Like William Henry Harrison, his legacy will mostly be his death, a mere footnote in history, one for the trivia games. That's too bad as he was a remarkable man. A Civil War veteran, a preacher and highly educated, it was said that Garfield could "write Greek with one hand, while writing Latin with the other." If it weren't for a rotten political system and a lunatic with a gun you probably would know more about him.
It turns out Garfield wasn't even planning on running for President. The 1880 Republican Convention was split into 2 factions, the Half-Breed moderate faction wanted James G. Blaine, while the Stalwart conservative faction supported an unprecedented third term for former President U.S. Grant. Garfield gave a speech nominating an alternate Half-Breed candidate John Sherman. Because of the splits in the party, no one was getting the required number of votes in the nomination process. After 35 voting rounds Blaine and his supporters along with Sherman and his supporters decided to band together and nominate a compromise candidate, James A. Garfield, a Major General Civil War veteran and nine term Congressman from Ohio who eventually would go on to win the 1880 election. To make peace within the party, a Stalwart, Chester Arthur was nominated as VP.
Charles J. Guiteau, a Stalwart, was one of these office seekers who initially supported Grant but then switched to Garfield and somehow had the grand illusion that he was a major reason for Garfield's election. He felt he was owed a political appointment and became furious when he was rejected. Guiteau purchased a revolver and began stalking the President with the intention of killing him so the Stalwart VP could become President. But let's be clear, most of the folks that encountered him including his own family found him to be a bit a loon. In fact, the free love commune he belonged to in the 1860s found him quite annoying. They called him Charles Git Out. True story.
On July 2, 1881, Guiteau got his chance and shot Garfield twice in the abdomen on a train platform in Washington DC. He was quickly apprehended as he attempted no escape and shouted , "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. .. Arthur is president now!". Oddly, Guiteau later wrote Arthur and demanded a pardon and a job. He was eventually hanged.
We will never know what would have been but as far as I can tell he may have been one of the most honest and incorruptible men that held the office of the Presidency. Or maybe corruption would have found him. It seems to happen to most people of power. Ironically one of his lasting legacies was his initiative for Civil Service reform which would away with the Spoils System, the very system that contributed to his death. It was that assassination by the disgruntled office seeker that eventually led to President Chester Arthur signing the bi-partisan Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act which handed out appointments based on merit rather than privilege or political party.
Another part of his legacy will be his support of civil rights by supporting education for black southerners and appointing several African-Americans including Frederick Douglas (who as a US Marshall also presided over the inauguration of Garfield) to government positions.
Garfield was laid to rest in in Cleveland Ohio's Lakeview Cemetery.
Here is a fun fact: Abraham Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln was present for three Presidential shootings. He witnessed his father's assassination in 1865. Then as a cabinet member, he was present during Garfield's shooting. He also witnessed the murder of President McKinley 20 years later. Strange.
For more information on Garfield, especially surrounding his assassination and death I highly recommend "Destiny of the Republic" by Candace Millard , a 2012 best seller that got rave reviews. It is a highly engaging narrative account that reads like a novel. I was actually kind of shocked of how fun this book was to read.
6/13/2014 Update: A documentary based on Destiny of the Republic is scheduled to be aired on PBS in February 2015