of 1861 driving the Confederate forces out of Kentucky. Through the month of December, he marched his forces through the eastern part of the state, engaging and defeating the rebels in the battles of Jenny’s Creek and Middle Creek two weeks after Christmas, 1861. In recognition of his successes, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general following that eventful holiday season. Garfield would eventually reach the rank of Major General.
He was elected to Congress in 1862 and spent his next 18 Christmases in Congress, eventually becoming the leading Republican in the House of Representatives. At the Republican Convention in 1880, he supported his friend John Sherman for the nomination and was surprised when he himself was instead awarded the nomination on the 36th ballot. He would defeat his Democratic opponent, General Winfield Scott Hancock, by less than 2,000 votes – the smallest margin ever recorded in a presidential election. He won the Electoral Vote 214 to 155, winning almost all northern states and a few key frontier states.
Garfield spent Christmas 1880 sequestered at his Lawnfield Estate in Mentor, Ohio, poring over the inaugural addresses of all previous presidents, but he did not finish writing his own speech until just before the inauguration. In it, he spoke of the triumph of Constitutional law in the Civil War and he described the elevation of the African American race from slavery to citizenship as “the most important political change…since the adoption of the Constitution.”
Garfield’s presidency would prove to be so brief that he would never get a chance to send White House Christmas cards. He engaged in a bitter battle with the powerful New York senator Roscoe Conkling and ended up strengthening the President’s and the federal government’s authority over federally-administered state agencies such as the Customs Houses. The dispute ended with the resignation of both Conkling and New York’s other senator and confirmation of all of Garfield’s federal nominees. If Garfield had lived, it is highly unlikely that he and former senator Conkling would have exchanged warm Christmas greetings in 1881. In foreign policy, Garfield invited the leaders of all American nations to a conference in Washington in 1882 with the intention of setting up a mutually beneficial trade and security framework. The conference would never take place.
On the morning of July 2, 1881, Garfield traveled to the Washington train station. He planned to join his wife on vacation at the New Jersey shore, but was shot in the back by Charles Guiteau, a deranged lawyer who had unsuccessfully sought Garfield’s appointment to a European ambassadorship. The bullet lodged near the President’s spine. Doctors tried for weeks to locate it, prodding the President’s wound with unsterilized instruments and fingers. In early September, after a series of infections, he was moved to the seaside town of Long Branch, New Jersey. He died from an internal hemorrhage on September 19. Most historians agree that with medical practices observed just 20 or 25 years later, Garfield’s injury would not have proved fatal.