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Republican Candidates and Convention
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 was elected."

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 334 votes to 278 for Arthur, 93 for Edmunds, 63 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 dissenting votes.

Democratic Candidates and Convention
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 limited government.  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 Civil War.

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 general election.  The candidacy of Speaker of the House John Carlisle of Kentucky was limited in appeal because he was too outspoken as a free-trader.  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 presidency.  His 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 patronage.  That 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.

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