North American Scholar

GARFIELD, James Abram

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1831-11-19
  • Born City: Cuyahoga Co.
  • Born State/Country: OH
  • Parents: Abram, a farmer, & Eliza Ballou G.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1881-09-19
  • Death Notes: Assassinated as US President.
  • Married: Lucretia Randolph, 11 Nov. 1858.
  • Education:

    Study at Western Reserve Eclectic Inst, (now Hiram Coll.), 1851-4; A.B. Williams Coll., 1856.

  • Professional Experience:

    Prof., class. langs. & lits. Western Reserve Eclectic Inst., 1856-61; princ, 1856-61; adm. to Ohio bar, 1860; mem. Ohio Senate (Republican), 1859; Brig. Gen U.S. Volunteers, 1863, chief of staff under Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland, 1863; mem. U.S. House of Reps. (Ohio), 1863-80; elected to U.S. Senate, never took seat, 1880; elected 20th Pres. U.S., 1880.

  • Publications:

    The Works of James Abram Garfield, ed. Burke A. Hinsdale, 2 vols. (Boston, 1882-3). LETTERS: Garfield-Hinsdale Letters: Correspondence between James Abram Garfield and Burke Aaron Hinsdale, ed. Mary L. Hinsdale (Ann Arbor, 1949); Politics and Patronage in the Gilded Age: The Correspondence of James A. Garfield and Charles E. Henry, ed. James D. Norris & Arthur H. Shaffer (Madison, WI, 1970); Robert W. Sawyer, “James A. Garfield and the Classics,” Hayes Historical Journal 3,4 (Fall 1981) 47-56; Wild Life of the Army: Civil War Letters of James A. Garfield, ed. Frederick D. Williams (East Lansing, MI, 1964).

  • Notes:

    Mention of James A. Garfield usually brings to mind the 20th President of the United States; he is rarely associated with the field of classics. Yet, prior to his entry into politics, Garfield had been a highly successful and respected teacher of Greek and Latin. Indeed, Garfield's career epitomized those rags-to-riches stories which proved so attractive to 19th-century America, and the classics played no small role in his rise to fame. Born in impoverished circumstances on the American frontier in northeastern Ohio, left fatherless at the age of two, compelled to work at an early age in order to help support his family, Garfield seemed a most unlikely candidate to receive significant formal education, let alone any training in the classics. He began his study of Latin in March of 1849 at the age of 19 and experienced an immediate and passionate satisfaction in learning this language. He was equally captivated by Greek. Determined to advance to college, he entered the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, where he combined his study of Latin and Greek with work as a carpenter and janitor. Although he lacked the background in classics possessed by his classmates, as a result of his industry and determination he was asked to teach both elementary Greek and Latin to incoming students. Because the Eclectic Institute had not yet received a charter to grant baccalaureate degrees, Garfield took his degree from Williams College. Thereafter he was invited to return to the Eclectic Institute as professor and was appointed principal. He was only 27 years old. Although he taught additional subjects, Greek and Latin remained his most enjoyable assignments, and his diaries record in detail his work in these two areas. Garfield remained at the Eclectic Institute until 1859, when he was elected to the Ohio Senate. After serving with distinction in the Civil War—he rose to the rank of major general—he moved to Washington in 1863 in order to represent his district of northeastern Ohio in Congress. Despite his duties and commitments as a full-time politician, Garfield's interest in classics never waned. His political speeches contain frequent allusions to and quotations from classical authors; he engaged in a vigorous correspondence with academics on classical subjects; he read and reread ancient authors in the original language, notably Cicero and Horace. In 1867 he travelled to Europe and spent several ecstatic days in Rome visiting the antiquities about which he had previously only read. He loved to read Roman history and even contemplated undertaking his own translation of the letters of Pliny the Younger. One of the groups that visited him before his departure for Washington upon his election to the presidency in 1880 was a literary society that requested the president-elect to address its membership on the subject of Tacitus. Burke Hinsdale, an educator and personal friend of Garfield, summed up the President's attainments thus: “No man since John Quincy Adams has carried to the presidential chair so thorough a training, so wide an intellectual appreciation, or so rich a scholarship.” Assassination prevented Garfield from demonstrating his powers as president; but his diaries, correspondence, speeches, and conversations as reported by friends, show his profound knowledge of and continued interest in classics until his premature death.

  • Sources:

    The Diary of James A. Garfield, ed. Harry J. Brown & Frederick D. Williams, 4 vols. (Lansing, MI, 1967-82); Burke A. Hinsdale, President Garfield and Education (Boston, 1881); NatCAB 4:241-3; F.L.P. DAB 7:145-50; Allan Peskin Garfield: A Biography (Kent, OH, 1978); WhAmHS 198; see also J. Kapsch, "Education Congressman, Education President" (Part I), https://garfieldnps.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/education-congressman-education-president-part-i/ (Garfield remained in the catalog of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute as "Professor and Principal and Lecturer" from 1856 to 1866). 

  • Author: Robert W. Sawyer