Guest Essayist: Kirk Higgins


When one reflects on the history of the United States, the politics of the Gilded Age are often overlooked. Many find little value in understanding the intricacies of the political wheeling and dealing, often engineered by political machinery in both major parties. Nevertheless, these elections are as a part of the collective American consciousness as any before or since. They are central to understanding the American political character as it dealt with the aftereffects of the great national tragedy that was the American Civil War.

The conflict itself had officially ended in 1865. The process of reconstruction that followed the war had effectively ended with the controversial election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. But, fifteen years later, the shadow of the war still hung over the country. Both of the 1880 major party candidates were Civil War generals. Even the candidate of the newly formed Greenback party was a Civil War general. In addition, several of the major political issues of the campaign had their origins in the war. The very political rhetoric of the campaign was rooted in the war. The scar was slow to heal.

Rutherford B. Hayes won the election in 1876 with a majority in neither the popular vote nor the Electoral College. Only the promise of the end of reconstruction by Republican Party members allowed for a deal to be struck and Hayes to be elected. Upon his election, Hayes promised to serve for one term only. This created the opportunity for both parties to hold open conventions four years later.

The Republicans held their convention on 2 June 1880 in Chicago, Illinois. The party was suffering from severe infighting engendered by a political spoils system that had come to consume party loyalties. The two major factions, known as the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, were divided by rhetorical differences more than substantive ones. The Stalwarts favored traditional machine politics, while the Half-Breeds called for civil service reform. Both ultimately wanted more sway in the naming of the nearly 100,000 political appointees the president got to make upon assuming office.

This infighting meant that there was no clear favorite going into the party convention. The three strongest candidates were Ulysses S. Grant, running for an unprecedented third term, James G. Blaine of Maine, and John Sherman, the brother of the famous Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. After thirty-five ballots failed to produce an absolute majority to any one candidate, James A. Garfield of Ohio was introduced as a “dark horse” candidate. After the thirty-sixth ballot, Garfield won the nomination and the longest Republican convention in history was adjourned. Garfield, a Half-Breed, named as his vice-president Chester A. Arthur, a Stalwart, in order to attempt a reconciliation between the two warring factions.

Later that June in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Democrats held their own convention and nominated Winfield Scott Hancock, a career army officer, as their party’s candidate. Hancock’s pro-unionist record as a decorated Union General, best known for his stand at Gettysburg against Pickett’s charge, combined with his states’ rights positions, made him a strong candidate for the Democrats. He chose for his running mate William Hayden English of Indiana, then a swing state.

Two of the major issues of the campaign, tariffs and currency, could trace their origins directly to the Civil War. Tariffs had been steadily increased throughout the duration of the war as the waging of the war demanded an ever-increasing supply of revenue. After the war, northern industrial interests did what they could to hold onto this revenue stream. The Republicans campaigned strongly in favor of these high tariffs, claiming they protected American jobs and prosperity. The Democrats, representing mostly southern interests, believed the tariffs artificially increased the price of goods and hurt their constituents.

The debate over hard or soft currency traced its roots back to the introduction of so called “greenbacks” during the war. The cost of the war caused the United States government to issue as legal tender this paper currency that was based on government bonds rather than hard currency. This move helped pay for the war but caused severe inflation. As a result, those who held government bonds and loans wished to see the government revert to hard currency in order to stabilize the price of the debt they owned. On the other hand, those who owed money benefited from the inflation and resulting decrease in the value they owed. These positions were again generally regional, with the debt owners in the north, and the debtors in the south.

This regional divide stratified the two parties, with the Republicans polling strongly in the north, and the Democrats in the south. As the campaign kicked off, both candidates followed tradition and returned to their homes for the campaign. Garfield returned to his home in Ohio and Hancock, who was still in the military, to his duty station in New York. The Republican machine kicked into gear on behalf of Garfield. They returned to the theme that had won them favor since the conclusion of the war. Called “waving the bloody shirt,” the Republicans blamed Democrats for starting the Civil War and warned that their policies could undo everything the nation had fought for. They also attacked Hancock for a vague statement he made concerning the tariff and for his lack of political experience. The Democrats, meanwhile, criticized Garfield for his alleged involvement in the Crédit Mobilier scandal.

The political shots went back and forth. Although the substantive difference between the two parties was slight, voter turnout was extraordinarily high: Nearly 78 percent of the nation’s voters cast a ballot in the 1880 election. When the ballots were tallied, the popular vote was very close. By some accounts, fewer than 2,000 ballots separated the two candidates. However, the Constitution dictates the Electoral College, not the popular vote, decides presidential elections, and the Electoral College was dramatically one sided.

The results showed the continued stark regional divide between north and south. Hancock and the Democrats dominating in the south, but the 155 electoral votes he won there were not nearly enough. James A. Garfield’s dominance in the north gave him 214 electoral votes and won him the presidency.

The election of 1880 was a snapshot of the American political landscape as it existed in the wake of the Civil War. Powerful political machines battled for control of high political office and continued to grapple with the aftereffects of policies passed during the war. The country had concluded the great struggle over its identity, but what it would do with its newfound peace was still being worked out. With the election of Garfield, many hoped that the country would make strides toward resolving the conflicts. Unfortunately, their hopes would be dashed in just four short months following the election.

Kirk Higgins is a Senior Manager of Education at the Bill of Rights Institute.  

1 reply
  1. Ralph T. Howarth, Jr.
    Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

    Chester Arthur happens to become the first sitting president not born of native parents after the initial founding era that made the exception of 14 years of residency from the founding of the country in 1775. This was an oversight. His father was a Canadian British citizen and his mother married his father in Canada. His father will not become a US citizen until Chester was 15 y/o. And New York lawyer Arthur P. Hinman in How a Subject of the British Empire Became President of the United States. disclosed that Chester was born accidentally in Canada according to family sources there in Canada while is mom made a trip up from Vermont (why she would be travelling while pregnant is strange but perhaps she had a head start.)


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