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The 1880 presidential election was largely lacking in substantive issues. The country had returned to the gold standard (see "Money Question" in Issues)  in January 1879 with minimal protest or disruption, and the economy was generally good, after several years of depression in the mid-1870s. The divisive issues of Reconstruction (see "Reconstruction" in Issues) had faded from the national spotlight, and civil service reform (see "Civil Service Reform" in Issues) did not spark the acrimonious rebellion that it would in 1884. The Republicans and Democrats nominated moderates who did not inspire much enthusiasm, but the strength of the party system  (see "Parties and Voting" in Campaigning) ensured that nearly 80% of the electorate cast ballots in early November. The Democratic party had recovered from its post-Civil War doldrums, so that the presidential election of 1880 was one of the closest in American history. Factional differences within each of the two major parties were arguably of more importance than ideological distinctions between the parties.

The Republican Nomination  
The Republicans were divided into three groups. The Stalwarts were conservatives who opposed civil service reform, conversely supported the patronage system, favored protectionist tariffs, and endorsed a third-term for former president Ulysses S. Grant. The Reformers were liberals who advocated civil service reform and free trade. The Half-Breeds were moderates who accepted some degree of civil service reform, implemented piecemeal over time. The Republican party in 1880 was divided into several factions. The "Stalwart" faction was originally so-named because they were firm in their opposition to the Southern policy of Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881), which accommodated the final end of Reconstruction. During the Hayes administration, Stalwarts included Senators James Blaine of Maine, Roscoe Conkling of New York, both of whom lost the Republican nomination to Hayes in 1876, and John Logan of Illinois, among others. The Stalwarts also became known for their opposition to civil service reform and other reform efforts of the liberal wing of the party.

In 1880, many of the Stalwarts, led by Senators Conkling, Logan, and Don Cameron of Pennsylvania, supported former president Ulysses S. Grant's unsuccessful bid for a (non-consecutive) third term. Their support was strong in the South, where Republicans needed patronage to retain a political foothold in the post-Reconstruction world of the Democratic "Solid South." Senator Blaine, however, was Grant's leading rival for the nomination, until both lost to a compromise candidate, Representative James Garfield of Ohio. Blaine came to represent the dominant moderate wing of the Republican party, called "Half-Breeds" by their opponents.

The Reformers (or Liberals or Independents) were the other major faction of the Republican party. They supported civil service reform, free-trade or a tariff for revenue only, and numerous other political and social reforms. They often opposed the expansionist foreign policy of Grant and (later) Blaine. Leading voices for the Reformers included Harper's Weekly editor George William Curtis and Interior Secretary Carl Schurz.

President Rutherford B. Hayes, fulfilling his 1876 campaign pledge of serving only one term, announced he would not seek the Republican nomination in 1880. With Hayes out of the picture, the early leading contender was Grant, seeking a third-term. Although his administration had been rife with corruption, the heroism of his previous Civil War leadership and the favorable press coverage of his post-presidential world tour sustained his popularity with many Americans. Grant's candidacy was encouraged by Senators Roscoe Conkling of New York, John Logan of Illinois, Donald Cameron of Pennsylvania, and other Stalwart Republicans. Despite the former president's personal popularity, many Republicans did not wish to see him renominated, and a stop-Grant movement blossomed amid cries of "Caesarism." (i.e., hunger for power, even dictatorship). In early 1880, several state conventions in the North began throwing their support to other candidates.

The major rival to Grant was Senator James G. Blaine of Maine, a leader of the moderate Half-Breed wing of the Republican party. Blaine was a smart, articulate, and accomplished politician, whose charismatic personality brought him wide support within the party, but whose reputation for corruption provoked indignant opposition from the reform wing. To his later regret, he angered Treasury Secretary John Sherman of Ohio, a fellow moderate and presidential candidate, by lining up Ohio delegates for himself.

Despite Sherman's impressive record as senator and treasury secretary, he faced several obstacles besides competition from Blaine. Although considered a "spoilsman" by some, Sherman's endorsement of civil service reform seemed too sincere for ardent patronage supporters. Also, he was rumored to be sympathetic to the Catholic request for funding parochial schools partially with public money; that was a dangerous position to hold on such a bitterly controversial issue. Finally, he was a dull campaigner with no key interest-group backing.

