James A Garfield Home
Photos and text © Gleaves Whitney 2004
James A. Garfield home. In the 1870s, James A. Garfield was widely regarded as the Republican party's greatest orator. He established his reputation in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he had served since the Civil War. He became the Republican nominee for president in an era when it was considered undignified for presidential candidates to campaign on their own behalf. (Others campaigned for them.) What to do with such a great orator -- hide one of his greatest strengths under a bushel basket? The solution was to encourage Garfield to deliver speeches from his front porch. So it was Garfield's oratorical gifts that gave rise, in 1880, to the first "front porch campaign" in American history. Some 17,000 visitors came to hear the Republican candidate during the autumn of 1880. The picture above is of Garfield's home in Mentor, Ohio. (Locals pronounce "Mentor" to rhyme with "enter.") The house was punningly dubbed "Lawnfield" by reporters who staked out a spot on the grass. This view is from Mentor Avenue, looking at the famous front porch where Garfield speechified.
James A. Garfield -- a "dark horse" candidate. This panel from the museum at the Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, tells of the drama at the Republican National Convention of 1880.
A "dark horse" is a person who suddenly and unexpectedly receives political support to run for office. The term was probably first used in a novel by Benjamin Disraeli titled The Young Duke (1831). In American presidential politics it was first applied in 1844 to James K. Polk, who won the Democratic nomination on the eighth ballot, and went on to win the election.
James A. Garfield had the second shortest presidency in U.S. history -- only 200 days -- the last 80 of which were a death vigil. Yet he was a remarkable man and several facts about him are worth noting.
Garfield was the last of America's true "log cabin" presidents. He was from a poor family that subsisted in a log cabin on the Ohio frontier. So our 20th president could really claim log-cabin status, unlike Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison, who were called log-cabin presidents but who were from the gentry and reinvented themselves after they went West.
Garfield only lived to the age of 48, but he had an extremely diverse curriculum vitae. He was a classics professor, a college president, an ordained minister, a lawyer, a Civil War general, a congressman, a senator-elect, one of the greatest orators of his day, and the 20th president of the United States. Even as president, he preferred to be called "General."
Garfield was a self-taught military man who greatly admired Napoleon. Inside his house, Lawnfield, are two portraits of the French general.
The above profile of the 20th president is on the grounds of the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.
Garfield was a dark horse candidate during the campaign of 1880. He never expected to be nominated at the Republican convention. Because of his superb oratorical skills, he ran the first successful "front porch campaign" in U.S. history so that he could give speeches. (In the 19th century, following George Washington's example, it was thought unbecoming for presidential candidates to campaign on their own behalf.) Some 17,000 people called on the Republican nominee at Lawnfield during the campaign of 1880.
Garfield was a bibliophile with a considerable private library. Four years after his death in 1881, his wife Lucretia (called "Crete") added more space to Lawnfield to hold a library built up by and dedicated to her husband. Letters and other papers were kept in a fireproof vault off the main room. Some historians trace the modern presidential library system to Mrs. Garfield's initiative.