Education Congressman, Education President (Part II)

Congressman Garfield’s interest in education was not confined to the common schools.  In 1868 he drafted a bill supporting military instruction in colleges, similar to today’s ROTC. It did not pass.  But two years earlier Garfield had added a provision for schools on military posts to the annual budget for the army.  That provision remained in the army appropriation each year, without much action until 1878.  Then “measures were taken at nearly all the permanent military posts toward the establishment of schools for promoting the intelligence of soldiers and affording education to their children, as well as to those of officers and civilians at the remote frontier posts.”

Garfield was ambivalent on the idea of land grant colleges. “I do not believe in a college to educate men for the profession of farming.  A liberal education almost always draws men away from farming.  But schools of science in general technology are valuable.”  As a trustee of Hampton Institute, a new school for the education of freedmen in Norfolk, Virginia, Garfield recognized the need for industrial and agricultural training to promote self-sufficiency in a previously dependent population. He hoped, however, that the curriculum at Hampton would quickly evolve past an emphasis on manual labor and subsistence farming, and strongly encouraged the normal school, which trained teachers.   In 1870 he supported an appropriation for the School for the Deaf and Dumb (now Gallaudet College) in the District of Columbia, which, he argued, was essentially a normal school for teachers of the disabled.


James A. Garfield served as a trustee of the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), a school for freedmen in Virginia.  (Image courtesy of the University of North Carolina)

From 1865 to 1873, and again from 1877 to 1880, Garfield served as a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, “the most pleasant duty of my official life.”  In Congress he reminded his colleagues that the Smithsonian “is not a mere statistical establishment…supporting a corps of men whose only duty is the exhibition of the articles of a show museum; but a living, active organization that has, by its publications, researches, [and] explorations…vindicated the intelligence and good faith of the government in administrating a fund intended for the good of the whole community of civilized men.”  Two notes from his diary show the ways that the Garfield family enjoyed the museum.  Saturday, November 13, 1875: “…I took Crete, Mother and the children to the Smithsonian to examine the 16 birds I had read about from Audubon…”  Saturday, April 1, 1876: “…At half-past eight Crete and I attended the meeting of the Literary Club at the Smithsonian Institution.  A paper was read on art by Mr. Clarke, followed by a lecture on sound by Prof. Henry.  A large number of interesting people were present.”


Congressman James A. Garfield spent many years as a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, seen here in its early days. Garfield said this one of his most enjoyable public duties. (Smithsonian Institution)

Congressman Garfield was also an enthusiastic supporter of the US Geological Survey and the Naval Observatory.

We don’t know, of course, what kind of education President Garfield might have been, but we do have two hints, the first from his letter of acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination:

“Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.  Its interests are entrusted to the States, and to the voluntary action of the people.  Whatever help the nation can justly afford should be generously given to aid the States in supporting common schools.”

He was more eloquent and more inspiring in his Inaugural Address.

“It is the high privilege and sacred duty of those now living to educate their successors, and fit them, by intelligence and virtue for the inheritance which awaits them.”


James A. Garfield is inaugurated as President of the United States on March 4, 1881.  He referenced the importance of education in his inaugural address.  (Architect of the Capitol)

These statements, while forceful and inspiring, do not explain why Garfield was so committed to the education of every American.  For that, we need to look back at a speech before the National Education Association in February, 1879. In concluding his remarks to the nation’s school superintendents, Garfield offered a warning.

“…[British historian Thomas B.]  Macaulay said that a government like ours must inevitably lead to anarchy; and I believe there is no answer to his prophecy unless the schoolhouse can give it.  If we can fill the minds of all our children who are to be voters with intelligence which will fit them wisely to vote, and fill them with the spirit of liberty, then we will have averted the fatal prophesy.  But if, on the other hand, we allow our youth to grow up in ignorance, this Republic will end in disastrous failure.  All the encouragement that the National Government can give, everything that States can do, all that good citizens everywhere can do, and most of all what the teacher himself can do, ought to be hailed as the deliverance of our country from the saddest distress.”

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide


Education Congressman, Education President (Part I)

In his Inaugural Address James Garfield said, “It is the high privilege and sacred duty of those now living to educate their successors, and fit them, by intelligence and virtue for the inheritance which awaits them.”

James Garfield thought about education all his life—as a student, a teacher, a father, and public official.  He used his positions of public trust to encourage and promote education for as many people, and in as many ways as he was able.

