Ulysses S. Grant:
Prior to 1880, Ulysses S. Grant had won renown as a brilliant general during the Civil War. Shortly after the war, in 1868, he had been elected President and won re-election in 1872. During his time in office, his administration had become notorious for its corruption, though Grant himself was never implicated in any wrongdoing. After leaving office in 1877, he embarked on a world tour where he was, according to Treasury Secretary John Sherman, “received in every country though which he passed…with all the honors that could be conferred upon a monarch.”1 Grant was accompanied by New York Tribune correspondent John Russell Young, whose coverage of his trip “would burnish his credentials at home during his extended stay abroad,” according to Grant biographer Ron Chernow. As fresh memories of Grant’s shortcomings as President receded into the background, to be replaced by “lingering affection from Appomattox” and portraits of his success abroad, many came to view him as a possible Republican candidate in 1880, as President Rutherford B. Hayes had declined to seek another term.2
Officially, Grant would write to friends that “I am not a candidate for anything,” but he did not stop them from working to organize his nomination at the 1880 Republican National Convention.3 Grant definitely had his reasons for wanting the nomination. He was disturbed with the gains of “Lost Cause” Democrats in the south and believed that “he could be the means of ending the ‘miserable sectional strife’ between the North and South” while keeping power out the “hands of those who tried so hard…to destroy [the Union]” during the Civil War. In addition, his travels abroad had matured his foreign policy views. For instance, Grant believed that the US should “extend at least its moral support” to the Chinese, who had been bullied by European powers for much of the 19th century.4 Perhaps the most important factor in Grant’s decision to run again was his wife, Julia, who, Chernow claims, “goaded” him to run. By May 1880, Grant had dropped all pretensions of modesty and “declared his wish to nab the nomination.”5
James G. Blaine:
James Gillespie Blaine of Maine was one of the most influential Republicans in Washington in 1880. He had served first in the House of Representatives and then the Senate since 1861, where he led the so-called “Half Breed” faction of moderates Republicans that opposed the pro-Grant and pro-machine Stalwarts led by Roscoe Conkling of New York. He first ran for President in 1876 but his candidacy was tarnished by allegations of corrupt railroad dealings shortly before the Republican convention, which played some role in his losing the nomination to Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1879, Blaine had somewhat restored his reputation by rallying the Maine Republican leadership to prevent a coalition of the Democrats and Greenback Party to falsify state legislature election returns to maintain their power in the statehouse. Historian Norman E. Tutorow claims that “Blaine was credited with this resounding Republican triumph, and his…friends hoped that this display of leadership would help wipe out memories of the railroad” scandal.6 Therefore, Blaine again began to work to gain the Republican nomination in 1880.
Blaine was initially confident in his chances and did not think highly of his two chief rivals, Grant and John Sherman. In April 1880, James Garfield would report that “I think Blaine is now more confident of the nomination than I have ever known him.” However, by May 23, Blaine was less sanguine about his chances for success, telling Garfield that “he did not much expect the nomination…and would not have become a candidate but for the belief that he could more effectually prevent the nomination of Gen. Grant than any one else.”7 While it makes sense that Blaine would oppose Grant due to the latter’s support of Blaine’s rival Roscoe Conkling, the ambitious Blaine likely did not confide his true aspirations with Garfield. His near success in 1876 indicates that Blaine likely understood that many Republicans thought highly of him, which explains his optimism in April. While Blaine certainly did not want his rivals to gain power, he believed that he had a decent chance of winning it for himself.
