Garfield had managed to build up a comfortable life for himself by 1880. He had built a house in Washington, D.C. in 1869 so that his large family could live comfortably with him during the legislative sessions. A wing was later added to the house to expand Garfield's library. Garfield loved reading, and would often stop at the Library of Congress to gather reading material for the trains when he traveled across the country. Garfield kept extensive files on political issues, which he turned to when he needed to bolster a planned speech or debate. Garfield never spoke from a text or memorized his addresses, and could speak for hours from just a few pages of notes.

By the late 1870s, Garfield and his wife, Lucretia had seven children. Their first, Eliza, born in 1860, died as an infant. Garfield's son Harry was the oldest, followed by, in order, James R. Garfield, Mary Garfield, Irvin M. Garfield, Abram Garfield, and Edward Garfield. Garfield was a tough father who expected much from his children. Once, when he and James were watching a demonstration of a new fire extinguisher in a town square, James punched a man who had accidentally stepped on his foot. Garfield promptly ordered the demonstrator to turn the fire extinguisher on his son as punishment. In Washington, the family traveled to sporting events and held nightly recitations of their schoolwork.

On November 1, 1876, Garfield purchased a large farm near Lake Erie in Ohio, right next door to a Disciples' Church. Garfield spent most summers building up the farm, to the point where he felt he could turn it over to an overseer in 1879. The time Garfield spent in Ohio also gave him a chance to rekindle his friendships at home and advance his political fortunes there. President Hayes urged Garfield to run for governor, but his ambitions pointed more toward the senate. After several years of a Democratic governor, Ohio seemed to be swinging back towards the Republican party and large crowds met Garfield as he campaigned on behalf of state candidates. On election day, the Republican candidate for governor won by sixteen thousand votes.

On October 21, Garfield wrote in his journal that he had decided to run for election to the senate for three reasons: he felt the continued pace of the House would eventually break him down; he felt other men in the district should have a chance to run for the House; and he felt that further delay on his part would lead his opponents to think him a coward. Four other candidates vied for the Republican nomination, but on January 6, 1880, they each withdrew from consideration in the Republican caucus and Garfield won unanimous support. The legislature formally elected him a week later and he returned to the legislature victorious. Although Garfield celebrated his victory, he still had to serve out his term in the House and his new promotion weakened his control of the Republicans. There was no obvious deputy who could assume his role as minority leader and the Republicans began to bicker and argue over control.

The summer before, the House had begun work on revising its rules, and Garfield was instrumental in the committee's work. When the proposed revisions came up for approval in January, the Democrats were forced to soften their positions, especially after Republican victories in Ohio and New York. People appeared to be swinging back to the Republican Party and the Democrats did not want to be seen as impeding Congress's work. The new rules passed on March 2 with Garfield's careful support. The Democrats then turned back to the debates that had been held the previous summer over election laws, marshals and federal troops. Garfield grew increasingly frustrated over the repeated debates. On May 25, Garfield departed for Chicago as a delegate from Ohio at the Republican National Convention of 1880.

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