Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1880

Since President Rutherford B. Hayes had declared that he was only going to serve one term (1877-1881), the 1880 election was wide open. Party boss Roscoe Conkling's candidate, former President Ulysses S. Grant, and Senator James G. Blaine were the leading rivals at the Republican nominating convention. Blaine led the Half-Breed Republican faction that struggled against Conkling's Stalwarts faction for control of their party. On the thirty-sixth ballot, a compromise deal was made, and the Republicans rallied behind a political moderate, James Garfield of Ohio. Garfield led the Republican minority in the House of Representatives and, just prior to the convention, had been elected by the Ohio legislature to the United States Senate.

Because of the machinations of some Conkling lieutenants, who acted without the knowledge of their boss, Arthur was sounded out for the vice presidential slot. Garfield reluctantly acceded to Arthur's nomination, as he realized how crucial the New York machine was to his election. Conkling urged Arthur to reject the nomination, believing that Garfield was bound to be defeated at the polls, but his trusted lieutenant was both tempted and pleased by the prospect. In spite of Conkling's urgings, Arthur accepted, declaring that "the office of the Vice-President is a great honor than I ever dreamed of attaining."

The Democrats nominated General Winfield S. Hancock of Pennsylvania, a hero of Gettysburg, as their presidential candidate and William H. English, former congressman from Indiana, as his running mate. Another Civil War general, James B. Weaver, ran on the Greenback-Labor ticket. Weaver, running on a soft-money platform, won over 300,000 popular votes but no electoral college delegates.

Arthur actively campaigned during the election, coordinating mass meetings and taking charge of tours made by Grant and Conkling in the Middle West. In fact, he might have been the first advance man in American politics. Furthermore, as chairman of the New York State Republican Committee, he assessed city, state, and federal employees for three percent of their annual salary. Such efforts helped Garfield win the presidency, and there was much talk in the air, although never proved, that Arthur had schemed to buy votes for Garfield in the crucial swing state of Indiana. In the election, the Garfiled-Arthur ticket beat the Democrats in the popular vote by less than one-tenth of 1 percent but dominated the electoral college with 214 votes to 155.

After the election, Arthur, often portrayed as under Conkling's control, openly broke with the President. Acting on the advice of James G. Blaine, whom he had appointed secretary of state, Garfield moved to destroy Conkling's power once and for all by appointing William H. Robertson for the collectorship of the Port of New York. Robertson, president pro tem of the New York Senate, was a strong Half-Breed. Needless to say, in the days before Garfield's assassination, Garfield and Arthur shared a mutual animosity, for Arthur remained firmly in the Stalwart camp. Conkling resigned from the Senate in protest, and it looked as though Arthur would become a powerless figurehead in the Garfield administration. However, Garfield's assassination in July of 1881 left Arthur far from powerless. On September 19, Chester Alan Arthur became the twenty-first President of the United States.

The Campaign and Election of 1884

As Arthur's term in office came to a close, he made little effort to seek a second term. In early October 1882, he had fallen ill with Bright's disease, a fatal kidney ailment. His symptoms included inertness, mental depression, and spasmodic nausea, but the public was never aware of his condition. Since Arthur had converted to political form once he assumed office, his former Stalwart allies, including Grant and Conkling, opposed his nomination. Conversely, reformers remained suspicious, for certain appointments, such as secretary of the Navy, smacked of the old spoils system. Hence, at the 1884 Republican nominating convention in Chicago, Arthur lost his bid for his party's nomination to Blaine on the fourth ballot.