At age twenty-six, Garfield earned his degree from Williams College and returned to Ohio to teach at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, where his higher education began. He was soon named Principal.  “Chapel lectures” or morning lectures were a well-established part of the school curriculum, and Garfield presented hundreds of them on a variety of topics, including education and teaching, books, methods of study and reading, physical geography, geology, history, the Bible, morals, current topics and life questions.  In a letter to a friend, Garfield described the ways he reorganized the school, “We have remodeled the government, published rules, published a new catalogue, and have…250 students (no primary), as orderly as clock-work, and all hard at work.”  Garfield was listed in the catalog of Western Reserve Eclectic Institute as “Professor and Principal and Lecturer” from 1856 to 1866.

WREI - Wikipedia Hiram College Archives

An early look at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College).  James Garfield was a student here and later a teacher and the school’s principal.  (Hiram College Archives)

During the years Garfield’s name appeared at the top of the Eclectic’s catalog, he also married Lucretia Rudolph and started a family, served in the Ohio legislature, passed the state bar, and, when the Civil War began in 1861, raised the 42nd Ohio Infantry.  He served in the Union army until late 1863, when he took a seat in the U.S. House, representing Ohio’s 19th Congressional District.

Engagement pic cropped

James Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph around the time of their engagement.  Lucretia’s father, Zeb, was one of the founders of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, where the couple became close.  They married on November 11, 1858.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Garfield’s goal in leading the Eclectic Institute was to expand its offerings and elevate its standards, laying the foundations for it to become a fully accredited college.  That objective was achieved in 1867, when the school was chartered by the state as Hiram College.  Speaking to the last group of graduates of the Eclectic, Garfield identified five kinds of knowledge that he believed every student needed, and every college should help them master.

In order of importance, he said that first was “that knowledge necessary for the full development of our bodies and the preservation of our health.”  Second was an understanding of the principles of arts and industry (how things work). Third on the list was the knowledge necessary to a full comprehension of one’s rights and duties as a citizen.  Fourth was understanding the intellectual, moral, religious and aesthetic nature of man, and his relations to nature and civilization.  Finally, a complete education should provide the special and thorough knowledge required for a particular chosen profession.  Garfield had obviously thought deeply about what an education ought to be; his list of five kinds of knowledge stands up well to the test of time.  The order of importance he assigns, however, deviates significantly from the goals of modern education.

James Garfield’s papers reveal some of his very specific and firmly held ideas about teaching and learning.  Here are a few.

“I, for one, declare that no child of mine shall ever be compelled to study one hour, or to learn even the English alphabet, before he has deposited under his skin at least seven years of muscle and bone.”

Garfield children Brady portrait

James and Lucretia Garfield’s five surviving children: Mollie; James R.; Harry; Irvin; and Abram.  All four of the boys received fantastic educations at St. Paul’s boarding school in New Hampshire and their father’s alma mater, William College, in Massachusetts.  Mollie attending something along the lines of a “finishing school”before marrying Joseph Stanley-Brown when she was 21.  (Library of Congress)

“School committees would summarily dismiss the teacher who should have the good sense and courage to spend three days of each week with her pupils in the fields and woods, teaching them the names, peculiarities, and uses of rocks, trees, plants, and flowers, and the beautiful story of the animals, birds, and insects which fill the world with life and beauty.  They will applaud her for continuing to perpetrate that undefended and indefensible outrage upon the laws of physical and intellectual life which keeps little children sitting in silence, in a vain attempt to hold its [sic]mind to the words of a printed page, for six hours in a day…This practice kills by the savagery of slow torture.”

“I am well aware of the current notion that…a finished education is supposed to consist mainly of literary culture…This generation is beginning to understand that education should not be forever divorced from industry,–that the highest results can be reached only when science guides the hand of labor…Machinery is the chief implement with which civilization does its work; but the science of mechanics is impossible without mathematics.”

“I insist that it should be made an indispensable condition of graduation in every American college, that the student must understand the history of this continent since its discovery by Europeans; the origin and history of the United States, its constitution of government, the struggles through which it has passed, and the rights and duties of citizens who are to determine its destiny and share its glory.”


