Raised in poverty, Garfield worked at many jobs to finance his higher education at Williams College, Massachusetts, where he graduated from in 1856. He was a preacher at Franklin Circle Christian Church in 1857 and 1858, making him the only President to have served as a clergyman. He married Lucretia Rudolph in 1858 and, in 1860, was admitted to practice law in 1861, while serving as an Ohio State Senator from 1859 to 1861.
Garfield was opposed to Confederate secession, and served as a Major General in the Union Army during the Civil War. He fought in the battles of Middle Creek, Shiloh and Chickamauga. He was first elected to Congress in 1862 as Representative of the 19th District of Ohio. Garfield gained a reputation as a skilled orator in congress. He was Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee and a member of the Ways and Means Committee. Garfield initially agreed with Radical Republican views regarding Reconstruction, but later favored a moderate approach for civil rights enforcement for Freedmen. Garfield served nine consecutive terms in congress.
In 1880, the Ohio legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. In that same year, the Republican National Convention ran into a deadlock as the three leading Republican presidential contenders – Ulysses S. Grant, James G. Blaine and John Sherman – failed to garner the requisite support at their convention. Garfield became the party's compromise nominee for the 1880 Presidential Election and successfully campaigned to defeat Democrat Winfield Hancock in the election. He is thus far the only sitting member of the House of Representatives to have been elected to the presidency.
Garfield's accomplishments as President included a controversial resurgence of Presidential authority, as opposed to the system of Senatorial courtesy when it came to making executive appointments. He sought to purge corruption in the Post Office Department and he appointed several African-Americans to prominent federal positions. As President, Garfield advocated a bi-metal monetary system, agricultural technology, an educated electorate, and civil rights for African-Americans. He proposed substantial civil service reform, eventually passed by Congress in 1883 and signed into law by his successor, Chester A. Arthur, as the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.
Garfield's presidency lasted just 200 days, from March 4, 1881, until his death on September 19, 1881, as a result of being shot by assassin Charles J. Guiteau on July 2, 1881. Only William Henry Harrison's presidency, of 31 days, was shorter. Garfield was the second of four United States Presidents who were assassinated.
An outstanding book about Garfield's assassination is Candice Millard's 2011 work Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, a review of which was posted in this community here. In 2016 PBS aired an terrific documentary about Garfield called Murder of a President.