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

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Garfield Resources are All Around Us

Unlike many of our modern-day Presidents who have a Presidential Library constructed to serve as the repository for all things related to their administration, there is no central repository for everything related to the public service career and life of President James A. Garfield.

The First Lady (Lucretia Garfield) had the foresight to preserve the papers and documents of her husband’s Presidency and congressional career, and did so by creating the fireproof vault off of the Memorial Library, known as the “Memory Room.” It is, or was, the main holding place of President Garfield’s records until the President’s papers were transferred to the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov). The Garfield children, to their great credit, recognized they could not properly store and maintain the official records of their father’s career, and that the Library of Congress could. This was a donation of great value to the chronicling of a period of our nation’s history.

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband's book collection and memory for herself and their children.  She added the "Memory Room" to store the papers of his public career, thus creating the nation's first presidential library.  (NPS photo)

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband’s book collection and memory for herself and their children. She added the “Memory Room” (not visible here) to store the papers of his public career, thus creating the nation’s first presidential library. (NPS photo)

However, as I have found while conducting my own research for some of my presentations here at James A. Garfield National Historic Site, there is no single place where I could find all I needed. For example, this spring I gave a presentation about the State Senate career of James A. Garfield, and while I used the authoritative biography of the twentieth President, Garfield, by Dr. Allan Peskin, I also received assistance from the Ohio Legislative Service Commission (www.lsc.state.oh.us), and one of their amazing staff members, who provided to me information about the bills introduced and supported by then-Ohio State Senator James A. Garfield. Additionally, I was able to find information on the website of the Ohio Senate (www.ohiosenate.gov), and some additional information through the Ohio Historical Society (www.ohiohistory.org). Special thanks to Adam Warren, Administrative Aide to State Senator Nina Turner, who provided me with some photos of the Garfield Room in the Ohio Statehouse. I also found out that records related to the State Senate tenure of James A. Garfield can be found at the University of Akron (www.uakron.edu). This makes great sense, as Garfield represented Summit and Portage Counties in the Ohio Senate.

Seeking assistance from multiple places makes historical research even more like the assembly of a jigsaw puzzle.

Beginning with President Herbert Hoover, the National Archives and Records Administration (www.nara.gov), began to assemble the documents and artifacts of Presidential administrations into Presidential Libraries and Museums. Just last week, on May 1, the thirteenth (13th) Presidential Library opened to the public on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Located in Dallas, Texas, the George W. Bush Presidential Library is the largest of the 13 NARA Presidential Libraries. It is the central repository for the papers, artifacts, and other notable events of the tenure of our 43rd President.

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, located in Dallas, is the newest and largest presidential library.  It was dedicated May 1, 2013.  (www.architecture.about.com)

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, located in Dallas, is the newest and largest presidential library. It was dedicated May 1, 2013. (www.architecture.about.com)

Those Commanders-in-Chief who preceeded President Hoover, often, as in the case of President Garfield, have multiple sites, administered, often times, by multiple agencies or organizations. For example, the birth site cabin is managed by the Moreland Hills Historical Society (http://morelandhills.com); the Garfield home is a National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/jaga); and the Garfield Monument is part of Lake View Cemetery (www.lakeviewcemetery.com). Additionally, there are Garfield artifacts and papers in places such as the Hiram College Library (www.hiram.edu), the Western Reserve Historical Society (www.wrhs.org), and the Bedford Historical Society (www.bedfordohiohistory.org). Finally, one of the places near and dear to my heart, the Cleveland Public Library (www.cpl.org), also has a fairly extensive collection of Garfield-related books, speeches, and other items.

I would be remiss if I did not mention three great places to find information about President Garfield in the Washington, DC, area: the U.S. Capitol Historical Society (www.uschs.org), the White House Historical Association (www.whitehousehistory.org), and, of course, the White House (www.whitehouse.gov).

Should you come across any great sites or artifacts, we would love to hear about them. I wish you happy hunting in your quest to learn more about President Garfield, or any of our nation’s other leaders. If we can be of any further assistance to you, or if you are interested in becoming a National Park Service Volunteer, please do not hesitate to contact us through our website at www.nps.gov/jaga or by calling James A. Garfield National Historic Site at 440-255-8722.

