Republican Candidates and
Before becoming vice
president under James Garfield (March-September 1881), Chester
Arthur had never held elective office, and had been considered a
"spoilsman" in association with Senator Conkling's political
machine in New York. After Garfield's assassination, however,
the new president surprised most political observers. During his
administration, Arthur signed the Civil Service Reform Act into
law, vetoed a pork-barrel Rivers and Harbors Bill, vetoed a
stringent Chinese Exclusion Act before signing a relatively
more-limited version, and established a federal tariff
commission to make policy recommendations (which Congress
rejected). In the process, though, Arthur failed to gain the
faith of Reformers, while alienating himself from other
Republicans, except for administration Stalwarts. Arthur was
diagnosed with Bright's Disease, a kidney ailment which would
take his life in 1886. Despite the presence of what was then a
fatal disease (known only to his doctor and daughters), he
decided to seek reelection in 1884.
The front-runner for the nomination was the perennial
favorite of the Republican rank-and-file, James Blaine. The
former senator from Maine had unsuccessfully sought the party's
top honor in 1876 and 1880. During his "Twenty Years in
Congress" (the title of his two-volume autobiography, published
in 1884 and 1886), he had served as an effective speaker of the
house and senator, earning respect on both sides of the aisle
for his skill and intelligence. In his few months as secretary
of state (March-December 1881), Blaine promoted increased
interaction with Latin America (Pan-Americanism) and American
control of a proposed canal across Central America. Blaine was
an energetic administrator, charismatic speaker, and visionary
thinker, whose policies and character were, however,
controversial. His aggressive foreign policy was anathema to
most Republican liberals, who called him "Jingo Jim." Also, over
the years he developed a reputation for political corruption
after being accused of bribery, conflict of interest, and other
offenses. Blaine attempted to justify his actions, but his
explanations consistently turned out to be false. Still, he
entered the race as the top contender.
In the spring of 1884, Blaine wrote to General William
Tecumseh Sherman, urging him to seek the nomination. Some
historians consider it a ploy by Blaine to learn of the
general's intentions, or even to prompt a written declination
from the only potential rival who could possibly take the
nomination from the former senator. Other historians believe
that Blaine was sincere. Having lost the desire to be president
(he thought he had been the real target of Garfield's assassin),
Blaine believed that General Sherman could unite the party, win
the election, and return him to the State Department. Whichever
the case may be, General Sherman stated clearly and emphatically
that he did not desire to be nominated for president: "I would
not accept the nomination if tendered me. I would not serve if I
There was no obvious choice for the Reformers, but most
settled on Senator George Edmunds of Vermont. Chairman of the
Senate Judiciary Committee, he was an expert in constitutional
law and a talented parliamentarian. He supported civil service
reform, but was primarily known for the federal law outlawing
plural marriage (polygamy), which bore his name. Respected for
his intelligence and integrity, "St. Jerome" was also unpopular
because of his cold, contrary, and carping personality. Outside
of New England and the liberal press, Edmunds had little support
for the nomination.
Midwestern Stalwarts, angered at being shut out of
administration patronage, rallied to the banner of Senator John
Logan of Illinois. Former president Grant endorsed him, and he
had the backing of many black citizens who were grateful for his
support of civil rights and education legislation which
benefited them. Other Republicans, however, considered him a
loud-mouthed, ignorant spoilsman, who waved the bloody shirt
shamelessly. Some Republicans promoted Senator John Sherman of
Ohio, brother of the general, but he had lost the nomination in
1880, and four years later was still not able to garner full
support in his home-state delegation. There were brief booms for
General Philip Sheridan, who declined, and Secretary of War
Robert Lincoln, son of the slain president. Senator Benjamin
Harrison of Indiana wanted the nomination, but rested his hopes
on the need for a compromise candidate.
Due to Blaine's prominence in calling for tariff protection
and the exclusion of Chinese immigrants from American soil,
Western Republicans lined up solidly behind him. His campaign
was also effective throughout the North, challenging his rivals
even in their home territories. By late May, Blaine's only
serious obstacle to the nomination was President Arthur, who was
unlikely to win, but could force a deadlocked convention to turn
to someone else. The inability of Arthur to have a united New
York delegation behind him was detrimental to his chances.
On June 3-6, the Republican National Convention met in
Chicago. Blaine's managers nominated Clayton Powell of Alabama
as temporary chairman of the convention. Powell had switched his
allegiance from Arthur to Blaine, and allies of the latter hoped
to send a signal to other Southerners of the rewards to be
reaped by such a move. Instead, it provoked the campaign
managers of Arthur, Edmunds, and Logan to combine behind John
Lynch, a black congressman from Mississippi. Nominated by Henry
Cabot Lodge and seconded by Theodore Roosevelt, Lynch edged
Clayton by 40 votes.
Yet no agreement was reached on a candidate to stop Blaine.
Negotiations between the Edmunds and Arthur deputies proved
futile, while a last minute agreement to rally behind John
Sherman came too late. When a resolution was introduced pledging
all delegates to endorse the eventual nominee, Harper's Weekly
editor George William Curtis leapt to his feet to condemn the
measure. Amid cheers, the motion was withdrawn.
