James A. Garfield: The American Franchise

James A. Garfield: The American Franchise

In the decade prior to Garfield's election in 1880, Republicans and Democrats were nearly equal in number in the Senate and the House of Representatives. In most years, a slight majority of Democrats in the House faced a bare majority of Republicans in the Senate. This equal division in government reflected a similar division among the nation's 50.2 million people. The population had increased by 10 million in the 1870s—of which nearly 3 million were immigrants. As had been the case for most of the century, the two national parties neatly divided the nation's states in the presidential elections—nineteen states to nineteen.

Republicans, Democrats, and Party Bosses

Voters who cast Republican ballots typically identified with the party's claim to having saved the Union from the rebels. They responded to "waving the bloody shirt," a reference to a Republican congressman who had displayed the bloody shirt of a Northerner beaten by Southern white supremacists. Republicans supported federal pensions to Union Army veterans and cultivated the Grand Army of the Republic, the national organization of Union veterans. They also liked to think of themselves as morally superior to Democrats, usually supporting temperance and calls for decency and morality in politics. On the money issue, most Republicans were opposed to paper currency and the free coinage of silver. On tariffs, they usually came down on the side of protection.

Democrats, on the other hand, more frequently defined themselves in terms of what they opposed rather than what they supported. Most Democrats rejected government intervention in the economy, especially protective tariffs and government land grants to railroads. In the North, Irish and German Democrats opposed prohibition, and southern Democrats opposed federal enforcement of voting rights for African Americans.

On election day, each party turned out massive numbers of voters. In 1880, nearly 80 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots. Open voting enabled party bosses to check how their people voted and to punish disloyal voters with the loss of jobs and other forms of political intimidation. Most voters supported one party or the other on the basis of ethnicity, race, or religion. Catholic immigrants generally voted Democratic, as did most southern whites. Old-stock Protestants in the North, most Scandinavian and British immigrants as well as most African Americans generally voted for Republican candidates.

Agrarian Votes

In the 1870s, thousands of midwestern and southern farmers found little reason to support either the Republicans or the Democrats in because neither party seemed able to address the depression in agricultural prices. Farmers who had borrowed heavily to modernize their farms in the 1860s and 1870s found the prices they received for corn, wheat, and cotton dropping badly. At first, many discontented farmers joined the Grange movement, which supported state legislation to regulate rail rates for farm products, cooperative retail and wholesale stores, and the cooperative marketing of crops. When, in the mid-1870s, internal bickering doomed the organization, angry farmers joined the Greenback movement, which ran third-party candidates in the congressional elections of 1878 and the presidential election of 1880. The Greenback Party supported printing paper currency unbacked by gold, which had been done during the Civil War, as a means of raising farm prices. They reasoned that if currency grew more rapidly than the economy (the production of goods), prices would rise as more dollars chased fewer and fewer goods. This would be good for farmers and most debtors. In the presidential election of 1880, Greenback candidate James B. Weaver of Iowa, a Greenback congressman, got only 3.4 percent of the popular vote, or 308,578 votes. (For more information on the electorate in the post-Civil War era to 1900, see the American Franchise section in the Grover Cleveland biography.)