This Day In History: President Garfield Dies After Being Shot (1881)

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On this day in history, President James A. Garfield dies of his wounds after being shot by a frustrated office-seeker. The President died some three months are he was shot by an individual who wanted to be appointed to a government position. Garfield died of complications from his wounds.

Garfield was born in Ohio and came from a humble family. Most of his youth was spent in a log cabin. Despite his modest background he used his abilities to become very prominent in his native state.  After serving in American Civil War he was  elected to the U.S. House of Representatives while  a Union colonel in the Civil War.  Garfield had a distinguished war record and was something of a hero in his native state.

He later became a U.S. senator, but he did not have a particularly successful career in that body.  In 1880  Garfield was unexpectedly nominated as the presidential candidate of the Republican Party.  He was not expected to do well in the election but his selection proved to be an inspired choice. Garfield appealed to many ordinary people because of his humble roots. Garfield was elected as the 20th U.S. president after he had decisively defeated his Democratic opponent.

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Republican Party Election Poster. Garfield on the left and his successor Chester Arthur on the right.

In July 1881, only a few months into his first administration, Garfield was shot as he was passing through a railroad station in Washington. He was shot by a man, Charles Guiteau, who was possibly insane and who believed that he had been unfairly cheated out of an appointment in the US diplomatic service.  Guiteau shot the President in the arm and the back. The shooter immediately gave himself up and was taken into custody. The wounds suffered by the President were not at first thought to be serious, but complications arose. Soon he was gravely ill with blood poisoning. Garfield was treated at the White House. All the time the Vice President, Chester A. Arthur, was in charge of the government in accordance with the US Constitution.  However, there was some confusion as to his exact role and that of Congress during the President’s incapacity.

Garfield never left his sickbed and he was only able to perform one official duty in eighty days. That was the signing of an official document relating to an extradition paper.  On September the 19th Garfield succumbed to blood poisoning.

Garfield, mortally ill, was treated at the White House and then taken to the seashore at Elberon, New Jersey, where he attempted to recuperate with his family.  While Garfield was attempting to recuperate, Vice President Chester A. Arthur generally served as acting president, but there was confusion over whether he had the authority to do so, as the Constitution was ambiguous on the matter of presidential succession. The following day his Vice President Chester Arthur was sworn in as President. Garfield’s body rested in the Capitol for three days and he was buried in Cleveland Ohio. His killer Guiteau was convicted of murder and he was hanged in Washington in 1882.

 

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