Born at the peak of Jacksonian America, James Garfield witnessed one of the most turbulent periods in American history, living through the expansionist boom of Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the onset of the Gilded Age.

Garfield was born in Ohio, although at the time the state was still an unsettled area known as the Western Reserve. As Garfield grew up, however, the American frontier moved past Ohio and Illinois, and all the way toward California. By the end of the presidency of James K. Polk, the boundaries of the United States had largely been drawn. Oregon had been negotiated away from the British, Texas had won its independence from Mexico and joined the United States, and California and New Mexico had been purchased. The California Gold Rush of 1848 encouraged a sense of adventure and excitement as the country grew by leaps and bounds.

All this growth, however, came at the same time that slavery and talk of its expansion became an increasingly controversial issue. The northern states had industrialized, ending the need for slaves and helping to boost the growing abolitionist movement in northern cities. The south, on the other hand, had remained largely agrarian and needed its slaves. The invention of the cotton gin made cheap, reliable labor that much more important. As additional territories asked to join the states, the decision over which would be free states and which would be slave-holding led to increasingly violent debates both inside and outside the government.

The issue of slavery came to a head in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln. As South Carolina and other slave states seceded from the Union, both sides prepared for war, but neither side expected the four years of brutal and hellish conflict that ensued. The fighting, which was of a scale never before seen on American soil, took hundreds and thousands of lives. The period of Reconstruction was made worse by the assassination of Lincoln and by the harsh policies of his successor, Andrew Johnson. Military governments seized control of the former confederate states, which in turn passed vindictive "Jim Crow" laws that put the freed slaves in a worse position than they had been in under slavery. The legacy of Reconstruction could still be felt when Garfield came to power fifteen years later.

Garfield rose in politics amid growing discontent with the corruption and graft inherent in nineteenth-century politics. Political machines like New York's Tammany Hall ran elections and controlled thousands of jobs under the spoils system. Garfield realized the need for competent government workers and strived to achieve civil service reform–something that only happened with his death. Garfield died in 1881, just as the United States prepared to take its place on the world stage. What had recently been a frontier nation struggling to survive at his birth was well on its way to becoming a world power when he died.

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