President-elect Garfield and his wife arrived in Washington on November 23, 1880. He immediately began formulating a cabinet and administration, and was inaugurated on a snowy Saturday in March, 1881. Garfield quickly rounded out his cabinet, and even made one appointment to the Supreme Court.

Garfield, a long-time supporter of civil service reform, took a strong stand against the spoils system and political patronage. One of Garfield's first acts as President was to tighten federal control of the New York Customs House, the political stronghold of Senator Roscoe Conkling, a leader of the Republican faction that had supported Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential race. Garfield submitted a long list Conkling's patronage appointments to Congress and proposed that William H. Robertson, a rival of Conkling's be appointed to run the Customs House. Conkling persuaded the Senate to block Robertson's nomination and asked the Republicans to force Garfield to withdraw the name.

Garfield responded angrily to Conkling's challenge, writing that the issue "will settle the question of whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States." Garfield ended up the decisive victor, securing Robertson's appointment while Conkling resigned his office.

In the area of foreign policy, James G. Blaine, Garfield's Secretary of State, invited all of the republics in the Americas to a conference to a conference in Washington. The conference, which would have constituted the first official Pan-American meeting, never took place.

Garfield's administration also exposed fraud and graft along some of the nation's mail routes. As the summer of 1881 began the government appeared, by all accounts, to be in good hands. The Garfield administration appeared competent, powerful and clean.

On the morning of July 2, 1881, the president arrived at the depot of the Baltimore and Potomac railroad for a trip to New England. While walking down the railway platform with his friend Blaine, Garfield was shot twice by Charles Guiteau, an angry office-seeker whose application to be the ambassador to France had been denied. The first bullet grazed Garfield's arm, but the second lodged in his back. Guiteau, a religious fanatic, yelled that he had shot the president to save the Republic and promptly gave himself up to the Washington police. Guiteau had even arranged to have a hansom cab wait for him outside the station so that he could be rushed to the city jail before an angry mob lynched him.

Garfield never lost consciousness and was taken to the White House, where he lingered for the next ten weeks. The country's best doctors tried to save Garfield by removing the bullet, but multiple attempts to locate it failed. In an effort to locate the bullet, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, built a crude metal detector. Garfield, however, was lying on a mattress with steel coils, and so wherever the detector was placed it registered metal. Had Bell moved the president to a different location, the doctors would have likely located the bullet and saved Garfield's life. The wound, which was originally only three inches long, grew into a twenty-inch-long gouge down the president's back as doctors probed him. Inevitably, the wound became infected and on September 15, 1881, Garfield was diagnosed with blood poisoning. He died four days later.

In death, Garfield accomplished what had eluded so many presidents before him. Outrage over the assassin Guiteau, a disaffected job-seeker, prompted the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act two years later. Finally, civil service was reformed.

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