US History: The Election Of 1880: James Garfield vs. Winfield Scott Hancock

In the election of 1880, two wild card candidates in James Garfield and Winfield Scott Hancock are being thrown into the mix to see who the next president of the United States will be… let’s get into it!

One & Done for Rutherford

After the madness that was the election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes’ presidency saw the former Ohio Governor attempting to pass Civil Service Reform, settling a dispute between Argentina and Paraguay and stopping a major railroad strike that occurred in 1877 between the workers and a militia organized by those in charge of the railroad companies.

Despite all of this, Hayes continued to be dogged by his controversial victory four years earlier with many referring to him as “Rutherfraud” or “His Fraudulency” but it didn’t matter too much to Hayes as he promised to step down after one term as president with his vice president, William Wheeler doing the same.

With the incumbent president and vice president refusing to run again this left the Republican nomination wide open, but things are going to get a little messy heading into this convention.

Stalwarts vs. Halfbreeds  

Leading into the 1880 Convention, the Republican Party was spilt into two factions; On one side you have ‘The Stalwarts’ a group of Republicans who believed in patronage aka “The Spoil System” which meant that friends, family and politicians who helped you to get elected should be rewards with favors or positions of political power with the leading figure of the Stalwarts being Senator and Representative of New York, Roscoe Conkling.

On the other side you had “The Half Breeds”, who were called so as many referred to them as half Republicans. The Half Breeds were strongly against the spoil system and instead believed in civil service reform which meant that people should be elected to positions of power based on their merit and credibility. Going into the convention, three names stood out for the nomination:

  • Ulysses S. Grant | Former Civil War Hero and former U.S. President
  • James Blaine | Senator from Maine and leader of the Half Breeds faction
  • John Sherman | The Treasury Secretary from Ohio and brother of Civil War Hero, William Tecumseh Sherman

Ulysses Grant, who served previously as president from 1869 to 1877 decided to do what he refused to do back in 1876 and officially ran for a third term which was the first time a former or current commander and chief decided to break the long-held tradition of a president serving only two terms which were started all the way back with George Washington. 

In addition to Grant wanting a third term in the White House, Conkling and the stalwarts supported the famous war hero as his administration was notorious for corruption and scandals as mentioned before in the 1872 election article.

The GOP’s Compromise Candidate

As the convention proceeded things got intense as the Half Breeds and Stalwarts were doing everything in their power to make sure their respective candidate got enough delegates to become the nominee but as it went on and on, it became clear as day that neither Blaine nor Grant would be able to get enough of the delegates.

With this in mind and the fact that John Sherman (who was neither a stalwart or half breed) was also struggling to get the delegates as well, made it clear that a dark horse or compromise candidate would be needed to break up the deadlock.

This dark horse candidate came in the form of James A. Garfield who was a former school teacher, minister, a former House Representative from Ohio who served as one of the many politicians involved on the electoral commission for the election of 1876 and he was the current head of the Ohio delegation at the convention, who a gave speech introducing the candidacy of James Sherman.

Both Blaine and Sherman decided to throw their support and the support of the delegates to Garfield despite the fact he had little interest in becoming the nominee never mind the president, even still he went along with it and threw his name into the running.

After thirty-six ballots… that’s right I said thirty-six, James Garfield got 399 delegates votes to Grant’s 306 (as you needed 379 delegates at the time) to become the Republican nominee for president.

Despite Garfield becoming the GOP nominee, Conkling and the stalwarts weren’t too sure about him, so in order to have some balance on the Republican Party ticket Garfield went to New York (which was the home state for the stalwarts) and met with the party bosses to find a running mate.

At first, Garfield chose a guy by the name of Levi Morton who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives but under the orders of Roscoe Conkling, he refused.

Garfield’s second pick was Chester Allen Arthur, the chairman of New York’s Republican Committee, but Conkling told him to decline as well Arthur insisted to be on the ticket which Conkling eventually agreed to and so Arthur became Garfield’s running mate for this election.

Call In the General

The Democrats meanwhile were determined to get back into the White House following the events of the previous election and with the divisions going on within the Republican Party, they thought that things were finally going to go their way. Samuel J. Tilden, the Democratic nominee from the previous election was seen as the front runner and many believed he would go on to get the party’s nomination for the second time, however, Tilden was dealing with health concerns by this point in time and soon afterwards many other names began to run for the nomination.

The two major candidates trying to get the Democratic nomination were Thomas Bayard, a Senator from Delaware and Major General Winfield Scott Hancock who served during the Mexican American and Civil War. Mostly due to the fact that war heroes tend to do well in presidential elections like George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant, the Democrats decided to go with General Winfield Scott Hancock as their nominee with William Hayden English, a banker and Representative from Indiana as his running mate.

So those are the two major candidates: James Garfield for the Republicans and Winfield Scott Hancock for the Democrats. Now before I go into the campaigns, there is one more party that needs to be brought up for this election and that is the Greenback Party.