John Sherman, the Secretary of the Treasury, was regarded as one of the foremost financial experts of the Republican Party. He had represented Ohio in first the House and then the Senate from 1855-1877, when he resigned to serve as Hayes’ Secretary of the Treasury. As early as 1879, Sherman began to seek the Presidency and was “regarded widely as the administration candidate.” He was also banking on the support of business interests to gain the nomination.8 However, like Grant and Garfield, Sherman had to overcome a series of alleged missteps if he was to secure the nomination. First, it did not help him that many of his contemporaries viewed his personality as “not very attractive.”9 In addition, Sherman was accused of being “under the influence of the Catholic church, and was giving Catholics an undue share of appointments” as Treasury Secretary, a very serious offence when anti-Catholicism was rampant. He also faced “another allegation…that [he] was using the patronage of [his] office to aid in [his] nomination.” For his part, Sherman vehemently denied both allegations.10
Sherman biographer Theodore E. Burton claims that like Blaine, Sherman thought that a Grant “nomination would be disastrous to the party,” and entered the race partly to oppose his nomination.11 Nonetheless, he realized that his only chance of winning the nomination was if both Grant and Blaine, the two frontrunners, failed to secure a majority of votes at the convention and he could emerge as a compromise candidate.12
James A. Garfield:
James A. Garfield, a former Civil War general, had represented Ohio in the House of Representatives since 1863, where biographer Ira Rutkow asserts that he “was recognized as one of the ablest…legislators of his generation,” who “was viewed as a leader of national stature.”13 Early in the 1880 election season, Sherman tried to recruit Garfield as his floor manager at the convention, likely to ward off the possibility of a Garfield candidacy. Though Sherman would later state that Garfield “expressed his earnest desire to secure my nomination and his wish to be a delegate at large, so that he might aid me effectively,” Garfield's friend were working to drum up support for his nomination in the background.14 On February 18, 1880, Garfield reported in his diary that Wharton Barker, a Pennsylvania businessman, approached him and told Garfield that “he and his friends were in favor of nominating me.” Though Garfield replied by telling him that he “would not be a candidate and did not wish my name discussed in that connection,” he added that he may accept the nomination if “the Convention…should find that they could not nominate either of the candidates.” Then he added that “I was working in good faith for Sherman and should continue to do so.”15 It is impossible to determine if Garfield really wanted the nomination or not, but a dark horse candidacy was undoubtedly lingering in the back of his mind.16
Grant's Stalwart Allies:
Senators Roscoe Conkling of New York, Donald Cameron of Pennsylvania, and John Logan of Illinois were Grant’s chief lieutenants. All three were machine politicians who were willing to do whatever was necessary to support Grant. Conkling was the leader of the trio and was selected to be Grant’s floor leader at the convention and was given a wide latitude to act as he saw fit. George Boutwell, another high-profile Grant supporter, would later write “General Grant had placed the matter of his candidacy in the hands of Conkling, Logan, Cameron and myself, with entire freedom to act as we saw wise.”17 Conkling had a reputation as a ruthless politician who would engage in spiteful feuds with his rivals, including Blaine, and “was uninterested in the process of conciliation.” Nonetheless, Conkling was a brilliant orator and fiercely loyal to his friends.18
On a broad scale, historian Allan Peskin argues that the delegates to the convention subscribed to two competing ideological factions. The Stalwarts were led by Conkling, Logan, and Cameron and were predominantly from areas such as New York and the South where there was intense competition with Democrats and reasoned that the best way to contend with this was by sticking with the machine politics and tried-and-true policies of Grant. The remaining delegates were from safe Republican districts and could adopt “risky” pro-business and reformist policies, but had no one leader.19 Most supported Blaine, but a significant minority turned to Sherman or rejected both for minor candidates.
1 John Sherman, John Sherman’s Recollections of Forty Years in the House, Senate, and Cabinet: An Autobiography (Chicago: The Werner Company, 1895), Volume II, p. 766.
2 Ron Chernow, Grant, (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 863, 890.
3 Grant to Washburne, 2 Feb. 1880. John Y. Simon, ed., The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant [hereafter abbreviated as PUSG] (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), Volume 29, p. 352-53.
4 Young to Hay, 4 June 1880. PUSG, Vol. 29, 411; Grant to Corbin, 29 Mar. 1878. PUSG, Vol. 28, 369-70.
5 Chernow, Grant, 897.
6 Norman E. Tutorow, James Gillespie Blaine and the Presidency: A Documentary Study and Source Book (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1988), 3, 47.
7 James A. Garfield, The Diary of James A. Garfield: Volume IV, 1878-1881, ed. Harry James Brown and Frederick D. Williams (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1981), 397-98, 422.
8 W.T. Sherman to Grant, 17 July 1879. PUSG, Vol. 29, 138; Tutorow, James Gillespie Blaine and the Presidency, 46.
9 Tutorow, James Gillespie Blaine and the Presidency, 50.
10 Sherman, Recollections, 768-69.
11 Theodore E. Burton, John Sherman (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972), 302.
12 Sherman, Recollections, 767.
13 Ira Rutkow, James A. Garfield (New York: Times Books, 2006), 47.
14 Sherman, Recollections, 771.
15 Garfield, The Diary of James A. Garfield, 369-70.
16 Rutkow, James A. Garfield, 49.
17 Boutwell to Fred. D. Grant, 28 May 1897. PUSG, Vol. 29, 419.
18 Rutkow, James A. Garfield, 51.
19 Allan Peskin, “Who Were the Stalwarts? Who Were Their Rivals? Republican Factions in the Gilded Age,” Political Science Quarterly 99, no.4 (1984): 705-706, 714-715