The Half-Breed reformers in the Republican Party had another win with the election of President James A. Garfield. He was ready to finish the job President Hayes started on civil service reform. But Stalwarts like Vice President Chester A. Arthur were intent on maintaining the morally questionable Spoils System. Meanwhile, the Democrats were preparing to make their case as the true party of integrity.
The Last Four Years
President Garfield hoped to make peace between the Half-Breeds, led by Maine Senator James Blaine, and the Stalwarts, followers of New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. Unfortunately for Conkling, Garfield still sided with the Half-Breeds most of the time. Blaine was appointed as Secretary of State and became one of the president’s closest advisors. Garfield and Conkling’s feud reached its height with appointment of the Collector of the New York City Port Authority, a position previously held by Arthur. Traditionally, presidents would observe “Senatorial Courtesy” by deferring appointments to the senator from the appointee’s state, ensuring successful local Patronage. The Port Authority was one of Conkling’s most important Spoils System rings. Instead, Garfield bypassed Conkling and nominated one of his political rivals. Conkling was so furious, he resigned his position in the Senate. Despite his attempt at martyrdom, the rest of the Republicans approved the nomination. Although Garfield didn’t always fall on Blaine’s side, he continued to clean up the government. Most notably, he gutted the Post Office Department to finally kill the Star Routes scandal.
One of Garfield’s biggest fans was Charles Guiteau. Guiteau was a strange man who had bounced around the Midwest. He attempted to attend the University of Michigan, but failed his entrance exams. He was also kicked out of a group marriage cult in New York, who nicknamed him Charles “Get-out.” His interests turned to politics and he “campaigned” for Garfield in 1880 election by giving speeches and handing out pamphlets. They were mostly plagiarized. He narcissistically believed that he was solely responsible for Garfield’s victory, and thus deserved an ambassadorship of his choosing. Guiteau waited at the White House every day to receive his appointment, per the Spoils System, but it never came. At one point, he pestered Secretary Blaine so much, he yelled back, “Never speak to me again!” Pushed to the edge, Guiteau realized there was only one thing left to do… murder the president.
Guiteau stalked Garfield, eventually confronting him at a train station in Washington, DC, on July 2, 1881. He shot the president twice in the back. Garfield did not die immediately. In fact, he held on for months while doctors poked and probed his body, looking for the bullets. The infections from the ensuing surgeries only made his condition worse, as a result of poor sanitation standards. Even Alexander Graham Bell made an attempt to save him, using a metal detector of his own invention. On September 19th, after 79 excruciating days, Garfield died. The Half-Breeds’ worst fear came true, Chester A. Arthur, the biggest beneficiary of the Spoils System, was now president.
Reformers were terrified. In the months following Arthur’s promotion, Blaine and all of Garfield’s cabinet resigned in disgust, save for Robert Lincoln. Predictably, Arthur replaced most of them with other Stalwarts, though he notably did not appoint his old pal, Roscoe Conkling. Something had started to change in Arthur. It was as if he had gained a conscience. Turns out, that conscience’s name was Julia Sand, a single woman in her 30s living in New York City. She wrote letters to Arthur as Garfield lay on his deathbed and throughout his presidency. She told him that, although no one believed that he could do good, she knew he could change. Arthur took her encouragement to heart and even followed her savvy political advice on several occasions. He pushed for the Pendleton Act, which finally established the civil service reforms that the Half-Breeds had been fighting for. With Garfield’s recent assassination at the hands of a wannabe Patronage appointee, the bill gained bipartisan support. The biggest surprise was that Arthur followed the new merit-based system himself and quickly appointed a Civil Service Commission. Arthur, the man whose career was completely owed to the Spoils System, was the president to end it. Arthur’s close friend, Roscoe Conkling, never forgave him.
Even with the civil service reform in place, voters were still concerned with the integrity of their politicians. Many were still plagued by the scandals of the Grant Administration.
Another big issue of the day was xenophobia. Laborers, particularly in the West, were convinced that immigrants were taking their jobs. Today, we view harsh immigration as a blemish on the Arthur Administration. The most appalling example was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Economic issues like tariffs and the gold standard were also contentious topics, but were ultimately still minor differences between the party platforms.
Party Watch & The Candidates
Unfortunately, President Arthur was not a serious candidate for re-election due to poor health. He had been hiding a kidney disease throughout his presidency. The Republican Party had courted two outsiders, Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Robert Lincoln, but both adamantly declined the offer. Also in the running was Vermont Senator George Edmunds, but he was compromised by his work as a lawyer for big railroad companies. The most popular candidate at the convention was James Blaine, back for his third attempt. He secured the nomination on the fourth ballot. Although he was considered a Half-Breed, Blaine had been accused of taking bribes from railroad companies during the Grant Administration. The true reformers in the Republican Party were not happy with Blaine’s nomination. They threatened to vote for the Democratic nominee. They became known as the Mugwumps, an Algonquin word for leader, implying that they were self-righteous. The Mugwumps called for continued civil service reform, a tariff reduction, and increased honesty and efficiency in government. Blaine’s running mate was Illinois Senator John Logan, a general who served in the Mexican-American and Civil Wars and helped create Memorial Day.
