The Election of 1880: Garfield vs. Handcock

Hello, and welcome back to another edition of Lace ‘Em Up’s Presidential Election series. Today we will be going over the Election of 1880 as two wild card candidates are being thrown into the mix to see who the next President of the United States will be as the White House is once again up for grabs.

Rutherford’s Presidency

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After the madness that was the election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes’ Presidency saw the former Ohio Governor attempting to pass Civil Service Reform. He also settled matters between Argentina and Paraguay as well as 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 Party’s nomination wide open, but things are going to get a lot more messy heading into their nominating convention.

Stalwarts vs. Halfbreeds  

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Heading into the 1880 Convention, the Republican Party was split into two factions: ‘The Stalwarts’ who were a group of Republicans who believed in patronage. Also known as “The Spoil System” which meant that people who helped to get you elected should be rewarded with favours or positions of 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.

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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

As you might remember, Ulysses Grant served as President from 1869 to 1877 when he decided to not run for a third term in the 1876 election due to the backlash he and the Republicans faced at the time. Now he’s back to officially run for a third term with Conkling and the other stalwarts supporting the famous war hero.

James Garfield: The GOP’s Compromise Candidate

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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. As it went on and on, it became clear as day that neither Blaine, Grant or Sherman (who was neither a stalwart nor half-breed) was able to get enough of the delegates to win, so a dark horse or compromise candidate to break up the deadlock.

Their dark horse was James A. Garfield who was a former House Representative from Ohio and the current head of the Ohio delegation at the 1880 convention. Here he gave a speech introducing the candidacy of James Sherman for President, so when Blaine and Sherman decided to throw their support to Garfield, he had little interest in becoming the nominee never mind the president.

Eventually, Garfield agreed and threw his name into the running, so after thirty-six ballots…that’s right I said thirty-six, James Garfield won the nomination.

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Despite Garfield becoming the nominee the stalwarts weren’t too sure about him, so in order to have some balance on the Presidential 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. Conkling also told him to decline, but Arthur insisted that he wanted to be on the ticket which Conkling eventually agreed to and so Arthur became Garfield’s running mate for this election.

General Winfield Scott Hancock

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The Democrats meanwhile were determined to get back into the White House following the events of the previous election. With the divisions going on within the Republican Party, they thought that things were finally going to go their way this time.

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.

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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 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 who were back for another round.

The Greenback Party

1880 Greenback Party

After getting 1% of the popular vote with 85-year-old Peter Cooper in 1876, the party pressed on to nominate another candidate for President with James B. Weaver, a congressman and Civil War veteran from Iowa got the nomination 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 injuring his two ribs while Weaver’s speeches pushing for racial inclusion didn’t get him much support in the South.

Campaigning and October Surprise

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While all three parties agreed on some of the issues of the day, 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 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 previous scandals like Credit Mobilier however they are unsuccessful in connecting Garfield to these scandals. By October a major surprise emerged when a mysterious letter claimed that Garfield would be in support of Chinese immigration. Many Americans weren’t too pleased about it as most were under the belief that Chinese people were coming to America to obtain 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 with many thinking this could be the turning point that could destroy the Republicans come election day…To see if that’s the case, let’s look at the results.

Election of 1880: The Results

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As you can see from the map above, James Garfield became the 20th President of the United States 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 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.

Garfield’s Assassination & Tragic Death

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As the new commander and chief, James Garfield was looking forward to pushing ideas like civil service and naval reform, ending polygamy with Mormon communities, opening free trade with Latin Americans 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 on July 2th, 1881. That day 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 J. Guiteau shot 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.

The first bullet hit Garfield in one of his arms while the second bullet hit his back and remained struck 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’s death…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.

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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 even worse when Doctor Williard Bliss (one of Garfield’s physicians) made numerous errors when it came to helping the ill President most notably telling people that the bullet was located on one side of Garfield’s body when it was really the other side, but refusing to have his opinions questioned.

Tragically, on September 19th 1881, James Garfield died 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 could’ve easily been avoided but the malpractice by his physicians is what ultimately led to his tragic death.

If you like this kind of content, be sure to leave your thoughts down below in the comment section and be sure to follow Lace ‘Em Up on X @laceemupoffice you can follow me also on X @hakeemfullerton and I’ll see you in the next article.

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