Though he was President just a short time, James A. Garfield's life and career are integral to the history of northeast Ohio.  Visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site learn more about the man and his family and his career and legacy.  Visitors who tour the Garfield home are taken into the two rooms that constitute the nation's first presidential library.  (Library of Congress)

Though he was President just a short time, James A. Garfield’s life and career are integral to the history of northeast Ohio and the United States. Visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site learn more about the man and his family and his career and legacy. Those who tour the Garfield home are taken into the two rooms that constitute the nation’s first presidential library. (Library of Congress)

(Did you know that prior to the mid-1990’s renovation of the Ohio Statehouse, the names of the Presidents from Ohio, including Garfield, encircled the top of the rotunda inside the Statehouse? Also, during the 1990s renovation of the Statehouse, a skylight bearing the State Seal of Ohio commonly used from the 1840s to roughly the mid-1860s , was found in the top of the rotunda? I mention this because this version of the Seal can be found in the Memorial Screen in Eliza Ballou Garfield’s bedroom in the top white shield-shaped panel.)

-Andrew Mizsak, Volunteer

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

To obtain an actual degree, Garfield’s first inclination was to attend Bethany College because of its affiliation with the Disciples of Christ. However, in the spirit of opening up his mind to new ideas he settled on Williams College in Massachusetts and moved there with his Hiram friend and former teacher Charles Wilber in the summer of 1854. Williams was nonsectarian but still strongly religious, like the Eclectic. But unlike Hiram, religious sentiment was more Calvinist, and the New England atmosphere seemed exotic compared to Garfield’s rustic life in Ohio. Despite his cultural differences, though, he eventually won the acceptance of his New England classmates, who gave him the nickname “Gar”. His education at the Eclectic qualified him as a junior at Williams and he once again buried himself in his studies.

It was there, at Williams, that Garfield finally found an appropriate academic niche for his abilities: he performed well and would receive some accolades for his achievements, but he never outpaced the other students like he had in Chester or Hiram. Allan Peskin writes in his authoritative biography Garfield: “Students and teachers alike regarded him as a good, but not brilliant student, who stood well in the upper half of his class, but never seriously challenged his better-trained colleagues.” Just reading his comparatively sparse journal entries during his time in Massachusetts gives one the feeling that Garfield was too focused on his studies to write regularly. But none of this is meant to imply that Garfield performed poorly – in fact, he learned and accomplished much at Williams. He was considered by some classmates as one of the most capable debaters the college had ever seen; he was elected president of one of the main literary societies at the school; he even found himself chosen as the editor of a college publication, the Williams Quarterly. His knack for languages expanded to include German and Hebrew, and he came to enjoy studying the natural sciences even more. At Williams, Garfield discovered that he not only had a natural ability to learn easily, but that he also had the drive and work ethic to match it when that natural ability by itself was not enough to keep up with his peers.

Garfield chose to attend Williams in order to broaden his intellectual horizons in the very different culture and atmosphere of New England.  Here he was regarded as a good but not exceptional student, but his love of learning was cultivated as he had hoped it would be.  (Williams College)

Garfield chose to attend Williams in order to broaden his intellectual horizons in the very different culture and atmosphere of New England. Here he was regarded as a good but not exceptional student, but his love of learning was cultivated as he had hoped it would be. (Williams College)

In later years Garfield would recall the exact beginning of his intellectual life: witnessing an address in Williamstown by the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Arguably, though, his intellectual calling had begun earlier when he found that he loved being a student. He would return to Hiram in 1856 as a full-time teacher and then school president the following year. But his academic side carried on beyond that role as well and would influence virtually every aspect of his life and career. During the Civil War, Garfield had no official military training but recognized his own strength as a quick learner, so he read biographies on Napoleon and studied every book on military tactics he could find. As Chief of Staff of the Army of the Cumberland he spurred the West Point-trained General Rosecrans to action before the Tullahoma Campaign with a lengthy, essay-like report that logically listed point-by-point every reason the army should attack the enemy.

In Congress, he was a firm ally of education, saying in a speech in 1879: “If… we allow our youth to grow up in ignorance, this Republic will end in disastrous failure.” He proposed the bill for the creation of the federal Department of Education (which passed and formed in 1867), supported the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute after the Civil War for the education of blacks, was a regular visitor to the Library of Congress, and introduced a bill to provide military education in colleges (a forerunner to ROTC, which ultimately did not receive enough interest to pass). Ainsworth Spofford, the head of the Library of Congress for over 30 years, recalled Garfield being one of the most frequent users of the collection there. It was also in Congress that Garfield developed a unique proof of the Pythagorean theorem still used by some today.