The modern U.S. Department of Education owes much to James A. Garfield, who introduced an April 1866 bill in the House of Representatives to created a Federal Bureau of Education.  (U.S. Department of Education)

As a member of Congress, Garfield’s most significant achievement was passing a bill that created the first Federal Bureau of Education, a piece of legislation he introduced in April, 1866.  It provided for a Commissioner of Education who would be charged with collecting and disseminating information about education in the United States.  In arguing for this Bureau Garfield said, “In 1860 there were in the United States 115,224 common schools, 500,000 school officers, 150,241 teachers and 5,477,037 scholars; thus showing that more than six million people of the United States are directly engaged in the work of education.  Not only has this large proportion of our population been thus engaged, but the Congress of the United States has given fifty-three million acres of public lands to fourteen States and Territories of the Union for the support of schools.”  He made it clear that the purpose of the bureau was to gather information and statistics about schools across the nation, and share it with local and state educators.  It should discover the quality and effectiveness of schools for blacks and immigrants as compared to those for native-born whites. The Bureau was not involved in curriculum development or school management.

(Check back soon for Part II!)

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

“The Rough and Tumble of a Public School”

In March, I noticed two articles about Franklin School in Washington, DC. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, stands vacant at the corner of 13th and K Streets, NW. It is being considered as the site of a new museum in the capital. The news stories caught my eye because Franklin School is just a block from the site of James and Lucretia Garfield’s Washington, DC home at 13th and I Street.

The Garfield home at 13th and I Streets in Washington, D.C. was just around the corner from the Franklin School.  (Bundy)

The Garfield home at 13th and I Streets in Washington, D.C. was just down the street from the Franklin School. (Bundy)

When Franklin School was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, its significance was explained:

“The Franklin School was the flagship building of a group of seven modern urban public school buildings constructed between 1862-1875 to house, for the first time, a comprehensive system of free universal public education in the capital of the Republic. It was hoped that this new public school system would serve as a model for the nation as the need to provide equal educational opportunities for all Americans was finally recognized as essential to the survival of a democratic society.”

The building was designed by Adolf Cluss, and built in 1869. It had a bust of Benjamin Franklin on the façade, large windows, airy spaces, and an auditorium that seated 1,000. With its location in a prominent neighborhood, and its offices for the Superintendent and the Board of Education, Franklin School was a symbol of the new graded system of classes for boys and girls. Were the Garfield children among its students?

It is clear from Garfield’s diaries that the older boys, Harry and Jim, attended public school in Washington, DC for some time in the 1870s. Confirmation comes from Lucretia Garfield Comer, daughter of Harry and granddaughter of President Garfield. In her biography of her father, Harry Garfield’s First Forty Years: Man of Action in a Troubled World, she writes about Hal’s early schooling:

“In the fall of 1869, Harry was entered in the Primary Department of the Franklin Union School, and there he continued through the spring of his ninth year…The parents tried Jim there too, but scarlet fever intervened; and after the weeks of quarantine were over they put the younger boy in a small private school.”

It seems that Hal attended the Franklin School for the 1869-70 through 1873-74 school years; Jim’s time there is less clear.

The Franklin School is now vacant but is the proposed location for a new Washington, D.C. museum.  (Author photo)

The Franklin School is now vacant but is the proposed location for a new Washington, D.C. museum. (Author photo)

As a father and an educator, Garfield thought seriously about the boys’ school experience. His diary entry for Tuesday, February 13, 1872 indicates concern: “…Am troubled about Harry’s school. Scholars are a rough set. Must try to find a private school though the rough and tumble of a public school is good for a boy.” In November, 1873 he was still worried about “the most difficult question I have ever confronted, namely what shall I do with my children in the matter of education. I believe that the mind naturally hungers and thirsts for knowledge. I cannot doubt that something is wrong with our system of education which has made both my boys hate the sight of a school book.”

The busy congressman had time to be involved with his sons’ school. On May 19, 1873: “…In the evening took Crete and Mother to the Franklin School concert, and staid till half-past nine.” Perhaps in an effort to understand the “system of education,” on May 15 “…In the Evening Miss Perkins and Miss McCall took dinner with us. They are the teachers, respectively of Jimmy and Harry, and I am glad to talk of late methods, and see how the teaching world has been going since I left it…” And on June 4th that year: “…Attended Harry’s examination at the Franklin School Building. Harry did very well; though I think he is like me in this, that he does better under pressure than on ordinary occasions. Some of the nervous boys did not do themselves justice. I am persuaded that our public schools are overworking their scholars. I saw many signs of nervous exhaustion among the little fellows in Miss McMahon’s class…”

James and Lucretia Garfield were very involved in their childrens' educations.  Despite President Garfield's early death, all of the Garfield children went on to academic success.  (Library of Congress)

James and Lucretia Garfield were very involved in their childrens’ educations. Despite President Garfield’s early death, all of the Garfield children went on to academic success. (Library of Congress)

The next school year Hal, Jim and Mollie Garfield attended a local “kindergarten.” In May, 1874, Garfield wrote, “I am troubled to know what to do with the children next in regard to their education. They do not seem to have that hunger and thirst after knowledge that I always felt when I was a child.”

