In 1876, the Republican Party bargained the end of Reconstruction for the presidency. Now faced with a solidly Democratic South, and fracturing within their own party, was their political dominance finally coming to an end?
The Last Four Years
Democrats were understandably angry with the Compromise of 1877. They called President Rutherford B. Hayes “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency.” In the end, though, they got what they wanted. Hayes’ first major act was to withdraw the last remaining federal troops from the South. Their removal made it easier for white supremacists to infringe upon African American voting rights. To be fair to Hayes, Reconstruction had become unpopular even within the Republican Party. And with a Democratic-controlled House, he didn’t have much of a choice. Hayes did his best to preserve voting rights throughout the rest of his administration, but failed to have any lasting effects on racial equality in the South. With the African American vote suppressed, Democrats continued to gain back control.
President Hayes’ main agenda was, of course, civil service reform. He established a new cabinet committee tasked with creating a merit-based system for government appointments. Hayes next took aim at the New York Custom House, which was one of the worst offenders of the Spoils System. Appointments in New York were ultimately controlled by Senator Roscoe Conkling. Under his watch, the New York port provided lots of lucrative jobs for party loyalists. It’s head, Collector Chester A. Arthur, made more money than anyone in the party. Hayes issued an executive order ending mandatory party donations for federal office holders (that was a thing!). Conkling’s supporters, including Arthur, refused to comply. Hayes attempted to replace Conkling’s men, but was blocked by the Senate Commerce Committee, which was chaired by none other than Roscoe Conkling. Hayes was finally able to oust Arthur during a Congressional recess. Hayes continued to push for a Civil Service Reform Act to make his merit-based system official, but unfortunately, it didn’t have enough support to pass Congress.
Meanwhile, Hayes faced the Great Railroad Strike against the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had cut wages following the Panic of 1873. The strike quickly spread to other companies across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, some becoming riots. Hayes fulfilled the West Virginia governor’s request to send federal troops to quell the protestors. Their presence was enough to bring the strike to an end. Although the movement was important in spreading awareness of organized labor, it was also the first time a president used federal troops to end a labor dispute.
Excitingly, the debate over currency also raged on. Workers and farmers argued for the return of silver coinage, which had been halted in favor of gold in 1873. Hayes vetoed Congress’ bill on the issue, fearing inflation, but it was overturned. Hayes’ administration also returned the country to the gold standard through a buyback of paper money Greenbacks.
With Reconstruction at its end, civil service reform remained the biggest issue of the day. Republicans were split on the issue. Democrats were just trying anything that would get votes, at this point.
Party Watch & The Candidates
During the 1876 election, Hayes promised to only serve one term, and that’s what he did! He stepped back to let his fractured party fight for their future at the convention. Conkling’s faction was known as the Stalwarts. They represented the old ways of party politics, which thrived under Grant. Fittingly, their preference was a third term for former President Ulysses S. Grant, himself! The reformers in the party were known as the Half-Breeds. Stalwarts accused them of only being half-Republican, due to their alleged disloyalty. Their candidate of choice was Maine Senator James Blaine, a reformer who was also one of the last supporters of Reconstruction. What proceeded was the longest Republican Convention of all time. On the 36th ballot, the Half-Breeds finally had enough support for dark horse candidate, ohio Representative James A. Garfield. Garfield was seen as a working-class candidate. He was born in a log cabin and was known as “Boatman Jim” for his days working on the ohio Canal. Like most candidates at this time, he had served in the Civil War. In Congress, he had been the Minority House Leader and remained loyal to Hayes. To appease Conkling, however, the Republicans chose his right-hand man, Chester A. Arthur, as Garfield’s running mate. Arthur was the epitome of political corruption, but that didn’t matter because the highest position he could possibly attain was vice president, and they don’t do that much anyways.
The Democrats had a much easier time selecting their candidate. On the second ballot, they went with the timeless war hero strategy and picked General Winfield Scott Hancock, named after War of 1812 General (and former Whig candidate) Winfield Scott. Hancock had served in the Civil War and famously led the defense against Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Democrats knew his time in the war would make it difficult for Republicans to “wave the bloody shirt” against him. Like the many military candidates before him, Hancock was not known for any strong political beliefs, though he had served as military governor of Texas and Louisiana. There, he supported President Andrew Johnson’s policies and believed Southern states could soon be trusted to handle Reconstruction on their own. As his running mate, Democrats picked businessman and former Representative William H. English, from the swing-state of Indiana.
The Greenback Party was at it again, too. They had a very progressive platform, including a graduated income tax, an end to child labor, and an eight-hour work day. This time, their nominee was Civil War veteran and Iowa politician James Weaver.
Once again, both major party platforms were not all that different, ignoring much larger social and economic issues beneath the surface. Both parties endorsed civil service reform and wanted to limit Chinese immigration from the West Coast. Early campaigning focused on Republicans waving the bloody shirt and Democrats complaining about The Compromise of 1877, but neither became important campaign issues.
One issue that returned to divide the parties was the tariff. Generally, tariffs had been a regional issue, favored by Northern manufacturing and loathed by Southern farmers. Republicans used the Democratic platform’s vague opposition to tariffs to fracture their supporters. In a speech, Hancock called tariffs a “local question,” which many voters saw as a complete misunderstanding of the issue.
Democrats used xenophobia in the West to their advantage. They circulated a fake letter from Garfield encouraging the use of cheap Chinese labor in California and Oregon. Unfortunately, this turned many West Coast workers against him.
The regional split was very clear in this election. Without enforcement of voting rights laws, the South stayed blue. The Republicans’ tariff strategy paid off and they swept the North. Likewise, the fake pro-immigrant letter worked in California, which voted for Hancock by less than 100 votes! Nationally, this election had the narrowest popular vote of all time! Only 2,000 votes separated the two candidates.
Despite the close popular vote, James A. Garfield won the electoral college with room to spare. The final tally was 214-155. Garfield became America’s 20th president, the 4th with a beard, the 3rd from ohio, and the 3rd Civil War veteran. He was also the 6th Republican election winner in a row, the second longest win streak, following the Democratic-Republicans’ domination of the early 1800s. Garfield is the only sitting House member to win the presidency.
What Did It Say About America?
The Solid South effect had begun, mostly thanks to the Republicans’ abandonment of African Americans. Because of this, the Democrats controlled Congress and were right on Republicans’ heels for the presidency. In reality, there were few major differences between the party platforms, and both turned a blind eye to the economic issues of the Gilded Age.
Was It The Right Decision?
Soft yes! Garfield was a reformer with no ties to racist Southern interests. But the threat of a Democratic president was probably not as worrisome as it had been a few years prior. The bigger threat was Vice President Chester A. Arthur, one of the party’s most corrupt politicians, who was just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.