Blaine led on the first ballot with 334½ votes to 278 for
Arthur, 93 for Edmunds, 63½ for Logan, 30 for John Sherman, and
scattered votes for a few other candidates. Blaine's lead
steadily widened on the next two ballots, with Arthur's tally
holding firm, and the other candidates losing ground. Blaine
opponents then moved for a postponement of the balloting. They
hoped to make a last-ditch effort to find an agreeable
alternative candidate, and to stop Blaine's momentum, as a
similar recess had done in 1876. The motion, however, was
defeated. On the fourth ballot, Illinois and Ohio switched their
votes to Blaine, allowing the "Plumed Knight" to capture the
nomination with 541 votes, 130 more than needed. After Robert
Lincoln refused to allow his name to be placed in nomination for
vice president, the convention selected Logan with only seven
The Democratic party had no shortage of presidential candidates
in 1884. Party
loyalists wondered whether their standard-bearer from 1876,
former New York governor Samuel Tilden, would enter the race.
Most Democrats believed that the presidency had been
stolen from Tilden when the Electoral College Commission awarded
all disputed electoral votes to his Republican challenger,
Rutherford B. Hayes.
Tilden remained influential as de facto head of the party, and
very popular among the partisan faithful, but serious health
problems prevented him from seeking the nomination in 1884.
After procrastinating, he finally issued a statement
withdrawing his name from consideration.
Senator Thomas Bayard of Delaware, a leading contender for the
nomination in 1880, was again a candidate in 1884.
Respected and popular, Bayard was a well-known advocate
of civil service reform, free trade, the gold standard, and
The electoral insignificance of his tiny state undermined his
chances, but more destructive were his previous statements
acquiescing in the secession of the Southern states prior to the
Former senator Allen Thurman of Ohio had been his state’s
favorite-son candidate at the 1876 and 1880 conventions, and
would again be so-nominated in 1884.
Thurman had voiced and voted his strong objection to the
Reconstruction policies of his Congressional Republican
colleagues, while advocating the “soft money” policies of
favoring the inflationary expansion of paper currency
(“greenbacks”) and opposing the gold standard.
He had the advantage of being from a large swing-state,
which the Democrats needed to win. (Thurman would be nominated
for vice president in 1888, but the ticket would lose.)
Representative, and former speaker of the house, Samuel J.
Randall of Pennsylvania, was interested in the nomination, but
was hurt by his firm stand for protective tariffs and by the
unlikelihood of delivering his Republican-dominated state in the
The candidacy of Speaker of the House John Carlisle of Kentucky
was limited in appeal because he was too outspoken as a
Joseph McDonald of Indiana was a former one-term senator
and Antebellum congressman with an undistinguished record.
His candidacy was due almost exclusively to the fact that
he hailed from an important swing-state.
By the time of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on
July 8-10, the formidable front-runner was Governor Grover
Cleveland of New York. Several favorable factors accorded
Cleveland that position.
Elected governor in 1882, Cleveland gained a reputation as a
reformer by signing a civil service reform law, a bill
preserving Niagara Falls as a state park, and other reforms.
He was from the largest electoral state, a swing-state
that the Democrats had to win in order to capture the
position on the controversial tariff question was not clearly
delineated, thus making him acceptable both to high and low
tariff men. In all,
Cleveland seemed like the candidate most likely to win in
November, and after almost 30 years without a presidential
victory, Democrat strategists were playing it smart.
Cleveland lost the support of John Kelley’s influential New York
City political machine, Tammany Hall, after cutting off its
hurt him with some urban Catholics, but earned him the
appreciation of many other Democrats and Reform Republicans.
In seconding Cleveland’s nomination, General Edward Bragg
of Wisconsin memorably remarked that his supporters “love him
most of all for the enemies he has made.”
Cleveland scored a commanding lead on the first ballot, with 392
votes to Bayard’s 170, Thurman’s 88, Randall’s 78, McDonald’s
56, Carlisle’s 27, and 9 votes for other candidates.
Cleveland’s support was not only deep, but wide,
receiving ballots from 38 of 47 states and territories, and
dividing Pennsylvania with Randall and Ohio with Thurman. Because of the late hour (1:30 a.m.), the convention
adjourned, causing Cleveland’s managers to work
behind-the-scenes to ensure that his rivals did not combine
behind another candidate. They were not only successful in that, but convinced Randall
to release his Pennsylvania delegates to Cleveland in exchange
for the promise of federal patronage.
The next morning, a movement for Senator Thomas Hendricks of
Indiana, the 1876 vice-presidential nominee, was pushed by Kelly
and former Massachusetts governor Benjamin Butler, but only the
candidate’s home state fell in line.
When the second ballot ended, Cleveland was nominated
with 683 votes. The
convention recessed while Cleveland managers selected Hendricks
as their vice-presidential candidate, which the reassembled
delegates then approved.