The Greenback Party

The Greenback Party returned for another go in this election after getting 1% of the popular vote with 85-year-old Peter Cooper and despite some divisions within the party, they pressed on to nominate a candidate for president. They nominated James B. Weaver, a congressman and civil war veteran from Iowa for president with Barzillai Chambers, a former Confederate from Kentucky as his running mate.

While the two major candidates didn’t go out and actively campaign, Weaver and Chambers did in order to reach more people and to get their message across which included things like increasing the supply of money via Greenbacks and passing relegations on major industries.

Things took a turn for the worse as Chambers fell off of a train while he was campaigning and he injured two ribs and Weaver’s speeches pushing for racial inclusion didn’t get him much support in the South. Now with that out of the way, let’s look at the campaigning by the two major parties.

Campaigning and October Surprise

While all three parties agreed on some of the issues, the campaigning got nasty especially as it relates to the Democrats and the Republicans.

The Republicans are once again using the tactic of “Waving the Bloody Shirt” much like they did in 1876 and they’re also bringing up claims that General Winfield Scott Hancock was clueless on the major issues in order to dismay people from voting.

The Democrats are bringing up the results of the 1876 election and even are making claims that Garfield’s running mate was actually a Canadian and not an American in order to stir up some nativist fears in the election.

They are also mentioning the GOP’s involvement with the previous scandals like Credit Mobilier which led to much corruption, however, they are unsuccessful in connecting Garfield to these scandals but by October, a major surprise came out when a mysterious letter emerges and claims that Garfield would be in support of Chinese immigration, which many Americans weren’t too pleased about it as most were under the belief that Chinese people were coming to American to get work which would decrease the number of jobs for middle-class white workers.

It’s later revealed that the letter which contained these claims was actually a forgery, but the damage was already done. So, the mudslinging is running wild in this election and now it’s time to look at the results.

The Results

As you can see from the map above, James Garfield becomes the 20th president in U.S. History with 214 electoral votes (you only needed 185 or more votes to win in this election) compared to Winfield Scott Hancock who got 155 electoral votes. However, the popular vote between both men was much closer with Garfield getting 48.3% to Winfield Scott Hancock’s 48.2% with fewer than 2,000 votes separating both men thus making this election the smallest margin of victory in the popular vote in U.S. history.

James Weaver came in third place with no electoral votes, but he did much better for the Greenback Party with Weaver getting 3% of the popular vote. Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of our story as we have one last piece of business to deal with in the form of a president getting assassinated.

I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts 

As the new commander and chief, James Garfield was looking forward to push ideas like civil service and naval reform, ending polygamy with Mormon communities, opening free trade with Latin American and finally granting education and civil rights to African Americans… talk about having a lot on your plate. However, any attempts to make these plans happen under his administration would never see the light of day following a shocking event that occurred in the summer of 1881.

On July 2th, 1881 James Garfield and his entourage were at the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station getting ready to leave when a deranged man by the name of Charles Guiteau confronted the president with a gun while screaming the phrase “I am a stalwart of the stalwarts… Arthur is the president.”

The mentally unstable Guiteau was furious with Garfield after the president didn’t appoint him the U.S. Representative of France, even though Garfield had made no promises to give him this or any other political position. Guiteau would shoot Garfield in front of a group of spectators with the first bullet hitting one of his arms while the second bullet hit his back and remain stuck in his abdomen all while the president exclaimed in pain “My God, what is This?”. Surprisingly the bullets didn’t hit any valid organs, but it wouldn’t be the assassination that caused Garfield the most problems, it would be his doctors.

Due to little knowledge of germs and medical safety at the time, many of the doctors who tended to Garfield inserted their unwashed fingers and tools into the president’s open wound in the hopes of getting the bullet lodged inside his body and they even put Garfield on the floor of the train station thereby making the likelihood of bacteria getting into his body even more so.

As time went by the president would lose large amounts of weight, throw up constantly and be unable to hold down the meals that he was being fed. Things got worse when Doctor Williard Bliss (one of Garfield’s physicians) made numerous errors when it came to helping the ill president most notably and arrogantly telling people that the bullet was located on one side of Garfield’s body when it was really the other side.

Tragically, on September 19th 1881, James Garfield would die from the infections that riddled his body at just the age of 49 making Garfield’s 199-200 days as president the second shortest tenure in U.S. History and making him the second president to succumb to an assassination attempt.

Speaking of the assassination, Charles Guiteau would be hanged for his actions on June 30th, 1882 but not before the crazed assailant told the crowd that it wasn’t him who killed the president it was his doctors who killed him… Eerily enough he was right.

Most historians and doctors believe that leaving the bullet inside the victim is sometimes much better than taking it out due to the risk of infection getting inside the body, so James Garfield’s death was realistic avoidable but the malpractice by his physicians is what ultimately led to his death.

So that’s the election of 1880, we elected a new president in James Garfield only to be gunned down and later killed by incompetent doctors and now his running mate and corrupt politician, Chester Arthur is in charge, but what will Arthur’s presidency be like? You’ll have to check out the election of 1884 article to find out.

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