James Garfield was born the youngest of five children on November 19, 1831, in a log cabin in Orange Township, now Moreland Hills, Ohio.
Abram Garfield (father) died late in 1833; his son was raised in poverty in a household led by the strong-willed Eliza (mother). James was her favorite child, and the two remained close for the rest of his life.
Poor and fatherless, Garfield was mocked by his fellow boys, and throughout his life was very sensitive to slights. He escaped through reading, devouring all the books he could find.
Accordingly, in 1848, he began at Geauga Seminary, in nearby Chester Township. Garfield learned academic subjects he had not previously had time for. He shone as a student, and was especially interested in languages and elocution. He began to appreciate the power a speaker had over an audience, writing that the speaker's platform "creates some excitement. I love agitation and investigation and glory in defending unpopular truth against popular error.
After leaving Geauga, Garfield worked for a year at various jobs, including teaching. Finding that some New Englanders worked their way through college, Garfield determined to do the same, and first sought a school that could prepare him for the entrance examinations. From 1851 to 1854, he attended the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later named Hiram College) in Hiram, Ohio, a school run by the Disciples. While there, he was most interested in the study of Greek and Latin, but was inclined to learn about and discuss any new thing he encountered. Securing a position on entry as janitor, he was hired to teach while still a student.
Garfield then enrolled at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, as a third-year student, given credit for two years' study at the Institute after passing a cursory examination.
Garfield graduated from Williams in August 1856 as salutatorian, giving an address at the commencement.
On his return to Ohio, the degree from a prestigious Eastern school made Garfield a man of distinction. He returned to Hiram to teach at the Institute, and in 1857 was made its president. He did not see education as a field that would realize his full potential. At Williams, he had become more politically aware in the intensely anti-slavery atmosphere of the Massachusetts school, and began to consider politics as a career.
Local Republican Party leaders invited Garfield to enter politics upon the death of Cyrus Prentiss, the presumptive nominee for the local state senate seat. He was nominated by the party convention on the sixth ballot, and was elected, serving until 1861. Garfield's major effort in the state senate was a bill providing for Ohio's first geological survey to measure its mineral resources, though it failed.