That fall the Garfields ended their experiment with public school. October 26, 1874: “Crete and I started out early to settle Harry and Jimmy in school. We have determined to keep Mollie at home this Winter and teach her a little of housekeeping and something of books. Harry and Jimmy need the hand of a master at school and after much discussion of the subject, we concluded to send them to Mr. Young’s private school on the west side of Franklin Square. Terms, twenty dollars each for ten weeks…” Mr. Young’s school was the Emerson Institute, established in 1853 as “a select, classical, and mathematical school for boys.” The school was on 14th Street, between I and K streets. Harry Garfield was ten years old, and Jimmy was eight when they were enrolled there.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

James A. Garfield in Muskingum County, Ohio

When I was a kid and we would drive down Back Run Road, just a few miles from our home, someone would always point out that the old shack across the creek was the log cabin where President Garfield had taught school. This announcement was intended to make an impression upon us, and I remember being duly impressed with our neighborhood’s brush with fame.

This fall when back home in Ohio for a visit, I began thinking about the Garfield school house again. Was there any truth to the legend? If so, why was Garfield in Muskingum County? What could I find out about this special moment of history?

As I began digging among the sources, I quickly struck a gold mine of information. James Garfield began writing a diary at the age of 16 and continued it throughout his life. The diary has been published in four volumes.

James A. Garfield kept a regular diary for much of his life.  This page shows his handwritten entry for March 4, 1881-the day he became the 20th President of the United States.  Harry James Brown and Frederick D. Williams edited the Garfield diaries for publication for Michigan State University Press in 1981.  (Library of Congress)

James A. Garfield kept a regular diary for much of his life. This page shows his handwritten entry for March 4, 1881-the day he became the 20th President of the United States. Harry James Brown and Frederick D. Williams edited the Garfield diaries for publication for Michigan State University Press in 1981. (Library of Congress)

Throughout Garfield’s life, from his birth in 1831 until his assassination as President in 1881, his life was grounded in his northeastern Ohio origins. However, he had roots in southeastern Ohio as well, in Muskingum County, both in Zanesville and in the southern part of the county. His parents were married in Zanesville. Both Abram Garfield and Eliza Ballou had recently immigrated to Zanesville from the east coast with their families. The two had known each other as children and were reunited in Ohio. They were married February 3, 1820, and headed north to establish their common life in northeastern Ohio.

It was there that their children were born. James was the last child arriving, born on November 19, 1831. His mother had a heavy burden placed upon her when Abram died. James was 18 months old at the time. Even though he was recognized as a precocious learner, James’s early formal education was sporadic. Only after a brief stint towing boats on the Erie Canal was he able to begin a serious pursuit of an education.

Eliza Ballou Garfield raised her youngest son, James, and his older siblings alone after her husband died in 1833.  She was a strong influence on all of her children, and she encouraged the future President of the United States to pursue an education.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Eliza Ballou Garfield raised her youngest son, James, and his older siblings alone after her husband died in 1833. She was a strong influence on all of her children, and she encouraged the future President of the United States to pursue an education. (Western Reserve Historical Society)

In March 1849 James enrolled in Geauga Seminary, a Free Will Baptist school in Chester, Ohio. For the next two years he alternated between attending school and teaching school, presumably to pay for school costs.

At the end of his second teaching stint, we have the first mention of two different locations that become important to him. The February 24, 1851, diary entry includes, “I have given up going to Hiram and am going to Zanesville with Mother.” His mention of Hiram indicates almost certainly that he was considering enrolling in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, a school in Hiram that later became Hiram College. He delayed beginning his studies at the Institute until August. In the meantime he accompanied his mother to Zanesville.

On February 27 the pair began their journey, traveling first to Cleveland, then taking the train to Columbus, the stage to Zanesville, and finally a skiff down the Muskingum River to Gaysport, arriving March 1.

Their destination was the home of Henry Ballou, brother of Eliza, where they would stay while in Muskingum County. However, there is no indication in the diary as to the location of the house. Garfield simply writes that he and his mother walked to the home from the river. Then he returned to the river with his cousin Orrin to retrieve their trunks.

