James Abram Garfield may be less spoken of today in comparison to many of those who have held the office of President of the United States, but the 20th man to do so led an extraordinary and brilliant life despite the most humble beginnings.
Indeed, he was born in a log cabin in Cuyahoga County, Ohio on the 19th of November 1831 into a family affiliated to the Disciples of Christ denomination, also known as the Christian Church. His father, Abram Garfield, died when he was less than two years old and he was subsequently raised by his French-American mother Eliza Ballou. As well as French, he was of Welsh ancestry, and English by dint of being a descendant of Mayflower passenger and convicted murderer John Billington.
Aged 16, he worked for six weeks as a canal driver near the big city of Cleveland, before illness forced him home where, at the Geauga Academy, he discovered a taste for academia, which led to his being offered a teaching post in 1849, which he accepted. A year later, he returned to churchgoing, which he had neglected for some years, and he was subsequently baptised.
From 1851 to '54, he was a student at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute - now known as Hiram College - founded by the Disciples of Christ in Hiram, Ohio, where he developed a special interest in Greek and Latin, and ended up teaching there, while serving as a preacher in local churches, then at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1856. But he decided against preaching as a vocation, returning instead to the Eclectic Institute, where he taught Classical languages. Then, while still only in his mid-twenties, he was elected principal in 1857, a position he held until 1860.
By this time, he'd been married for a short time to Lucretia Rudolph, one of his more brilliant Greek pupils, who went on to bear him seven children, and had begun the study of Law, being admitted to the Ohio bar in 1860. This took place soon after he'd entered politics for the first time, becoming elected an Ohio state senator in 1859, and serving as such for two years.
When the Civil War began in April 1861, he was still under thirty years old, despite an already incredibly full professional life. He subsequently joined the Union Army, and was given command of the 42cnd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. On January 11th 1862, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier, and in that same year was elected by the Republicans to the United States House of Representatives. By the time he resigned his commission to take his seat in congress, he'd been promoted to major general.
He was elected the 20th president of the United States in March 1881, an office he held for only a matter of months before being shot by a one-time lawyer and political office seeker by the name of Charles J. Guiteau.
Garfield survived the attempt on his life, and was bedridden for several weeks in the White House, before being moved to the Atlantic Coast of New Jersey in September in the hope that the fresh air might provoke a recovery, but this was not to be and he died on the 19th of that month from what may have been a heart attack exacerbated by blood poisoning and bronchial pneumonia.
It could be said that James A. Garfield lacks the legendary status of a Lincoln or a Kennedy, but by any standards known to man, he was remarkable in achievement and courage. Born in a log cabin, he rose to the highest political office in the world, becoming the only serving church minister to do so. As well as a preacher, he was a fighter for justice, and vocal opponent of slavery. And he was still only 49 when he died, with so much potential yet unfulfilled.