Discovering our Commander-in-Eph: Garfield’s Legacy

President Garfield and his sons, one of whom became the namesake of Garfield House, left an indelible mark on the College. Photo courtesy of History.com.
President Garfield and his sons, one of whom became the namesake of Garfield House, left an indelible mark on the College. Photo courtesy of History.com.

For most students at the College today, the name “Garfield” is just the dorm located notoriously far from campus. For a few history and American studies majors, the name might call to mind a couple sentences in one of their textbooks mentioning President Garfield in passing. Though the former U.S. president was not the namesake of the dormitory building in which some 34 students currently live, the average student would be surprised by just how related the two are.

On July 2, 1881, President of the United States James Abram Garfield was assassinated while waiting for a train to visit his alma mater – Williams. At the time, James Garfield, Class of 1856, was accompanied by two of his sons, both of whom matriculated into the College a mere three months later. One of those two sons, Harry Augustus Garfield, Class of 1885, went on to become President of the College, and it is his name Garfield House bears today.

The story of the Garfield family’s relationship with the College begins on a farm on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio, where James Garfield was born and raised – fitting for someone who would attend a school whose mascot would later become a farm animal. The last of American presidents to be born in a log cabin, James Garfield was very poor and needed to support himself from a young age. So, during his time studying at a small college in Ohio, he worked various campus jobs, including that of janitor. “Poverty is very inconvenient, but it is a fine spur to activity, and may be made a rich blessing,” James Garfield once said. His thirst for knowledge was not satiated by the Ohio college, so he transferred to Williams – the College’s policy against slavery, one which he wholeheartedly supported, made the decision clear to him.

At the College, James Garfield studied under the tutelage of then-president Mark Hopkins, Class of 1884, whom he greatly admired. “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other,” James Garfield is reported to have said. Hopkins was a professor of moral and intellectual philosophy, but Garfield was also interested in Latin and Greek, all of which were subjects he studied and were included in his $11-per-term tuition.

James Garfield was very intellectual – he was an avid book reader and served as editor for the Williams Quarterly, a literary journal, and as president of the literary society Philologian. However, “no one thought of him as a recluse, or as bookish,” Hopkins wrote. James Garfield was a member of Delta Upsilon, a fraternity housed in the campus house that would be named after his son more than a century later. James Garfield was also described by Hopkins as being “social in his disposition, both giving and inspiring confidence,” and though “not given to athletic sports, he was fond of them,” much like many Ephs today. The U.S. president graduated from the College with honors.

Upon graduation, James Garfield became a minister while simultaneously pursuing a career in academia as principal of the Ohioan school he attended prior to Williams, and studied law on the side. Eventually, he began serving as a congressman representing Ohio. A scholar at heart, James Garfield devoted time to educational causes even as congressman. He drafted the bill creating a Department of Education and served on the Board of Trustees of Hampton Institute, a historic black college.

In 1881, James Garfield became the 20th president of the United States. His presidential term only lasted four months, but President Garfield nevertheless managed to strengthen the nation’s navy, reform the post office and appoint black people to high positions in the federal government. Just 200 days after his inauguration, Garfield was shot on the platform of a train station in Washington D.C., expecting to deliver a speech at the Williams Class of 1881 Commencement Ceremony, and then attend his 25-year reunion. Though the bullets didn’t kill James Garfield, infection from their removal ultimately led to his death 80 days after the shooting. Two weeks before he passed away, his sons began their first years at the College.

Harry Garfield would carry on the Garfield legacy and become President of the College. According to the College Archives, “At Williams, Garfield was a member of Alpha Delta Phi, the Philologian Society, Glee Club, church choir and the Athenaeum writing staff. He graduated in 1885 and went on to study law at Columbia Law School, spending his second year at All Soul’s College in Oxford and the Inns Court in London.” As the eighth president of the College, he is best known for founding the Institute of Politics at Williams. “The object of the Institute is to promote the study of international problems and relations with a view to creating a more sympathetic understanding of the ideals and politics of other nations,” Harry Garfield said. Harry Garfield died of natural causes in the Williams Inn in 1942.

Garfield House, infamous for its inconvenient location and 14-to-1 student-to-bathroom ratio, may not properly memorialize the family that contributed so much to the College and the country. But hopefully, the next time you make the trek down South Street you’ll be reminded of the Garfields. Who knows? Maybe you and your child will be the next parent-child presidential duo!

  • Jim Barns ’69

    Highly recommend Destiny of the Empire…. Multilayered history of Garfield’s assassination and the backward medical treatment of his wounds. Fascinating read.
    Garfield was an impressive man and could have been an outstanding President.