Posts Tagged ‘Republican National Convention’

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


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Every four years, I am treated to thousands of Presidential commercials on TV.  I get numerous fliers and brochures in the mail, created in a such a way as to convince me of a particular candidate’s viability.  I get dozens of phone calls (which I almost never answer) reminding me of the importance of voting.

From all possible paths, thirty-second soundbites are driven into my consciousness.  It’s become a rather painful experience.  Since this year is one of those “every four years” (and we’re only in June), I’ve got about five more months to endure.  And because this promises to be one of the most expensive elections – I recall Newt Gingrich saying that President Obama would likely raise close to $1 billion and, in all likelihood, Mitt Romney won’t be far behind – I expect that my senses of sight and hearing will be assaulted like never before.

This summer, we’ll be invited to watch each party’s national convention on television.  As of now, we don’t know who’s going to speak or what will be said, but we can expect hours of endless banter about the silliness of the opposing party’s platform, the inability of the opposing party’s candidate to lead, and the disasters that await our country should the opposing party win.  And we pretty much know the outcome of each convention:  President Obama will be the Democratic nominee and Mitt Romney will stand for the Republican Party.

There won’t be any 1880 surprises.  Remember that one?

The 1880 Republican Convention opened on Tuesday, June 2nd in Chicago with not one front-runner, but three viable candidates.  Two-term President Ulysses Grant was running for a third term.  James Blaine, the Senator from Maine, was also running, as was Treasury Secretary John Sherman.  Throughout the week, there was jockeying between the candidates and their supporters.  On Saturday evening, each of the candidates was presented to the floor by a speaker.

The speaker for Sherman was James Garfield, who had originally supported Blaine, but switched when Sherman entered the race.  Taking the stage after Roscoe Conkling had whipped up the crowd in support of Grant, Garfield was nervous.  He had no prepared speech, and didn’t have the political power of Conkling, a Republican strongman.  But he was an excellent extemporaneous speaker, and did an admirable job.

On June 8, 1880, the convention moved to the voting phase.  The delegates knew that no single candidate had a majority of the votes required to secure the nomination, so it would require at least two votes.  But no one could have guessed how crazy this process would become, nor how it would end.  Beginning at 10:00am, the first ballot (as expected) didn’t produce a nominee.  Neither did the second ballot, but it did produce a small surprise.  One vote, from a Pennsylvania delegate, was cast for James Garfield.  And vote after vote, the gridlock continued…along with one little vote for Garfield.  Eighteen ballots were cast before dinner and ten after, yet no one candidate could garner the necessary 379 votes.

It was late, nerves were frayed, and it was time for bed.  The convention adjourned for the night.  The next day would see an incredible turn of events…but that’s for tomorrow.

Recommended Reading:  Destiny of the Republic – An excellent read!

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