Because there is no indication of the location of the home, most Garfield biographers have simply referred to Muskingum County as the location of the visit. However, Brown and Williams, the editors of the Garfield diary, in an attempt to be more specific, write in their introduction that it was at “Blue Rock in the Muskingum Valley where he and his mother had gone to visit her brother”. (page XVIII)

However, the evidence is decisively clear that neither Uncle Henry’s house nor the school where Garfield taught was in Blue Rock. The name Blue Rock is derived from the bluish tint of the stone in the area. Blue Rock Township lies east of the Muskingum River. Gaysport, the town where the Garfields disembarked, as well as the town of Blue Rock is in Blue Rock Township. Today, Gaysport is a tiny unincorporated village clustered near the bridge that crosses the river. However, there is one present day reminder of a more illustrious past. The newly built North Star Restaurant stands on the location of the former North Star Hotel, a prominent landmark that operated when the steamer ships hauled passengers and freight up and down the river and when Gaysport really was a port. The biographers apparently located Garfield in Blue Rock because it is the name of the area around Gaysport and Gaysport is the geographical locator in the diary.

However, the local tradition is that the house where the Garfields stayed is a brick house on Virginia Ridge Road which is west of the Muskingum River in Harrison Township. The two-story brick house is a classy home, typical of the kind of houses built by the well-to-do in the 19th century. The present owners, who are well informed about the Garfield saga, say that the house was built in 1849.

A modern view of the home built by Henry Ballou in which James A. Garfield and his mother, Eliza, stayed while James taught at Back Run School.  (Author photo)

A modern view of the home built by Henry Ballou in which James A. Garfield and his mother, Eliza, stayed while James taught at Back Run School. (Author photo)

In order to confirm that the house is “the Garfield house”, I did some research in the Muskingum County Recorder’s Office. I found that on January 22, 1839, Henry Ballou was granted the deed to 160 acres of land at the location where the house is today. With this information I am able to conclude that Henry Ballou did not live in Blue Rock, even though Brown and Williams placed him there. However, I was unable to determine a date for the construction of the house. Garfield’s May 26 diary entry suggests that the house has been built but is not completed. He writes, “Working nights and morning on the house and appurtenances.”

The skiff carrying the Garfields would have docked at Gaysport, and they would have disembarked there. Then they would have caught a ride across the river to Harrison Township and begun walking up the hill on Virginia Ridge Road, continuing for a mile to what is now 785 Virginia Ridge Road.

I was able to learn additional information about Henry Ballou in the 1892 edition of Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Muskingum County, Ohio. He and his sister Eliza Garfield were born in Cheshire County, New Hampshire. They immigrated to Muskingum County with their mother and three siblings in 1814. Henry eventually married and settled in Harrison Township and built a “permanent home”. He is listed as an outstanding citizen of Harrison Township where he was a farmer and township officer. He and his wife Phoebe had three sons – Jacob, Ellis, and Orrin. All three, along with their father, are mentioned in the Garfield diary. Most of James’s activities and travels during his Muskingum County stay, which include such things as working on the farm, traveling to McConnellsville, and going to meetings (church services), were done with his cousins.

However, the main activity of Garfield during his stay in Muskingum County was teaching school. On March 13 James wrote that he went with Uncle Henry “to see about getting the school in this place.” He writes that he “has a contract to teach school for three months. He will be paid $16 2/3 per month and will begin on March 19. First he must have a teaching certificate, and so he and Ellis take the team to Zanesville where he is examined and certified for two years to teach ‘the common branches and algebra.’”

On the first day of class he identifies the school as “the log schoolhouse on ‘backrun’.” The schoolhouse, which still exists today, is only a 5-10 minute walk from the house. That is apparently why he refers to it as “this school”.

The two structures are less than a half mile apart; however, they are separated by a very steep hill. The return walk back up to the house requires approximately twice as much time as walking downhill to the school. This hill and those nearby obviously made an impression upon the flatlander from northern Ohio as he writes that the schoolhouse is “on the bank of a rock-girt stream and surrounded by the everlasting hills of Muskingum Valley.”

There are two roads in the area today just as there were in the 19th century. They both run east and west and are relatively parallel. The house is on Virginia Ridge Road which follows the top of the ridge. The school house is on Back Run Road which follows along Back Run Creek in the valley. Even though the two buildings are in close proximity, it is an almost three-mile drive from one to the other.

The map below shows the relative location of the town site of Gaysport on the east side of the Muskingum River, the contemporary bridge crossing the river, and the two roads leading west from the river bottom, one along Back Run and the other rising to the top of Virginia Ridge. The location of the school and house are denoted. The slightly skewed red grid lines on the map provide a scale of distance as they demark one-mile by one-mile township sections.

