“The next day, as the delegates made their weary way back to the hall, few of them held out any hope for a quick conclusion.” These words, from Candice Millard’s terrific book Destiny of the Republic, seem rather obvious after our discussion from yesterday’s version of Today’s History Lesson. The nomination process at the 1880 Republican National Convention had turned into a nightmare, as the previous day’s twenty eight ballots had failed to determine the party’s Presidential nominee. Millard continues, “When the first ballot of the day, the twenty-ninth, showed little change from the day before, their fears were only confirmed.” June 9, 1880 was starting out just the way the previous day had ended.
You and I aren’t used to this kind of gridlock. Well, actually, we are if we’re referring to “traffic with an accident two miles ahead.” We understand that. But in our experience, the outcome of nominating conventions is well-known in advance. And since they are now televised, events need to fall into preset time slots. Hiccups are anathema to live TV. And, let’s be honest, in today’s political world, where the press has largely prostituted itself to one party or another, a multi-balloted nomination looks less clean and potentially provides not only the opposition, but a host of media outlets, with one more hand grenade in its arsenal. Thirty ballots?…no way!!
But this convention had thirty, which became thirty-one, then thirty-two, then thirty-three ballots. This was beginning to look suspiciously like the Democratic convention twenty years before, which required a remarkable fifty-nine ballots (over two conventions) just to select the candidate (Stephen Douglas) that would lose to the winner (Abraham Lincoln).
Then came the thirty-fourth ballot, and that single vote for James Garfield from the previous day became seventeen, as Wisconsin gave him most of its votes. Garfield was shocked! He wasn’t even running and immediately protested. Addressing the convention president, he said, “The announcement contains votes for me. No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name, and vote for him, in this convention.” The president (who was something of a Garfield supporter himself), told him to sit down and be quiet. It was about to get crazier.
The thirty-fifth ballot saw votes from Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, and North Carolina given to Garfield, who suddenly had fifty votes and was rapidly becoming a viable candidate, despite his vehement protests. He urged his own delegation from Ohio to remain true to John Sherman.
Like cracks in a dam, however, the little drips of water that were the thirty-fifth ballot led to a “collapse and gusher” in the thirty-sixth. The votes for Garfield poured in. John Sherman saw the proverbial writing on the wall and, writing from his office in the Treasury Department, sent a quick telegram to the Ohio delegation, urging their unity in a vote for Garfield. He urged other states to do the same. When Ohio’s turn came, Garfield shouted his vote for Sherman, but it was no use. His voice was just one in the flood and was swept away. When the votes were tallied, James Garfield sat with 399 votes.
A fairly popular congressman, an excellent orator, and a man who came to the convention to speak on behalf of another candidate had just been handed the Republican nomination. When the convention president asked if the nomination be made unanimous, it was Roscoe Conkling – arguably the most powerful man in America at the time and a backer of Ulysses Grant – who stood in stunned defeat and made the motion. When it was seconded, bedlam erupted. A roar of elation swept the floor, and Garfield was surrounded by well-wishers. Garfield’s response to the congratulations was classic…”I am very sorry that this has become necessary.“
The momentum continued and carried Garfield to victory in the general election as well. Of course, we know that the term “President” would be applied to James Garfield for less time than other man except William Henry Harrison, as an assassin’s bullet would end his life just months after taking office. But to my knowledge, no nominating convention has been so soundly turned on its head as was the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.
Recommended Reading: Destiny of the Republic