To capture the reformer vote from both sides of the aisle, Democrats nominated a candidate with a clean record, New York Governor Grover Cleveland. Cleveland was relatively new to the political scene. He served as sheriff of Erie County and as mayor of Buffalo before becoming governor. Cleveland was known for going after the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine in New York City. With his short, but valuable political experience, Cleveland made for the perfect scandal-free candidate to take on the Republicans. For vice president, Democrats chose former Indiana Governor Thomas Hendricks, who you might remember as their 1876 VP pick, too, alongside Samuel Tilden. They really wanted the swing-state Indiana vote!
Meanwhile, third parties were on the rise. This time, the Greenback Party was joined by the Anti-Monopoly Party. They both selected Massachusetts Governor Benjamin Butler as their nominee. There were also two Prohibition Parties and an Equal Rights Party, who ran the first national campaign for a female candidate, nominee Belva Ann Lockwood.
Despite all the goodwill from civil service reform, 1884 was one of the dirtiest campaigns of all time. Cleveland spent little time on the stump, as he preferred to actually focus on his job as governor. Blaine, on the other hand, spent six weeks touring the nation, enthusiastically bashing the traitorous Democrats.
Blaine’s suspicious past caught up with him thanks to the Mulligan Letters, which detailed his nefarious deals with the railroad companies. James Mulligan, a bookkeeper, originally released the letters to prevent Blaine’s 1876 nomination, but more evidence was conveniently found during this 1880 run. One correspondence, in particular, ended with the command, “Burn this letter,” which is not something you write if what you’re doing is legal. The phrase became a rallying cry for Democrats and Mugwumps.
At the beginning of the campaign, it seemed like Cleveland had an easy case as the morally superior candidate. But that changed when Republicans learned of Maria Halpin. Newspapers discovered that Cleveland was paying child support to Maria for an illegitimate child. In the face of these accusations, Cleveland decided it was best to tell the truth. Although he claimed the story had been embellished, it was mostly true. Maria had been known to date many of Cleveland’s friends in Buffalo. When she became pregnant, he decided to do the right thing an help her financially, even though he wasn’t sure if the child was his. The chant from the Republicans was, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?” Finally, they had an opening to attack Cleveland’s honor. But Cleveland’s supporters argued that his integrity as a public official was more important than his personal misgivings. They compared him to famous philanderers, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Even Mark Twain, now a Mugwump, came to Cleveland’s defense.
As election day neared, it was clear that New York would be the deciding vote. Although Cleveland had home-field advantage, Blaine had support from the Catholic community, thanks to his part-Irish ancestry. But this relationship turned sour following a campaign event for Protestant clergymen. One of the speakers, a minister, said before a crowd that Democrats were the party of “rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Blaine did not notice the offensive phrase and continued on with the event. Opposition to Blaine spread quickly among Irish-Americans. By the time Blaine got around to disavowing the minister, it was too late. Later that same day, Blaine made things worse by attending a lavish dinner for wealthy campaign donors, not a good look in a country still recovering from economic depression. The New York vote remained unclear.
As expected, the results in New York were extremely close. Cleveland won his home state by just over 1,000 votes. Democrats, still angry about the Compromise of 1877, quickly organized a legal team to prove that the win was legitimate. Cleveland also benefited from the Solid South and key swing state wins like Indiana.
Grover Cleveland won! He was the 22nd president and the first Democrat to win the presidential election since James Buchanan in 1856. He also broke the beard streak, though he still sported a mustache.
Like the election four years prior, Cleveland won the popular vote by only a few thousand votes. With an electoral score of 219-182, Blaine would won if he had New York’s 36 electors. Many felt that Cleveland didn’t win, so much as James Blaine lost due to bad luck, including Blaine himself. Southern whites rejoiced the Democratic win, though African Americans feared the return of slavery.
What Did It Say About America?
In another close election, voters proved that they wanted a president free of political scandals, even if that meant looking the other way on some personal failings. Five elections after Lincoln, the Republican stranglehold on the presidency finally gave in.
A lesser known tradition that ended with Blaine was the perception that the Secretary of State was the favorite candidate for the next election. Blaine would be the last former or current Secretary of State nominee until Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Was It The Right Decision?
Soft no. Without a doubt, Grover Cleveland had a cleaner record than Blaine. But Blaine was still pro-reform, after all. He would not have reversed the Pendleton Act, for example. Blaine probably would have been friendlier to African American interests, though even Republicans had stopped fighting for voting rights. Overall, there was not much policy difference between the two parties in this period. The big debate on the horizon? Tariffs!
As his health worsened, Chester A. Arthur returned to his home in New York City. Before his death, he burned nearly all of his papers, except for Julia Sand’s letters. He died on November 18, 1886. Julia Sand never married and lived until 1933. Her letters were unknown until 1958, when Arthur’s grandson sold them to the Library of Congress.