The Twin Pens of President James A. Garfield

James A. Garfield at Age 16

American presidents all have had distinguishing traits. Several were ambidextrous. Garfield could write simultaneously with both hands-in foreign languages.

James A. Garfield grew up in a frontier log cabin. By the time he assumed the U.S. presidency in 1881, however, he’d made himself a most erudite individual. He was not only multilingual but ambidextrous. In fact, he could write in two classic languages, Greek and Latin, simultaneously.

Political campaigns always, at every level, have tried to advance the intellectual selling points of their candidates. Many tout the earned degrees at uppity colleges and universities, superior IQs and communicative eloquence of the candidates.

Campaign spin aside, Garfield appears to have been absolutely unique in his lingual capabilities.

Ironically, he’s one of America’s least-remembered presidents because he served only briefly in office.

Garfield: A Product of the Young American Frontier

Garfield, born 19 November 1831, haled from Ohio’s frontier Western Reserve district. When he was 2 years old, his father perished while fighting a forest fire. At 17, James ran away to join a towboat crew on the Ohio Canal. A sequence of boating accidents and illnesses sent him home.

His mother urged Garfield to give up his quest for adventure and obtain an advanced education. He was enrolled in a college prep school in Chester, Ohio, in 1849. He later studied at a collegiate institute in Hiram, Ohio, distinguished himself as a preacher, and mastered the classic languages.

To further his education, he worked as a janitor and prep school tutor and borrowed money from a friend to enroll at Williams College in Massachusetts. There, he was influenced by such notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Among other skills, he became a superior debater.

America’s 20th President

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Garfield was given a lieutenant-colonel commission in the Union Army. By 1863, he was a major-general. He then accepted a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio, to which he’d been elected while a soldier. In 1880, he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

This was a major election year. Garfield the politician had become known as a Republican with a mediator’s style. He attended the Republican National Convention that year supporting John Sherman, a fellow Ohioan, for the Republican presidential nomination.

More than 30 ballots were cast at the convention; no candidate came close to receiving a majority of votes. Garfield was proposed (against his wishes) as a compromise candidate. Suddenly, Garfield found himself the man of the moment. He won the nomination—and the subsequent general election, barely beating Winfield S. Hancock, the Democratic candidate.

The Left Hand of James Garfield

Garfield took office in early 1881. On 2 July of that year, Charles Guiteau, an angry government employee, shot him. Doctors could not locate and extract the bullet from his back; after two months of anguish, Garfield succumbed.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Garfield presidency, in terms of posterity, is that he did not serve long enough for Americans to get to know him and evaluate him accurately. By and large, they rate his presidency as neither positive nor negative. He’s become a “forgotten” president.

Aside: It’s been observed that while most U.S. presidents have been right-handed, 6 of the 12 elected since World War II have been lefties.


  1. “10 Interesting Facts About James Garfield.” Who’s Who/Republican Presidents (28 February 2009).
  2. Israel, Fred L., editor. Taught to Lead: The Education of the Presidents of the United States. Mason Crest Publishers (2004).
  3. McFarland, Kevin. Incredible! Signet/New American Library (1976).
  4. Pesken, Allan. James Abram Garfield. Kent State University Press (1978).
  5. Wang, Sam, & Sandra Aamodt. “A Vast Left-Handed Conspiracy.” The Washington Post (8 July 2008).