Democratic Candidates and
By 1880, the Democratic party, which had not elected a president
since 1856, had regained part of the national prominence it held
before the Civil War. In 1876, its nominee, former New York
governor Samuel Tilden, won the popular vote and narrowly lost
the White House in an electoral college controversy. In 1878,
Democrats captured control of both houses of Congress for the
first time in twenty years. They believed the American
electorate was ready for a Democratic president again.
Tilden was still popular among Democrats, despite questions concerning his
possible involvement in the thwarted attempt by his nephew, Colonel William T.
Pelton, and other associates to bribe electors during the electoral college
controversy of 1876-1877. Tilden, though, suffered from a number of physical
ailments, such as arthritis and palsy, which discouraged him from running.
Furthermore, his candidacy was adamantly opposed by John Kelly, the leader of
Tammany Hall, New York City's influential Democratic political machine. Kelly
had only reluctantly endorsed Tilden in 1876, but later broke completely with
the former governor. Therefore, Tilden played the role of de facto party leader,
not presidential candidate.
Entering the race was Senator Thomas Bayard of Delaware. He was a respected
politician, but his firm hard-money views alienated soft-money supporters, while
his initial acquiescence in Southern secession would hurt him against a
Republican ticket of two former Union generals, Garfield and Arthur. Bayard was
also unlikely to gain the approval of Tilden because of the senator's membership
on the 1877 Electoral Commission (despite voting for the Democratic returns and,
in effect, Tilden). Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania, the Democratic speaker of
the house, wanted the nomination, but was unwilling to campaign for it. His
coyness was reciprocated by the aloofness of Tilden, whose enthusiastic
endorsement might have assured the speaker of the nomination. In addition,
Randall's advocacy of protective tariffs estranged him from Democratic
Horatio Seymour, the 1868 presidential nominee, said he would rather have his
own funeral than the nomination again. That prize was eagerly sought, however,
by Thomas Hendricks of Indiana, the 1876 vice-presidential nominee, and Supreme
Court Justice Stephen Field of California (another member of the 1877 Electoral
Commission), but neither candidate enjoyed wide support. Other hopefuls included
Senator Allen Thurman of Ohio and former congressman Henry Payne also of Ohio
(both were on the 1877 Electoral Commission). General Winfield Hancock of
Pennsylvania became the leading choice of the delegates, primarily for his lack
of negatives and his acceptability to all factions within the Democratic party.
He had been a contender for the nomination in 1868, but that convention decided
to bypass the former Union general, whose courage had earned him the nickname
"Superb," for the governor who appeased the New York draft rioters (i.e.,
The only controversy at the Democratic National Convention, meeting in
Cincinnati on June 22-23, was whether to seat "Boss" Kelly's delegation. Since
Tammany Hall had earlier bolted the regular New York Democratic convention to
select their own delegates, the national body refused to recognize them. At the
same time, the national convention delegates knew that in order to win New York
and the election, they could not nominate a candidate opposed by Tammany Hall.
On the first ballot, Hancock edged Bayard, 171-153½. On the second ballot,
belated support from Tilden delegates pushed Randall into second place with 128½
votes, with Bayard falling to 112, and Hancock surging to 310. Before the voting
ended, Wisconsin led the charge of states switching to Hancock, giving the
"Superb" general a second-ballot victory of 705 votes (soon made unanimous).
To help secure the key state of Indiana, the convention chose former congressman
William English, an Indianapolis "banker with a barrel" (of money), as the
vice-presidential nominee. English, though, had many political enemies in his
home state, including former governor Thomas Hendricks. The Democratic platform
was purposefully vague in order to hold the factious party together and not
offend any voters.
It was the minor parties in 1880 that clearly articulated positions on the
issues. The National Prohibition party stood uncompromisingly for banning the
production, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages. They nominated
long-time temperance crusader Neal Dow of Maine for president and Oberlin
College president A. H. Thompson for vice president.
The Greenback-Labor party endorsed many reforms in its platform, including:
"soft" money, an eight-hour workday, industrial health and safety regulation,
the abolition of child labor, a graduated income tax, women's suffrage, and the
enforcement of voting rights for blacks. They nominated General James Weaver of
Iowa for president and Benjamin J. Chambers of Texas for vice-president.
Although the Greenback's had elected 15 congressmen in 1878, the return of
economic good times undercut their support. Still, in a close election, third
parties could play an important role, as they did, for example, in 1884, 1912