This map denotes the locations of the home in which James and Eliza Garfield stayed and the school in which James taught during their stay in Muskingum County.  (Author image)

This map denotes the locations of the home in which James and Eliza Garfield stayed and the school in which James taught during their stay in Muskingum County. (Author image)


The school house is a small log structure approximately 18 feet long and 15 feet wide. There is no information concerning its date of construction, but it was apparently in poor condition even in 1851. In private correspondence Garfield refers to it as a “miserable old log school-house … as smutty as a blacksmith shop.” (Garfield – Allan Peskin, page 21) After its school-house life ended, it was converted into a home. Currently a new owner, John Coler, is restoring it back to its original form as a school. It has been stripped of all additions, and the owner is planning on replacing some foundation stones, some of the logs, and the roof.

Garfield’s diary reveals that his stint at Back Run School was neither easy nor pleasant. On March 14, even before he began to teach, he wrote, “It will not be a very pleasant school, the scholars will be so small.” They were few in number as well. He started with seven students, but gradually attendance increased to a maximum of 23. There are several entries referring to conflicts with parents. The parents objected to the way he conducted his classroom, and he grumbled about their efforts to override his leadership of the school.

Garfield’s journal entries are full of interesting teaching experiences. He comments about a boy who can recite his letters down but not up. He describes in detail the subterfuge two of his pupils undertook in order to elope without their parents discovering their plans. He discusses discipline in the classroom, the need to impose more order and eventually the need, as a last resort, to use the rod on two of the boys. He reports that this treatment was quite effective.

The April 16th diary entry is a window into Garfield’s self-perception as a teacher:

“It is indeed trying to my patience and also my stomach to have so many little scholars about me. I believe it is the province of females to teach little scholars the rudiments of education. Their nature seems to be more adapted to the culture of the infant mind thanthe nature of man. I want something that has the thunder in it,more than this has.”

The meaning of the word thunder used in this way is not certain, though he probably is reflecting on the drudgery, dullness, and lack of challenge that he felt as a teacher of young children. However, it is clear that he was not satisfied with his teaching job at Back Run School. (Immediately before coming to Muskingum County Garfield had taught at Warrenville, Ohio, in a two-room school. He had taught the older pupils which would have been more to his liking.)

Local historian Jim Swingle stands by the Back Run School (currently under restoration) with his brother and author of this blog article Albert Swingle on the right.  (Author photo)

Local historian Jim Swingle(left) stands by the Back Run School (currently under restoration) with his brother and author of this blog article Albert Swingle on the right. (Author photo)

Even though Garfield had contracted to teach for three months, he closed the school on May 20 after just over two months. By then corn planting season was in full swing and most of the students had deserted “book learning” and were working in the fields. It seems clear that after teaching at Back Run for two months, James was ready to move on. He and his mother, after concluding their visit with good-byes to friends and relatives, left Zanesville on May 30, returning home by canal boat on the Erie Ohio Canal, a section of which his father had helped build.

Three months is a short period in anyone’s life, but this Muskingum Country trip gives us a quick glimpse into the life of a remarkable 19-year-old young man on his way to maturity. Moving into unfamiliar territory with unfamiliar people, Garfield demonstrated considerable curiosity as he energetically plunged into his new surroundings, whether they were new towns to explore, new forms of worship in the various meeting houses, or challenges he faced at the Back Run School. As he touched base with his extended family we see this Muskingum County visit as a short interlude for a young man in a hurry. He had not yet decided the direction of his adult life, but he knew that education would be the means of getting to his yet unknown destination.

Muskingum County was an opportunity for Garfield to expand his vision and to test his influence as he widened his horizons on his way to adulthood. In his illustrious life he did experience considerable thunder, and he created considerable thunder as well.

As a postscript to this visit, we have a record of at least two other trips Garfield made to Muskingum County. The November 9, 1877, diary entry records his train trip from home to Washington DC. The train stopped in Zanesville just long enough for a brief visit with his cousin Orrin Ballou and family. Orrin was the sheriff of Muskingum County from 1877-1880.

