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This Day in History: James Garfield, nearly forgotten President

On this day in 1831, future President James Garfield is born on a farm in Ohio. His childhood was spent helping his impoverished mother run the family farm. His father had unfortunately died when Garfield was still very young.

Garfield hated working the farm, and he was determined to do something else. He left at age 16, convinced that he would be a sailor instead. Perhaps a funny choice? “I could not swim a particle,” Garfield later noted, “and I knew almost nothing about the water except what I had read.”

And he had read quite a bit!

An artist's rendering of Garfield's assassination.

“Nautical novels did it,” he would say. “I had read a large number of them . . . . My mother tried to turn my attention in other directions, but the books were considered bad and from that very fact were fascinating.”

Thus it was that Garfield found himself working as a “canal boy” on the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal. He fell into the water fourteen times, and he ended up getting very ill with what was likely malaria.

He was sick for months and forced to return home. It surely seemed like a setback to the lively young man, but Garfield would soon find a new calling: He started school the following semester.

And he loved it.

Garfield first attended Geauga Academy, then Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. By 1854, he transferred to Williams College so he could earn a college degree.

“He had a wide-awake curiosity which seemed never to be satiated,” one fellow student wrote. “A new thing, however unimportant, always attracted his attention.”

Garfield worked hard—and not just at his studies. He held jobs as a carpenter, a part-time teacher, and even a school janitor as he worked his way through school. He later studied law on his own and passed the Ohio bar in 1861.

(Yes! In this country, anyone can become President, even a former janitor.)

Garfield became an abolitionist who served in the army with distinction during the Civil War. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives without ever having campaigned for the seat. He held that seat for 18 years before being elected President in 1880.

The election of 1880 featured the closest national popular vote in American history. Garfield won the tally by only 8,355 votes. More importantly, he won the Electoral College, 214 to 155.

We’ll never know what kind of President Garfield could have been. He was shot by an assassin a mere four months into his presidency and died of blood poisoning a few months after that. Without the benefits of modern technology, the doctors could not determine the location of the bullet in Garfield’s body. They unfortunately spent time probing in his body with unclean hands and unsterilized equipment, probably causing the infection that ultimately killed him.

When Garfield passed away in September, the autopsy showed that the bullet had lodged in the left side of his back. His vertebra had been pierced, but his spinal cord had not been touched. No other major organs were affected. His wound would have been considered nonlethal and easily treated in a modern hospital today.

His assassin, Charles Guiteau, was hanged. Before his death, he confirmed: "I shot at him twice...." And yet he also stated: "The doctors killed him; I did not kill him."

Hmmm. Maybe so. How tragic.

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