James A. Garfield: Man of Many Presidential Firsts

Who was the first President depicted on a postage stamp?   George Washington

Who was the first President born a United States citizen?  Martin Van Buren

Who was the first President to be left handed?  James Garfield??

That’s right.  Eight Presidents are known to be left-handed, and James A. Garfield was the first. In fact, President Garfield holds quite a number of presidential firsts.

(But first, a presidential last: Garfield was the last President to be born in a log cabin.  Orange Township, Ohio, could have been considered the American frontier when Garfield was born there in 1831.  The modern village of Moreland Hills now makes up this part of the old township, and maintains a replica cabin as Garfield’s birthplace.)

Garfield was the first, and to-date only, sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives to be elected President.  He was a long-serving member of the House, completing nine terms representing Ohio’s 19th Congressional District before resigning to become President.  Garfield was also a U.S. Senator-elect for Ohio at the time, making him the only man in U.S. history to be a sitting Representative, Senator-elect, and President-elect at the same time!

Garfield is the first, and again the only, President to be a clergyman.  Prior to embarking on a career in politics, young Garfield was a lay minister of the Disciples of Christ.

James A. Garfield was a man of many presidential firsts!  This intense image of him is one of our favorites here at James A. Garfield NHS. (Library of Congress)

James A. Garfield was a man of many presidential firsts! This intense image of him is one of our favorites here at James A. Garfield NHS. (Library of Congress)

He was the first President to successfully use a front-porch campaign strategy.  As was customary for a politician at the time, Garfield spent the 1880 Presidential Campaign tending to his private affairs.  In his case, this was a 150-acre farm in Mentor, Ohio, where he lived with his wife and five children.  Garfield’s reputation for public speaking preceded him, encouraging 17,000 visitors to travel to his home to hear him talk.  Not wanting to be rude, Garfield would stand on his front-porch to speak to the dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of visitors assembled on his lawn nearly every day during that summer and fall.

During one of these speeches, Garfield became the first President to have campaigned in two languages when he spoke to a group of German-Americans using their native tongue.

At his inauguration on March 4, 1881, President Garfield accomplishes three more firsts. He was the first President to review the Inaugural Parade from in front of the White House.  At the inauguration itself, Garfield became the first President to have his mother be in attendance.  Outgoing President Hayes gave up his seat so that Eliza Garfield could sit next to her son.  (President Garfield’s first action after completing the Oath of Office was to bend down and give his dear mother a kiss on the cheek.)  Later that night, President Garfield’s Inaugural Ball became the first public event to be held at the Smithsonian Institution’s newly constructed Arts and Industries Building.

Garfield’s presidency ended after just 200 days. He succumbed to an infection from a gunshot wound and shoddy medical care (no, not first, but second assassinated President, after Abraham Lincoln).  His death, at 49 years of age, made him the first President to die before age 50.

Following her husband’s death, Mrs. Lucretia Garfield contributed her own Presidential first.  In a desire to make sure that her husband was not lost to history and forgotten, she initiated a project to gather as many of Garfield’s Presidential papers as possible.  Prior to this exercise, Presidential papers were considered to be private property of the men who held the office.  Upon leaving the presidency, they would gift some papers to friends, maybe even destroy many others.  By bringing the Garfield papers together into one collection, Lucretia set the precedent for future Presidents- in a manner of speaking, the Garfield collection was the first Presidential library.

Mrs. Lucretia Garfield was understandably concerned that history would forget or ignore her husband due to his short presidency.  By building the first presidential library, she ensured that James A. Garfield's memory and legacy would live forever.   (Library of Congress)

Mrs. Lucretia Garfield was understandably concerned that history would forget or ignore her husband due to his short presidency. By building the first presidential library, she ensured that James A. Garfield’s memory and legacy would live forever. (Library of Congress)

Lucretia’s desire to put together a collection of her late husband’s work, and the mere recognition of President Garfield’s ‘firsts’ have ensured that her fears did not come true. President James A. Garfield continues to be remembered, admired, and studied.

-Benjamin Frayser, Volunteer