Few who knew or attended classes with teacher James A. Garfield during his stay in Muskingum County likely expected him to one day become President of the United States.  (Library of Congress)

Few who knew or attended classes with teacher James A. Garfield during his stay in Muskingum County likely expected him to one day become President of the United States. (Library of Congress)

By 1878 Garfield was in full campaign mode for the Republican Party. After a speaking tour on the east coast, he had just three days at home to supervise the sowing of the wheat crop on his Mentor farm before taking a swing around southeast Ohio. On September 20 he was on the train heading for Zanesville but missed his connection in Dresden (in northeastern Muskingum County). The Zanesville town fathers saved the day by sending a special train to Dresden to retrieve him. He arrived just in time for his evening address. He records in his diary: “Addressed large audience in Hall for 1 ½ hours then went homewith Cousin Orrin Ballou and spent the night. He is the county sheriff. 27 years ago he was my pupil in the school I taught in Back Run, Harrison Township, Muskingum County. He is a strong Democrat, inheriting his politics from his father, my Uncle HenryBallou.”

Two years later in 1880 James Garfield would be elected the 20th president of the United States.

-Albert Swingle, Washington, D.C.

The “Fine Times” of James A. Garfield’s Education, Part I

Touring James Garfield’s home today, one would have to try hard to overlook the fact that education and learning were important facets to the President’s life. His principal’s desk from the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, the portraits of writers that Garfield respected such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Shakespeare, the books that are visible in nearly every single room – his Mentor home is full of reminders of Garfield’s fondness for learning new things. In fact, intellectualism had one of the most lasting effects on his entire life, even beyond his years as a teacher and school principal. His academic foundation and love for learning would help guide him through most events in his life, from his service in the Union Army to the very day of his inauguration as President.

Garfield in his early teens did not seem on track for the life of an educated man. He had attended district schooling at least semi-regularly and had been instructed in the subjects most students studied in the mid-19th century: reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography, as well as a few other topics if the instructor had studied and cared to teach them. He seemed to have a great fondness for reading and learning, but he was from a poor family and at the time seemed devoted to becoming a sailor. Stacking the deck against Garfield even further, there was a belief among some in the Western Reserve that excessive reading, particularly of novels, was a sort of abnormality, and some argued even a cause or sign of mental illness. Fortunately his mother Eliza and his older brother Thomas apparently did not agree, and while James was recovering from an illness acquired from working on the canal he was persuaded to try school at the nearby Geauga Seminary in Chester. The money that Garfield’s mother and brother were able to scrape together in order for James to attend school at the Seminary amounted to $17 – close to their total savings up to that point. A dollar went a lot further back then than it does today but it did not go that far, and Garfield would finish the term with a grand total of six cents.

Eliza Garfield and her children.  James (back row at right) would receive much help in funding his education from his mother and his brother, Thomas (back row at left).  [Library of Congress]

Eliza Garfield and her children. James (back row at right) would receive much help in funding his education from his mother and his brother, Thomas (back row at left). [Library of Congress]

James Garfield discovered at Geauga Seminary that he was a natural student. Apparently instruction there was not all that much different from the district schools he had attended previously – in fact, by most accounts Geauga Seminary was fairly second-rate. Earlier in life he had walked out of one district school due to a particularly weak teacher, and during his first term at Geauga he wrote home requesting his grammar book as a reference to help correct his teacher’s mistakes. Overall, though, the Seminary was a step up in his education and Garfield enjoyed his studies enough to forget his passion for sailing. The library was small with about 150 books but it was larger than what he was used to at that time. And some of the books were in Greek, likely Garfield’s first exposure to the language that would become one of his favorite subjects. He found that he excelled in algebra, at least compared to his classmates who mostly dropped out of the class by the end of the term. He also took a liking to “natural philosophy” which was that era’s name for the natural sciences. He seemed to enjoy the way science provided an answer to many everyday occurrences that one could witness firsthand.

James Garfield did not merely coast through his two years at the Geauga Seminary. “Studying” is probably the single most common word found in his somewhat sparse journal entries from this time period. He was also working hard outside of the classroom to help supplement his perpetually diminishing funds, often chopping wood and teaching district school during his time off. Undoubtedly aiding Garfield’s work ethic was the simple fact that he loved what he was doing – school was fun. Entries such as “School as usual. Fine times.” and “Studying. Fine times.” appear frequently in his diary between 1849 and 1850. On November 29, 1849, while wrapping up his first term Garfield wrote in his diary “Studying some. The thoughts of parting rend my heart. We soon must say adieu.”

