The election of 1880 was not one of the more exciting elections. That was, perhaps, just as well since the election of 1876 had generated enough excitement to last several election cycles. Neither candidate was particularly memorable and the party platforms of the two major parties were almost indistinguishable.
The Republicans met in Chicago, from June 2-8, for what turned out to be the longest political convention in the party’s history. Because President Hayes had decided against running for re-election, the Republican Party was divided between Stalwarts, supporters of Ulysses S. Grant, who had decided to try for a third term as president, and Half-Breeds, who supported civil service reform and opposed the spoils system and the political machines that dominated both parties. These Half-Breeds, so called because the Stalwarts considered them to be only half Republican, supported the candidacy of James G. Blaine, the former Senator from Maine. Some other Republicans supported John Sherman, a former Senator from Ohio, Secretary of the Treasury under President Hayes and the brother of General William T. Sherman. None of these candidates could win a majority of the delegates, so the balloting went on and on until people began to support a relative unknown, James A. Garfield. Blaine decided to throw his support to his friend Garfield and Garfield finally won the nomination on the thirty sixth ballot.
James A. Garfield was a Congressman from Ohio at the time of his nomination. He was, in fact, the only member of the House of Representatives to be elected president while still serving as a Representative. As a youth, Garfield had worked on a canal boat, earning him the campaign nickname, “Boatman Jim”. Garfield was smart and ambitious and began to consider a career in politics but when the Civil War broke out he fought on the side of the Union rising to the rank of Major General. Garfield was elected to Congress in 1862, where he served from 1863 to 1880. Garfield was probably one of the more intellectual candidates for president in the nation’s history, being the only president who proved a theorem in mathematics. He was also able to simultaneously write in Latin with his right hand and Greek with his left hand. Not very practical, perhaps, but still a neat trick.
Garfield’s running mate was Chester A. Arthur. Chester A. Arthur was almost a symbol of everything that was wrong about American politics of the time. Arthur was a machine politician, rising up through the New York Republican Party, taking various civil service/political patronage jobs such as Customs Inspector of New York from 1871-1878. He was a good friend of Roscoe Conkling, the Senator from New York who controlled the patronage in the state. Arthur was a creature of the spoils system that men like Garfield were trying to eliminate. Chester A. Arthur did serve in the Union army as quartermaster, an important job, but again as a political appointee, and he made sure he was no where near any fighting.
The Democrats held their convention in Cincinnati from June 22-24. There was many Democrats who wanted Samuel Tilden to run again, but he didn’t really want to go through the stress and trouble of another presidential run. Instead, the Democrats nominated a Civil War hero, General Winfield Scott Hancock.
Winfield Scott Hancock had served his country in the Army from 1844, fighting in the Mexican War and the Civil War, rising to the rank of Major General. Hancock had fought heroically at the Battle of Gettysburg, taking command of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac on the first day of the battle. He played a critical role in stopping the Confederate assault on the second day and was wounded on the third day. Hancock had little political experience, but the Democrats believed that nominating a war hero who was known to have opposed secession before the war would insulate them from the usual Republican post-war charges of being the party of treason and secession.
Hancock’s running mate was William Hayden English, a conservative Democrat from Indiana. English had held several posts in the Indiana state government and served as Congressman from 1853-1861. During his terms in the House of Representatives, English was a voice of moderation, trying to prevent the country from breaking apart between North and South. After the election of Lincoln, English urged the Southern states not to secede. As a pro-Union Democrat, English would, like Hancock, deflect charges that the Democrats were the party of rebellion.
There was a third party running in this election, the Greenback Party. The Greenback Party was a populist party which, as the name might indicate, believed that print paper money, or greenbacks, not backed by gold or silver. The federal government had first begun to print greenbacks backed by federal bonds during the Civil War. Thus policy caused the first protracted period of inflation in the United States since the time of the Revolutionary War. This inflationary outcome was precisely what the Greenback Party wanted, since it would result in farmers receiving higher prices for their produce and debts to decrease in real value. The Greenback Party was also in favor of such radical proposals as an eight-hour workday and suffrage for women.
The Greenback Party met in Chicago from June 9-11, and nominated James B. Weaver from Iowa for president. Weaver had begun his political career as a Republican but had grown disenchanted with the party and switched over to the newly formed Greenback Party in 1876 and had served in the House of Representatives as a Greenback from 1879-1881. His running mate was the Texan, Barzillai J. Chambers
The two main parties were largely in agreement on the main issues of the day. Both the Republicans and the Democrats supported hard money, or money backed by gold. Tariffs were the major point of contention between the two parties, and even there there disagreements were mostly on minor details. In this time before the income tax, tariffs were the major source of revenue for the federal government. The Republicans wanted high tariffs to protect American manufacturers. The Democrats wanted lower, but still high, tariffs solely for revenue.
Immigration was another issue in which the parties were in agreement, in particular immigration from China. Everyone wanted to limit Chinese immigration because it was believed that the Chinese workers’ willingness to work for extremely low wages would depress wages for workers generally. No doubt prejudice against people who came from a very different cultural background also played a role. As far as I can tell, no one proposed building a wall along the Pacific coast and making China pay for it, though.
The election turned out to be a close one with James A. Garfield getting 4,446,158 (48.27%) popular votes against Winfield Scott Hancock’s 4,444,260 ( 48.25%) popular votes. James B. Weaver got only 308,649 (3.35%) votes. The Electoral College was somewhat more lopsided. Garfield swept the North and Oregon in the West gaining 214 electoral votes while Hancock won in the South, California and Nevada winning 144 electoral votes. There were some reports of irregularities, as in the election of 1876, but Garfield’s victory was decisive enough that it didn’t matter.
Garfield didn’t live to serve a full term as president. Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881, just three months after his inauguration. Garfield managed to linger until September 29 before finally dying. Reform minded people throughout the nation were dismayed at the prospect of the machine politician and Conkling crony Chester A. Arthur succeeding to the presidency. They need not have worried though. As soon as he took the oath of office, President Arthur underwent a complete metamorphosis in morals and politics. He turned against the spoils system and fully supported civil service reform, signing the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883. He wouldn’t even give his old pal Roscoe Conkling the time of day. Arthur turned out to be a decent president, considering that no one ever really wanted him to get the job.