Ainsworth Rand Spofford was the Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897.  He recalled Congressman James A. Garfield as one of the most frequent visitors to the Library of Congress during Spofford's long tenure.  (Library of Congress)

Ainsworth Rand Spofford was the Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897. He recalled Congressman James A. Garfield as one of the most frequent visitors to the Library of Congress during Spofford’s long tenure. (Library of Congress)

Learning was a big part of Garfield family life. Academics and books gave James and Lucretia an additional common bond early on in their courtship, and she would continue to be an intellectual counterpart to her husband throughout their marriage. Naturally he took a scientific approach to farming in Mentor – his diaries mention different experiments with soil, crops, and irrigation. He was also very interested in the progress of his children’s education. He was confused why his oldest sons did not share the same love of education that he had, noting in his diary that “the mind naturally hungers and thirsts for knowledge.” Before their move to the Mentor home, he had decided to send Harry and Jim to a private school, believing the public schools to be too crowded and the students overworked; Mollie would stay home to learn “something of books” and housekeeping. In December 1874, he wrote happily in his diary “Harry and Jimmy have this Winter awaked to the love of reading.” Garfield continued to help with their studies and all five of his children who lived to adulthood had very successful lives of their own.

The Mentor house itself stands as proof of the President’s love for reading and learning. Nearly every room of the house has at least a few books in it, and this seems pretty exact to how it appeared when Garfield lived there as well. A reporter wrote that “His real pleasure seems to be when poring over his books.” Another visitor to the house in the late 1870s wrote:

“..you can go nowhere in the general’s home without coming face to face with books. They confront you in the hall when you enter, in the parlor and the sitting room, in the dining-room, and even in the bath-room, where documents and speeches are corded up like firewood.”

Mrs. Lucretia Garfield added the Memorial Library to her Mentor home in 1895-96, several years after her husband's assassination.  The room was designed to memorialize her husband for her family and the nation while also preserving his sizeable book collection.  This library is considered the birthplace of the presidential library idea.  (National Park Service)

Mrs. Lucretia Garfield added the Memorial Library to her Mentor home in 1885-86, several years after her husband’s assassination. The room was designed to memorialize her husband for her family and the nation while also preserving his sizeable book collection. This library is considered the birthplace of the presidential library idea. (National Park Service)

Even his Inaugural Address discussed the importance of education in a government that derives its power from its citizens. Garfield started to prepare his speech by studying the Inaugural Addresses of his predecessors. In his own Address, he pointed out the alarming percentage of illiteracy indicated by the recent census and announced what he believed to be the cure: “For the North and South alike there is but one remedy. All the constitutional power of the nation and of the States and all the volunteer forces of the people should be surrendered to meet this danger by the savory influence of universal education.” Stating that their children will one day be the inheritors of their government, he added “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. In this beneficent work sections and races should be forgotten and partisanship should be unknown.” For Garfield, education and intelligence were not just ways of allowing one individual to “rise above the herd” – education for everyone, regardless of race or class, provided the surest foundation for the perpetuation of the nation itself. Learning offered the means for which Garfield was able to live a successful life, and it is little surprise that he believed that to be the surest way for others as well.

Due to his assassination,  we will never know where his scholastic calling would have called him next, or if he would have been successful in his plans for the Presidency. But his statements during his Inauguration as President of the United States act as an appropriate summation of how academics and education had influenced Garfield’s own life. Perhaps most fitting of all, later that evening the Inaugural Ball was held not in a temporary structure as many balls before, but in the new Smithsonian Museum.

-T.J. Todd, Visitor Use Assistant

(Thanks to Jennifer Morrow of the Hiram College Archives for her generous assistance.)

Welcome to The Garfield Observer!

       Welcome to the brand new blog of James A. Garfield National Historic Site!  In our first post, we thought it appropriate to provide some background on how the site became a part of President Garfield’s family and later a part of the National Park Service.  

       Throughout Garfield’s seventeen-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives, he spent the year divided between a number of homes in Washington D.C. while Congress was in session and in his native northern Ohio during the summer break.  After years of summers spent at his wife Lucretia’s family home in Hiram and the recreational resort on Little Mountain near Painseville, Garfield desired a permanent family residence and a home to which he could retreat when his duties in the capital were finished. 

