James Garfield

Ole Peter Hansen Balling, Peter Hansen1881

Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Twentieth president, March-September 1881

Through repeated balloting at the Republican convention of 1880, delegates remained deadlocked in naming a presidential candidate. Finally, after thirty-five ballots, they were ready for a compromise. Rejecting both front-runners-James Blaine and Ulysses S. Grant-the delegates endorsed Ohio congressman James A. Garfield, whose aspirations had been limited to becoming a senator.

The patronage-driven factionalism that led to Garfield's nomination continued to fester following his assumption of the presidency. On July 2, 1881, angered that Garfield had not awarded him a public office, a member of a GOP faction shot the president as he went to board a train. Eleven weeks later, Garfield was dead from his wound.

This staid portrait by Norwegian artist Ole Peter Hansen Balling may have captured Garfield's physical traits accurately, but it did not convey his spellbinding impact on people. Having once been a lay preacher, Garfield was at his most impressive when speaking. According to one observer, his thoughts sometimes seemed to issue forth at the podium "like solid shot from a cannon."

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