Garfield grew up dirt-poor in rural Ohio, lost his father before he had reached the age of two, and didn’t have a pair of shoes until he was four.
Education provided escape from his hardscrabble existence. Garfield worked as a janitor to pay for his classes at a preparatory school and eventually made his way to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he graduated with honors.
Even with such an industrious nature, Garfield hardly seemed destined for the White House. He detoured from an academic career into the Civil War, routing a decorated military opponent in a key battle in Kentucky.
Circumstance, as much as anything, led him to Congress in 1862. And, 18 years later, he was shocked as anyone when delegates made him the Republican presidential nominee despite his impassioned protests against such a notion.
Humility was more than a pretense with Garfield, who once said, “I so much despise a man who blows his own horn, that I go to the other extreme.”
As Millard writes of Garfield’s unlikely ascent, “Having never agreed to become even a candidate – on the contrary, having vigorously resisted it – he was suddenly the nominee.”
The Republican incumbent, Rutherford B. Hayes, frustrated by the spoils system of blatant pay-to-play patronage, opted against seeking the nomination, but party powerbrokers such as US Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York favored former two-term president Ulysses S. Grant to lead the ticket.