Personality of James Garfield

James Garfield was the 20th President of the United States, but his time as president was cut short when he was tragically assassinated. Even though he was in office for only a few months, his personality and character had a lasting impact on the country. In this article, we will explore who James Garfield was, not just as a president but as a person. We’ll look at his character traits, his background, and how these influenced his actions and decisions. Understanding Garfield’s personality helps us appreciate his contributions and the challenges he faced during his brief time in power.

Character Traits of James Garfield

Official Presidential portrait of James Abram Garfield, 1881

James Garfield was not just a political leader but also a man of profound personal qualities. His intellectualism, empathy, and determination defined his character and profoundly influenced his presidential legacy.


James Garfield was known for his sharp mind and deep love of learning. Before his presidency, he served as a college president, which showcased his commitment to education. He was well-read, fluent in multiple languages, and could write Latin with his left hand and Greek with his right simultaneously. This intellectual capacity not only made him a standout leader but also deeply influenced his approach to governance and reform.

Empathy and Compassion

Garfield’s ability to empathize with others was evident throughout his life and career. He cared deeply for the welfare of his soldiers during the Civil War, often visiting the wounded and ensuring they received proper care. This compassion extended into his political career, where he consistently worked to improve the lives of his constituents, advocating for civil rights and the welfare of the less fortunate.


Coming from humble beginnings, Garfield’s rise to the presidency was marked by his determined spirit. He was born into poverty and worked tirelessly to improve his circumstances through education and public service. His determination was not just personal but also professional, as he strove to make significant contributions to the country, particularly in areas of civil rights and educational reform.

Garfield’s personality traits of intellectualism, empathy, and determination shaped not only his leadership style but also his legacy as a president. Though his time in office was brief, these characteristics left a strong imprint on American political history.

Leadership Style of James Garfield

President Garfield in reviewing stand, viewing inauguration ceremonies, on March 4, 1881

James Garfield’s leadership style was a blend of intellectual rigor, visionary thinking, and compelling communication. These attributes made him a respected leader whose brief tenure still left a significant impact on American politics.

Legislative Skills

During his time in Congress, James Garfield demonstrated strong legislative skills that were heavily influenced by his personality. He was known for his ability to engage with complex issues, debate intelligently, and persuade others. His thorough understanding of the issues and commitment to well-reasoned arguments earned him respect from his colleagues and his effectiveness as a legislator.


Garfield’s leadership was also marked by his visionary ideas, particularly regarding civil rights and national unity. He was an outspoken advocate for the rights of freed slaves and worked towards a vision of a unified, post-Civil War America where equality was a foundational principle. His foresight in these areas showed a leader thinking beyond his time, aiming to lay down a legacy of progress and inclusion.


An effective communicator, Garfield could convey his ideas and visions clearly and persuasively. He was an eloquent speaker known for his powerful speeches that could captivate and inspire his audience. This skill was crucial both in his political campaigns and in rallying support for his policies while in office.

Personal Relationships

Portrait of President James Garfield

Garfield’s personal and professional relationships were characterized by deep empathy, respect, and effective communication. These traits not only made him a beloved family man but also a successful political figure who could navigate the complexities of Washington with grace and effectiveness.

Family Life

James Garfield was deeply devoted to his family, demonstrating strong bonds and a loving relationship with his wife, Lucretia, and their children. His personal letters reveal a man who valued his home life and took great pleasure in spending time with his family. This close-knit family dynamic provided him with both comfort and motivation, influencing his empathetic approach to leadership and policy-making.

Professional Relationships

In the political arena, Garfield was known for his ability to foster and maintain meaningful relationships with his peers. He was respected by both friends and adversaries for his fairness, integrity, and willingness to listen. These relationships facilitated his legislative successes, as he could often bridge divides and secure cooperation among diverse groups. His assassination, in fact, led to an outpouring of grief from across the political spectrum, underscoring the deep respect he commanded.

Challenges and Adversities Faced by James Garfield

The adversities Garfield faced, both personally and politically, highlight the resilience and commitment of a leader devoted to his principles and to the betterment of his country. Despite the brevity of his presidency, his ability to confront these challenges left a lasting impact on American political history.

Personal Struggles

James Garfield faced significant personal challenges throughout his life, starting from his early years in poverty. His father died when he was just two years old, leaving his family in difficult circumstances. Despite these hardships, he was determined to educate himself, working various jobs to fund his education. This background of adversity shaped his character, instilling resilience and a strong work ethic that defined his political and personal life.

Political Challenges

Garfield’s presidency was marked by political challenges from the very beginning. His brief tenure in office was dominated by struggles with political factions within his own party, particularly the Stalwarts, who opposed his reformist agenda. These internal conflicts were exacerbated by his efforts to reform the patronage system, leading to significant opposition from established political figures who felt threatened by his policies. His assassination, just months into his presidency, was directly linked to these political tensions and his push for reform.

Legacy and Impact

Engraving of James A. Garfield's assassination, published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

James Garfield’s legacy is marked by his profound impact on presidential security, civil service reform, and educational advocacy. These contributions continue to influence American society and political structures, underscoring the lasting influence of a presidency cut tragically short.

Impact of His Assassination

James Garfield’s assassination had a profound impact on the nation, highlighting the vulnerabilities in presidential security and prompting changes in the way presidents were protected. His death also led to a greater awareness of the need for civil service reform, which he had championed. The public mourning and national reflection that followed his assassination emphasized the loss of a leader who had promised reform and integrity in government.

Contributions to Civil Service and Education

Despite his short time in office, Garfield’s advocacy for civil service reform catalyzed significant changes in how government jobs were awarded, setting the groundwork for the eventual implementation of the merit-based system. His passion for education and his background as an educator also had lasting effects, inspiring many to value and pursue higher education as a means to personal and civic improvement.

Remembered Today

Today, James Garfield is remembered not just for the manner of his death but for the values he promoted and the potential he represented. His commitment to equality, justice, and reform is reflected in ongoing discussions about presidential leadership and the role of government in securing civil rights. Garfield’s legacy, therefore, extends beyond his own era, contributing to the broader narrative of American progress and the ongoing effort to realize the ideals he stood for.


James Garfield’s life and presidency, though brief, were deeply impactful. His intellectualism, compassion, and determination shaped not only his time in office but also left a lasting mark on American history. Garfield’s legacy continues to remind us of the power of resilience and the importance of striving for progress and integrity in public service.