As he did most days of his adult life, President-elect James A. Garfield sat down to write in his diary on the evening of December 2, 1880. After commenting on the weather and noting that Ohio’s Electoral College electors had stopped by to visit that day, he ended his entry with this: “While I shall remain neutral in regard to the Senatorial contest, it would be a great deal better I think for the politics of Ohio and for the Administration if Sherman should be elected.” This seemingly routine comment on Ohio’s need to elect a U.S. senator belied a fascinating turn of events that had unfolded over the course of the year 1880.
The Ohio legislature elected James A. Garfield, veteran of sixteen years in the House of Representatives, to the U.S. Senate on January 6, 1880. Former Ohio Senator and sitting Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman had given the campaign genuine and valuable support, hoping the popular Garfield would return the favor by supporting Sherman’s presidential bid later that year. Though Garfield claimed to accept the Senate seat “without promising one office or any other thing,” he had committed himself to endorsing John Sherman for the Republican presidential nomination.
Sherman began to worry about his chances as it became clear that former President Ulysses S. Grant would seek an unprecedented third term. As Sherman’s concerns grew, so did his demands of Garfield. Sherman soon insisted that Garfield attend the Republican convention in Chicago, manage his campaign there, and place Sherman’s name in nomination. “I go with much reluctance,” Garfield told his diary, “for I dislike the antagonisms and controversies which are likely to blaze out in the convention.”
Garfield did his duty for Sherman in Chicago, even as whispers circulated through the convention proposing a Garfield candidacy rather than a Grant, Sherman, or James Blaine one. After New York Senator Roscoe Conkling gave an enthusiastic speech nominating Grant, Garfield rose to nominate Sherman. Garfield took on a calming, quieter tone:
The balloting began two days later and failed to quickly produce a candidate. John Sherman received only ninety-three votes on the first ballot, far behind Grant and Blaine. By the twenty-eighth ballot, the major candidates were all within five votes of where they started. On the thirty-second, the head of the Wisconsin delegation, announced sixteen votes for James A. Garfield, who quickly rose and argued that “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. Such consent I have not given.” On the next ballot, Garfield got fifty votes.
Garfield pleaded with his fellow Ohio delegates to stand by John Sherman. As he did, a telegram arrived from Sherman, keeping tabs on the convention from his Treasury office in Washington. Understanding that his own campaign was dead, Sherman ordered the Ohioans to go for Garfield so that Ohio would be united. Garfield received the nomination on the thirty-sixth ballot. “I want it plainly understood,” the new candidate told a reporter, “that I have not sought this nomination and have protested against the use of my name… [Nonetheless] a nomination coming unsought and unexpected like this will be the crowning gratification of my life.” Garfield went on to win the presidency over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock and therefore never took the Senate seat to which the Ohio legislature had elected him earlier that year.
And so it was that 134 years ago, Garfield sat in his home as President-elect and hoped that John Sherman would take his place in the Senate. Had Sherman never sought Garfield’s support for his presidential campaign, Garfield would likely have skipped the Chicago convention and never been nominated. Sherman’s chances were never very good, but his selection of Garfield as his floor manager for the convention proved fatal to his presidential aspirations. Ohio did return Sherman to the Senate, but he never got any closer to being President. He sought the nomination again in 1884, but that campaign was even less successful that his 1880 effort.
As for James Garfield, he served just four months as President before being shot on July 2, 1881, dying eighty days later on September 19. The “crowning gratification” of his life ultimately proved to be a death sentence.