       In 1876, the Democratic state legislature redrew the lines of Ohio’s congressional districts and Garfield’s listed residence in Portage County fell outside the newly redrawn 19th district lines.  With the help of his friend and Cleveland businessman Dr. John P. Robison, Garfield discovered the Dickey farm in the safely Republican township of Mentor.  The farm was traversed by the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railroad as well as the city’s main highway that connected Cleveland with Buffalo, New York, serving as the chief line of communication between the east and the west.  On September 26, 1876 Garfield made the widow Dickey an offer of $115 per acre for her 116-acre farm, and on Halloween the acquisition of the property was complete. 

So, at last, I am to be a farmer again.  As a financial investment, I do not think it very wise; but as a means of securing a summer home, and teaching my boys to do farm work, I feel well about it.”  (JAG Diary, October 31, 1876)

Dr. John P. Robison from History of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, 1879.

       The family did not move to the Mentor farm until the spring of 1877, so Garfield had his good friend Dr. Robison act as agent for his new land – managing construction projects, overseeing animal husbandry, and hiring the farm’s workers.  By the end of the year, Garfield owned roughly a 160-acre farm for which he paid a total of $17,500 – a hefty sum in the late 1870s – by taking out a mortgage on the property and borrowing money from Dr. Robison. 

       When congressional duties demanded his presence in Washington, Garfield often wrote to Lucretia about his yearning to be with the family in Ohio.  In May 1877 he penned in a letter how “sweet and inviting the dear, new home beckons to me away among the green fields of Mentor.”  When he was able to return to the farm, Garfield spent much of his time in the fields with his sons and farm hands tilling the soil and conducting a variety of agricultural experiments.  Ever the enthusiastic farmer, Garfield wrote, “I long for a time to study agricultural chemistry, and make experiments with soils and forces.” (JAG Diary, Sept. 24, 1879)  He equipped the farm with the latest machinery and supplies, including a Champion Drill to sow wheat and a Peerless Mower and Reaper.  He also improved the quantity and quality of the livestock, purchasing pure Durham cows and heifers, horses, pigs, and chickens.

       By the spring of 1880, Garfield and Lucretia decided to make some much needed changes to the house.  The original Dickey farmhouse was a small, 1 ½-story structure, clearly too small a home for the nine people who would reside there by 1879 –James and Lucretia Garfield, their five children, Lucretia’s father Zeb, and the future president’s mother Eliza.  That year, the Garfields enlarged the home to 2 ½-stories, added eleven rooms, constructed a front porch, and refurnished the interior.

“The Garfield Farm” floor plan, from the New York Herald, September 26, 1881.

       The year 1880 proved to be a busy one at the Mentor farm for that summer Garfield held his ‘front-porch’ presidential campaign from the property, nicknamed “Lawnfield” by the newspaper reporters who camped out on the grounds.  During the campaign summer, the Garfields welcomed numerous visitors to their home, such as former President Grant (and his right-hand man Roscoe Conkling, Garfield’s greatest political opponent), and the all-black Fisk University Jubilee Singers. 

1880 view of Lawnfield. (Wash drawing by delineator L.C. Corwine, Library of Congress)

The windmill added to the property by Lucretia Garfield was responsible for the home’s water supply. NPS.

       Sadly, once inaugurated as president, Garfield never returned to his Mentor home.  After his death on September 19, 1881, Lucretia and the five children returned to Mentor.  In 1885-6, Lucretia added a back wing to the home that included several extra bedrooms and the first presidential memorial library, where she preserved her husband’s papers.  She also oversaw the construction of a windmill to pump water up to the third floor of the home and a new carriage house. The Mentor farm remained in the Garfield family until 1936 when the Garfield children, by then grown with families of their own, donated the house to the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) in Cleveland, Ohio.  In 1980, Congress designated James A. Garfield’s home as a National Historic Site within the National Park Service.  While the artifact collection is still owned by WRHS, the National Park Service has maintained full operations of the site since 2008.

       Lucretia once wrote to her youngest son Abram, “I somehow feel that the house here is a much more interesting monument to your father’s memory than anything that can be built merely as a monument, and I want it to be worthy of him.” (November 13, 1892).  We hope that the James A. Garfield National Historic Site today fulfills Lucretia’s wish. 

James A. Garfield National Historic Site, NPS.

P.S. We are launching this blog on July 2, 2012, the 131st anniversary of President Garfield’s shooting.  While some may call this morbid, we view it as a commemoration of his lasting legacy! 

-Stephanie Gray, Park Guide