Other candidates for the Republican nomination were: Senator George Edmunds of Vermont, whose reputation for moral probity made him the choice of the Republican reform wing; Senator William Windom of Minnesota; and Elihu Washburne of Illinois, a former congressman and minister to France. Also mentioned but not nominated was Hamilton Fish, who had been Grant's skillful secretary of state. Working behind the scenes to promote his own candidacy in case of a deadlocked convention was Representative (and Senator-elect) James Garfield of Ohio, Sherman's campaign manager. (The latter circumstance was a striking indicator of the rickety foundation of Sherman's candidacy.)

When the Republican National Convention convened in Chicago on June 2, nearly two-thirds of the delegates were pledged to either Grant or Blaine, but securing a majority (370) would prove impossible for either camp. Initial infighting over convention rules and organization gave way within a few hours to triumph for the moderate Half-Breeds. They headed the major committees, with Garfield prominently in charge of the powerful Rules Committee. Garfield's intentional late arrival at the convention allowed his clandestine campaign manager, Wharton Barker, to arrange a "spontaneous" ovation; this ploy was repeated every time the Ohio congressman entered the hall or addressed the assembly. Garfield furthered his chances as a compromise candidate by giving an emotional nominating speech for Sherman in which he pleaded for party unity, while barely mentioning the treasury secretary.

Grant bested Blaine on the first ballot, 304 to 284, with Sherman a remote third with 93, and the remaining 75 votes divided among the other nominated candidates: Edmunds (34), Washburne (31), and Windom (10). Over the next 33 ballots, the vote tallies changed only marginally; Grant reached a high of 309, Blaine a low of 275, and Sherman peaked on the 13th ballot at 120. In order to keep Garfield's name before the convention, Barker persuaded a Pennsylvania delegate to cast his vote for the Ohio congressman, beginning with the second ballot. Barker also quietly convinced the chairmen of the Wisconsin and Indiana delegations to throw their respective state's support to Garfield, in an effort to prod a stampede toward his candidate.

The plan began to unfold on the 34th ballot, when Wisconsin cast all its votes for Garfield, followed by Indiana on the next ballot. Sherman's men, angry at Blaine's previous raid on the Ohio delegation, refused to support the senator from Maine, but found Garfield acceptable. On the 36th ballot, the Grant bloc held firm at 306, but the moderates and liberals joined forces behind Garfield to sweep him to victory with a flood of 399 votes. It was just as Barker had predicted. Senator Conkling, Grant's floor manager, moved to make the nomination unanimous, then stormed out of the convention hall. Had Conkling, who hated Garfield (and Blaine and Hayes and …), learned of Barker's scheming, the New York senator would have done everything in his power to prevent the Ohio congressman's nomination.

The Republican presidential nominee was a skilled parliamentarian, a gifted speaker, and an intelligent, scholarly man, but he also had the reputation as an unpredictable vacillator. Only 48 years old, Garfield had grown up the poor son of a widowed mother to become a college graduate, lawyer, Union general, congressman, and presidential nominee. Fittingly, his campaign biography was written by Horatio Alger, the author of popular rags-to-riches children's stories.

Garfield took charge of the vice-presidential nomination by selecting a candidate himself, rather than following tradition and passively accepting the convention's choice. The presidential nominee moved quickly to unify his divided party by offering the vice presidency to Congressman Levi Morton of New York, a Stalwart associate of Conkling's from a key electoral state. Morton declined on the advice of the peevish Conkling, who believed the ticket would lose. Garfield next offered the position to Chester Arthur, another leader of the New York Stalwarts who had been removed from his position as Collector of the Port of New York (the nation's most powerful and lucrative patronage position) by President Hayes. Conkling urged his protégé to refuse the position, but Arthur accepted it, infuriating New York's senior senator. Arthur easily captured the vice-presidential nomination on the first ballot, 468 to 103 for Washburne.

The Republican platform was similar to the one in 1876. It called for a protective tariff, veterans pensions, railroad and corporation grants, opposed polygamy and unrestricted Chinese immigration, and waffled on the civil service issue.

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