“Antagonisms and Controversies”: Garfield, Sherman, and the 1880 Republican National Convention

Garfield and ShermanGarfield and Sherman.

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:

…as I sat in my seat and witnessed this demonstration, this assemblage seemed to me a human ocean in tempest. I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man; but I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured…Not here, in this brilliant circle where fifteen thousand men and women are gathered, is the destiny of the republic to be decreed for the next four years. Not here…but by four millions of Republican firesides, where the thoughtful voters, with wives and children about them, with the calm thoughts inspired by love of home and country, with the history of the past, the hopes of the future, and reverence for the great men who have adorned and blessed our nation in days gone by, burning in their hearts…

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.

1880 Republican National Convention

1880 Republican National Convention

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.

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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  1. Fascinating story, and I had never realized all of the twists and turns. I wonder how much of Sherman’s problem was the number of people who wished his brother would run for president.

  2. Michael: You’re correct that perhaps some of Sherman’s problem might have been simply that he was not his brother. However, John Sherman’s own personality certainly did not endear him to many; his nickname was “the Ohio Icicle.” Thanks for reading and commenting on my article, and happy new year!

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