“You will agree with me that every one must decide and direct his own course in life, and the only service friends can afford is to give us the data from which we must draw our own conclusions and decide our own course.” —Future President James A. Garfield, letter of Jan. 15, 1857 to Burke Aaron Hinsdale, quoted in Burke Aaron Hinsdale, President Garfield and Education: Hiram College Memorial (1882)
A bullet from a deranged office-seeker cut short his life in 1881, but until that point, James A. Garfield—born on this date 185 years ago on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio—had “directed his own course” as few others have done on the way to the White House. Remarkably, he started out from origins perhaps even more lowly than Abraham Lincoln’s, helping his near-destitute, widowed mother tend their frontier farm. But unlike “The Great Railsplitter,” his ascent to the White House was constant, with virtually no deviation.
Self-improvement was the keynote of his early life. While liking the outdoors, he hated farming. An early attempt to try something different—running away to work on the canal boats operating between Cleveland and Pittsburgh—ended with him falling off the boats continually and catching such a fever that he had to return home. But before long, he had found his means of ascent: education.
Taking assorted jobs to pay his way—part-time teacher, carpenter, even a janitor—he ended up graduating from Williams College. Before passing the bar exam, he supported the Republican Party from its founding, becoming, at age 28, the youngest member of the state legislature. The time spent teaching and politicking sharpened his oratorical and debating skills.
When the Civil War came, he enlisted, rising to the rank of major general before leaving to take a seat in the House of Representatives. In the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, he served as minority leader in the House. He emerged as a compromise candidate between two warring factions at the 1880 Republican National Convention.
Charles Guiteau’s bullet not only left Garfield a forgotten President, but in some eyes, even a failed one, as I discussed in this prior post. That is unfair; he simply never had a chance to make a mark, with only four months from his inaugural address to the shooting. But his rise to power--the very embodiment of Ben Franklin's self-made man--was among the most marked in our history. It was a triumph of tenacity and the thirst for knowledge.