From Geauga Seminary, Garfield decided to test himself further by enrolling at the new Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in Hiram, Ohio. A part of this decision was based on the fact that he did not know what he wanted to do with his life: he mostly disliked teaching children in the district schools, and while he was a capable carpenter the profession never seemed to keep his interest for long. On the other hand, he viewed a college education (or at least an advanced education) as the best way to lift himself up beyond the “herd”. The Geauga school seemed to have done much for his confidence, at least. Thomas Munnell, the teacher of Latin at the Eclectic, remembered the following about James Garfield, shortly after he first enrolled at the school in the fall of 1851:

“When he arrived he had studied a little of Latin grammar, but had done nothing in the way of translating. I had no class to suit him in elementary Latin, one being behind him, and another far in advance. He resolved at once to overtake the advanced class, provided I would hear his recitation after class hours, which I readily agreed to do.” (History of Hiram College, 1850-1900 by F.M. Green). Garfield’s self-confidence was apparently well-placed, as he was asked to give the valedictory address his first year at the Eclectic.

The Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in 1858.  Originally a one-building school, "the Eclectic" became Hiram College in 1867.  (Hiram College Archives/Wikipedia)

The Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in 1858. Originally a one-building school, “the Eclectic” became Hiram College in 1867. (Hiram College Archives/Wikipedia)

Money was again a concern at the Eclectic. During the first term he had just enough saved up from teaching and carpentry work that he was able to pay his way. His second term he worked as a janitor for the school (sweeping, ringing the bell, and building fires for heat) and in between terms he again worked as a teacher. Besides monetary concerns, every year James and his fellow students had to deal with crowded housing. Most housing at the Eclectic was provided by the community itself, which was fairly small, and it was a problem finding enough space for the 300-500 students each year. Zeb Rudolph, Garfield’s future father-in-law, often had ten students in his seven-room Hiram house. The institution attempted to build boarding houses but the option was apparently never popular with the students and the structures were sold just a few years later.

Garfield immersed himself in his studies at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. He studied and attended lectures on a variety of topics, but the major courses for him early on were Greek and Latin (his two favorites), trigonometry, and “Sacred History”, which was a required course every morning that taught the Bible. The suggested curriculum was rather flexible and students took classes based more on their own needs or personal interests. Surprisingly, the Eclectic did not even have an official library until 1854, with the Bible being the only book that belonged to the institute up to that point. Extracurricular learning helped make up for the lack of a library, particularly the student-organized literary and debating societies. James Garfield actually helped lead the organization of one of these lecturing and debating groups himself, which was called the Philomathean Society. The school placed an emphasis on religious studies, being founded by the Disciples of Christ faith, but it was not strictly a theology school – a variety of classes were offered (hence the name “Eclectic”) and the school was nonsectarian.

Garfield did so well as a student that by 1853 he was listed in the catalogue as “Teacher in the English Department and of the Ancient Languages.” He also taught classes outside of these topics, including geometry and penmanship. James Garfield was a very talented scholar and had worked incredibly hard, but his sudden rise to teaching at the Eclectic can also be explained by the size of the faculty there: on average, the academy only had 5 full-time instructors and the Eclectic students, many of which taught at district schools between terms, were occasionally asked to help teach. The rapid change from student to teacher was impressive nonetheless, though.

The Eclectic seems to have improved his confidence even more – he was excelling in his classes, speaking regularly at the debating societies, preaching at Disciples of Christ meetings, and now even teaching at the school. He also began trying his hand at courting while at the Eclectic, eventually beginning a relationship with a fellow student who he would later marry in 1858, Lucretia Rudolph. They had met at the Geauga Seminary, but it was in Hiram that they grew close. Early on their letters to one another were, naturally, scholarly – books and the classics were common topics.

Garfield's Greek class at the Eclectic, 1853.  Garfield (far right) is seated next his student(and future wife) Lucretia Rudolph.  (Lake County Historical Society)

Garfield’s Greek class at the Eclectic, 1853. Garfield (far right) is seated next to his student(and future wife) Lucretia Rudolph. (Lake County Historical Society)

In 1854, James Garfield once again decided that he needed something more with his education. While the Eclectic was a step up from previous schools he had attended and offered a variety of classes that suited some of his academic needs, it was at this time more of an academy or preparatory school than a college and would not confer degrees until it became Hiram College in 1867 (also, due to the school’s primary department some of the students there were as young as 10). Arguably it was not just the absence of a degree, though, that made Garfield feel he needed more. He was so outstanding in his studies that after spending three years there he had outgrown the school. The classes were engaging and roughly the equivalent of college-level material, but by this time he had largely stopped attending and was teaching full time instead. He felt he had some purpose in life beyond what he was currently doing, though he was not sure what it was. Garfield decided to continue his education and work for that college degree.

(check back soon for Part II of this post)

T.J. Todd, Visitor Use Assistant