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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Grant Tries for a Third Term (1880)

Edwin Erle Sparks describes how, in the wake of Rutherford B. Hayes's pledge to serve only one term, the 1880 Republican convention began with Ulysses S. Grant well in the lead and ended with James A. Garfield -- the darkest of dark-horses -- walking away with the nomination.

In May, 1877, ex-President Grant sailed from New York on a tour of the world, and returned three years later to be greeted with an outburst of popular enthusiasm which certain of his former leaders took to be a desire to have him return to the presidential chair, to resume the era of "strong" government. The growing Democratic home rule in the southern states, the narrow escape from a Democratic president in 1876, the loss of both houses of Congress -- all these apparently could be traced to the pacific policy of a "weak president." To save the day, [Roscoe] Conkling brought New York into line for another term for Grant, [John A.] Logan did the same for Illinois, [Simon] Cameron attended to Pennsylvania, and several minor states followed these leaders. Other names likely to come prominently before the Republican convention of 1880 were those of Senator [James] Blaine, of Maine; John Sherman, of Ohio, secretary of the treasury; and Senator [Geroge F.] Edmunds, of Vermont.

Many persons who had in 1876 opposed giving Grant a third term, in 1880 supported him on the ground that the precedent was against a third consecutive term, and that the four years which had elapsed since Grant left office removed his disability. The argument was plausible, but was declared by others to be against the spirit, if not the principle, of the "national habit." Grant's nomination, it was said, would revive the scandals of his administration, would therefore be detrimental to the party interests, and was likely to cost the Republicans the election. The alarming cries of four years before were revived; Caesar, Cromwell, and Napoleon were instanced as examples of civic menace in a military hero. The self-denial of Washington it was said, followed by that of Grant, would free America forever from the spectre of militarism. "No Third Term" leagues were formed, and "Young Scratchers" clubs were urged. An "Anti-Third Term" convention was held in St. Louis in May, 1880, at which fourteen states were represented. A majority of the Republican newspapers, judging from their editorials, were opposed to the experiment of a third term.

Grant's consent to be a candidate was afterwards explained in several ways by his friends. They pictured him chafing under the restraint of retirement after an active military life; and described his eagerness to return to America and get into military action, when he heard in England of the disorders growing out of the railway strike of 1877. Others suggested that Grant, in addition to his experience as a soldier, thought himself better prepared for national administration after the civic studies he had made during his extensive travels. The charitably inclined placed the responsibility on his friends and on the constant pressure from his family, eager to regain the social position they once enjoyed in the White House.

The Republican convention assembled at Chicago, June 2, 1880. Conkling, lord of the day and chief promoter for Grant, lost his first battle when the convention agreed that after roll-call by states any member could demand an individual poll of delegates of his state, and that a divided delegation should be so recorded. This broke the attempt to introduce the Democratic custom of a "unit rule," under which the largest states would be held to Grant, according to their instructions. On the first ballot, Grant secured only 304 votes, and never rose above 312 on subsequent ballots. Since 379 were required for a choice, there was evidently to be no third term for a president, even if it was not sequential.

In all the proceedings thus far General James A. Garfield, of Ohio, had been conspicuous. Rising from a birth sufficiently humble to earn for him the fetching sobriquet of "canal-boat boy," resigning from the military service with the rank of major-general at thirty-two years of age to enter a congressional career, serving the famous "Western Reserve" of Ohio for many consecutive terms, candidate of the Republican minority for speaker, member of the electoral commission, senator-elect from Ohio, Garfield became by common consent the leader of those who opposed Grant and a third term. As chairman of the committee on rules in the Chicago convention, he reported the anti-unit rule, intended to destroy that throttling-machine which had been rejected by the Republican convention four years before and which now reappeared as the agency of Conkling and his associates. In a speech, which was the feature of the first few days of the convetion, Garfield begged Conkling to withdraw a resolution that delegates who refused to be bound by the majority vote thereby forfeited their seats in the convention. Conkling somehow realized that the day for this high-handed manner of enforcing party discipline was past, and withdrew his motion.

Although Garfield supported Sherman, of his own state, and refused to listen to Conkling's suggestion that he might be a "dark horse," he considered the candidate as a secondary matter compared with defeating Grant and a third-term movement. For more than thirty ballots the convention sat in dead-lock, 306 of Grant's delegates holding steadily together, and the other delegates scattering their votes. Conkling supposed that he could deliver the entire New York delegation to Grant; but nineteen of the delegates, headed by William H. Robertson, went over to Blaine. This gave to the man from Maine 284 votes on the first ballot, a number he could not increase on any subsequent ballot. Sherman reached his greatest strength, 119 votes, on the thirty-third ballot, being betrayed, as he believed, by Governor [Charles] Foster's leaning toward Blaine. On the thirty-fourth ballot, Wisconsin brought out the proverbial "dark horse" by going over bodily from [Elihu] Washburne to Garfield, who had received an occasional vote during the two days of balloting. Two ballots later the Blaine and Sherman delegations shifted to Garfield and secured his nomination.

The American Nation: a History. Volume 23: National Development 1877-1885 by Edwin Erle Sparks. Series Editor: Albert Bushnell Hart. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, no date. (Copyright 1935 by Katherine C. Sparks.) 167-71.

Also See:
  • Adams's Education is Advanced by President Grant. Young Henry Adams, already an eye-witness to the Italian struggle for independence and Secretary to the United States' Ambassador to Great Britain (his father), votes for Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 presidential election and looks on with interest to see how matters will unfold.
  • Grant Succumbs to Temptation, Hayes Gets the Nod (1876). William Archibald Dunning recounts how President Grant refuses a third term in language so equivocal that it amounts to encouragement for his partisans.

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