James Abram Garfield was born on November 19, 1831 near Cleveland, Ohio. Left fatherless at age two, Garfield received little schooling before the age of seventeen. While working on a canal boat, however, he fell sick and the experience encouraged him to pursue an education.
For the next decade of his life Garfield vigorously pursued a liberal arts education, mastering a number of subjects at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, where he had enrolled after converting to the church of the Disciples. Now deeply religious, Garfield took up preaching before enrolling in Williams College to gain an advanced degree. After graduating as only one of six students in his class to receive honors, Garfield returned to the Institute in Hiram, Ohio where he quickly became principal. Later, Garfield returned to get a masters degree from Williams to further increase his knowledge.
In 1858, Garfield married Lucretia Randolph and over the next two decades, they had seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Garfield would prove to be a kind but strict father, and he brought his family to Washington with him as a congressman during legislative sessions.
As the Civil War neared, Garfield gained an interest in politics, and in 1859 he was elected to the state senate in Ohio as a Republican. Garfield began to study law and was admitted to the bar shortly before the war began. When the Civil War began, Garfield was appointed a lieutenant-colonel of the volunteer infantry and, even though he had no military training, trained his men so thoroughly that he was quickly promoted to command an entire brigade of three thousand men. Garfield proved a master soldier. He led the brigade as it forced a Confederate army out of eastern Kentucky and earned the Union one of its few major victories in the first half of the war. Garfield was later promoted to major-general after he helped prevent the rout of a Union and served as chief of staff for William S. Rosecrans before Abraham Lincoln asked him to serve in Congress.
Garfield served in Congress from 1863 until he was elected president in 1880 and he became one of the House's most effective congressmen. He worked hard, argued persuasively, and from 1871 to 1875 he was chairman of the committee on appropriations. Garfield focused much of his work on fiscal policy and "hard money." He helped treasury secretaries lower the interest on the post-war debt and fought for protectionist tariffs that became a cornerstone of the Republican campaign. In 1876, Garfield's leadership in the House helped usher Rutherford B. Hayes into the presidency after the controversial election of 1876, where Hayes won the electoral college by a single vote.
In January 1880, Garfield was elected to the U.S. Senate. However, in May of that year he won the Republican nomination for president at the Chicago convention, and defeated his Democratic opponent, Winfield Scott Hancock, in the fall of that year. Garfield's brief presidency proved effective and popular. He led a strong assault on graft and exposed corruption along several mail routes. Garfield's Secretary of State also planned the first pan-American conference.
On July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot in a Washington railroad station by a disgruntled office seeker. He lingered for more than ten weeks as doctors tried unsuccessfully to locate and remove the bullet lodged in his back. Eventually, the doctors' efforts caused an infection that gave Garfield blood poisoning and he died on September 19, 1881.