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The Republican Nomination
The presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 1888 was its 1884 standard-bearer, James G. Blaine of Maine.  The former congressman, senator, and secretary of state was immensely popular with the party’s rank-and-file and had lost the previous contest against Cleveland by only a thin margin—essentially, the electoral votes of New York.  Blaine had also led the charge against the president’s tariff message of December 1887, a move viewed by many as a prelude to his candidacy.  In fact, Blaine had already decided not to seek the nomination because of ill health, the emotional and financial toll of the vitriolic 1884 campaign, and fear of dividing the party again.  Persistent rumors, though, forced Blaine to write two public letters (in January and May 1888) explicitly disavowing the intent to have his name placed in nomination.  Still, the possibility lingered in the minds of many that he would accept a draft if the convention could not agree on a candidate. 

Senator John Sherman of Ohio, a former congressman and treasury secretary, believed that 1888 would be his turn after losing the nomination in 1880 and 1884.  By mid-June he had achieved frontrunner status by securing pledges from over half the number of delegates needed for nomination, primarily from the South, his home state, and parts of New England.  However, much of the support, even within Ohio, was soft, and Thomas C. Platt, the state boss of New York Republicans, was adamantly opposed to Sherman’s nomination. 

Another major contender was Walter Q. Gresham, a former Union brigadier general who had served as postmaster general and treasury secretary in the Arthur administration (1883-1884) before appointment as a U.S. Circuit Court judge.  His home state of Indiana was an important swing state Republicans needed to win, but the ardent civil service reformer was opposed by Blaine, Platt, and Senator Matthew Quay, the party boss of Pennsylvania.  Leading favorite-son candidates included Russell Alger, a former governor of Michigan, Senator William Allison of Iowa, and Chauncey Depew of New York, president of the New York Central Railroad. 

The campaign for Benjamin Harrison of Indiana had been initiated quietly but early, at the end of his single Senate term in the winter of 1886-1887, by Wharton Barker, the Philadelphia banker who had masterminded James Garfield’s surprise nomination in 1880, and Louis Michener, the attorney general of Indiana.  Although Harrison had only minor political experience before reaching the Senate, where his record was unimpressive, he was from a key swing state and had name recognition as a Civil War hero and grandson of President William Henry Harrison (1841). 

By mid-1887, Blaine and Stephen Elkins, a wealthy industrialist and party leader, both indicated their approval of Harrison.  Elkins joined the former senator’s campaign management, allowing the men to divide the territory for soliciting support.  Harrison’s team placed favorable editorials in newspapers, distributed campaign literature, and downplayed Harrison’s opposition to Chinese exclusion, while the candidate himself delivered two well-covered speeches.  The first important victory came in April 1888 when the Harrison forces defeated those of Gresham for control of the Indiana delegation to the national convention. 

When the Republican National Convention opened in Chicago on June 19, the crowded field of candidates meant that securing the nomination would not be easy.  Harrison’s men distributed literature and encouraged delegates of other candidates to reserve him as their second choice—an inoffensive but effective way to gain support.  On June 21, the delegates approved a platform upholding protective tariffs; denouncing the Mills bill; endorsing Chinese exclusion, statehood for several western territories, bimetallism, and free schools; and criticizing the Cleveland administration’s “inefficiency and cowardice” in its alleged failure to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and back American fishing rights.   

When voting began the next day, Sherman’s first-ballot tally of 229 was more than twice that of his nearest challenger, Gresham (107), but just over half the total needed to win the nomination.  Other candidates with sizable votes were Depew with 99, Harrison 85, Alger 84, and Allison 72, while 8 men not officially nominated (including Blaine) shared the remaining 150 votes.  The second and third ballots saw the top tier all gain votes, but Sherman’s candidacy was not showing sufficient momentum.  When Depew withdrew during the recess, Platt convinced most of the New York delegation to back Harrison.  The votes from New York as well as Wisconsin propelled the former senator into second place on the fourth and fifth ballots.   

Sherman’s strength then began eroding as southerners looked to Alger and some fellow-Ohioans turned to Congressman William McKinley.  To end speculation of a Blaine draft, Elkins telegraphed Blaine in Scotland and received a reply endorsing a ticket of Harrison and William Walter Phelps, a longtime Blaine ally, as vice president.  Balloting resumed on Monday, June 25, with the sixth ballot showing a slight gain for Harrison.  The switch of California and smaller delegations gave Harrison the lead on the seventh ballot, and the votes of Iowa, Pennsylvania, and four other states put him over the top, with 544 votes, on the eighth ballot. 

Phelps’s name was placed in nomination for vice president, but despite Blaine’s endorsement, the respect of the party, and his home in the swing state of New Jersey, delegates selected Levi P. Morton of New York—a banker and former congressman and diplomat—by a five-to-one margin.  Morton gave geographical balance to the ticket like Phelps would have, but the financier also was from a crucial electoral state, backed by the Platt machine, and brought considerable personal wealth and fundraising ability to the ticket.

 
 
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