An 1880 “October Surprise”

Last minute tricks have long been a part of presidential politics, going back at least to the 1844 campaign, when James K. Polk was accused of branding his slaves. Most sources date the use of the phrase “October Surprise” either to the election of 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson declared a bombing halt in Vietnam on October 30th, or to Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State who declared, “Peace is at hand” in Vietnam on October 26, 1972. In both cases, the announcements were immediately seen by the press and the public as intending to influence the outcome of the presidential election. Because both were announcements by members of the current administration, just a few days before people voted, it was nearly impossible for the opposing party to respond. Especially when the country is closely divided, October Surprises have the potential to turn elections.

When James A. Garfield ran for president in 1880, tradition dictated that a candidate write a formal letter to the chairman of his party accepting the nomination. The letter addressed the major issues that were most likely to be discussed during the campaign and set out the candidate’s positions and feelings on those topics. The acceptance letter was the only direct communication from the candidate to the electorate; campaigning was done by party regulars directed by state and national party committees. The candidate stayed at home maintaining a dignified silence. Much rested on the content of the acceptance letter, and candidates always took time to prepare it carefully. Garfield was officially notified on June 8, 1880, that he had been nominated at the Republican convention in Chicago. His letter of acceptance was dated July 12, 1880.

The letter addressed several important issues—civil and voting rights, education, public finance, and internal improvements. These were followed by a very carefully written paragraph on the question of Chinese immigration. 120,000 Chinese, mostly young men and boys, had come to the United States during the 1870s. Almost all of them came as contract workers for the railroads, who paid them just pennies a day to do some of the most dangerous tasks involved in the construction of transcontinental rail lines. Especially in the west, these immigrants were seen as a threat to American labor. In his acceptance letter Garfield said that the contract system used to bring in Chinese labor was “too much like an importation to be welcomed without restriction…” He encouraged negotiation with the Chinese government to “prevent the evils likely to arise from the present situation.” And if negotiations failed, “[I]t will be the duty of Congress to mitigate the evils already felt, and prevent their increase, by such restrictions as, without violence or injustice, will place upon a sure foundation the peace of our communities and the freedom and dignity of labor.”

The question of Chinese immigration did not come up again until October 20. Garfield received a telegram that day asking about a letter the congressman had supposedly written on “the Chinese question.” Within hours he was sent the text of the letter. Written on House of Representatives stationery and dated January 23, 1880, it was addressed to an H. L. Morey of the Employers Union in Lynn, Massachusetts. In the letter, Garfield allegedly said that “individuals and companys [sic] have the right to buy labor where they can get it cheapest.” Further, the letter says that the treaty with China should remain in effect “until our great manufacturing and corporate interests are conserved in the matter of labor.” Garfield immediately denied that he had written it.

The Morey Letter, supposedly written by James A. Garfield on January 23, 1880. Quickly proved to be a forgery, the letter’s true author has never been identified. (

A New York newspaper called Truth published the letter the next day, saying that a friend of the Republican candidate—a prominent Democrat—had confirmed that the handwriting was Garfield’s. Democrats pounced, printing and circulating half a million copies. Letters were nailed to signposts and pasted on store windows. Thousands were sent to every town in California, where Chinese labor was the central issue of the campaign. The letter could also be a threat in working class neighborhoods in eastern industrial cities and towns. Some called it “Garfield’s death warrant.”

The Republican National Committee sent detectives to Lynn, Massachusetts where they could find no trace of a person named H. L. Morey, or of the Employers Union. Garfield meanwhile asked to see a photo reproduction of the letter, and he sent a secretary to Washington to comb his files for any correspondence from Morey or the Employers Union. Nothing was found in the files, and after seeing a facsimile of the Morey letter, Garfield finally felt able to denounce it as a “manifestly bungling attempt to copy my hand and signature.” He authorized the Republican National Committee to reproduce and distribute the letter he had sent days before, denying its authenticity. Nearly a week went by before Garfield’s handwritten response was published in newspapers, often side by side with the Morey forgery. Democrats used the delay as evidence of Garfield’s guilt, but given the visual evidence before them, most voters concluded that the Morey letter was “a stupid forgery.”

James A. Garfield’s October 23, 1880 response to the forged Morey Letter. (

Despite all the investigations, the author of the Morey Letter was never found. Both the newspaper, Truth, and the Democratic National Committee were suspected, but there was never enough evidence to convict anyone of fraud or forgery. The incident certainly harmed the Garfield campaign, especially on the west coast where the Democrats won Nevada and all but one electoral vote in California. But the perpetrators of the Morey hoax failed to follow the first rule of October election surprises—don’t give your opponent time to respond. There were twelve days between the appearance of the Morey letter and Election Day, plenty of time for the Republican campaign to thoroughly investigate, vigorously reply, and assure that the response reached every corner of the nation.

Puck Magazine’s July 14, 1880 issue demonstrated that both parties agreed on the need to limit Chinese immigration. This issue of Puck came out three months before the Morey Letter became an “October surprise.” (Library of Congress)

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

Mrs. Mount Rushmore?

Ranger Joan turned and asked across the office, “If you could make a Mount Rushmore for the First Ladies, who would you put on it?” And so… it began. The conversation went from a fun question between a Ranger and a Volunteer to a group debate that even brought Ranger Allison out of her office to put in her two cents.

All of us here at James A. Garfield National Historic Site have our niches that we fit into. Ranger Scott knows just about everything there is to know about James Garfield in the Civil War, for example. Ranger Alan knows more about the political climate of the time than anyone else. And Ranger Mary specializes in Victorian art and style. I may not be a ranger, but my specialty is our First Ladies’ lives and times. So a question like Ranger Joan’s is a dangerous invitation to a LONG conversation from which I will not let you escape!

All jokes aside, Ranger Joan’s question warrants some discussion. It also brings up a LOT of questions. As Ranger Alan and I starting throwing out names, the question became: if you were going to make a First Ladies Mount Rushmore, how would you possibly decide who deserves to be up there? What are the criteria? Does Jacqueline Kennedy deserve to be up there as much as Martha Washington? What about Abigail Adams? Certainly Eleanor Roosevelt… right?

Do we hear any votes for Lucretia Garfield? (White House Historical Association)

So, for some fun, we posed the same question that Ranger Joan asked me originally to our community of great friends on Facebook. The post unexpectedly became our most popular post in the two years our page has been running. TONS of people got involved and made their opinions known. There are certainly some names that show up more than others. And there were a few surprises as well. So if we were to go only off the Facebook votes, and stick to four women, the First Ladies Mount Rushmore would be (drumroll please):

#1 – Dolley Madison

#2 – Eleanor Roosevelt

#3 – Abigail Adams

#4 – Martha Washington

The overwhelming response to this list is: okay – that sounds right. But why does it sound right? When you think on it, measuring the success and contributions of our First Ladies is almost more difficult than that of the Presidents. The First Lady has no official job. She is not mentioned in statute books and her tasks are not outlined for her in the constitution. She literally has an unofficial title and no real power to speak of. So why exactly do those women above “sound” right? (Not that I’m arguing their nominations, of course.)

Dolley Madison is revered for saving priceless White House treasures when the British burned the Executive Mansion during the War of 1812. (White House Historical Association)

Before we can really talk in depth about the four women mentioned above we have to stop and look at who and what the First Lady is. Be warned, though, that is a topic that many authors have written full books about. So in the interest of keeping this brief, let’s put it in a nut shell, shall we? As far as the Constitution is concerned, the President’s wife is nothing more than the President’s wife. Even the title of First Lady is ceremonial – historians even argue over when the term started to see regular use. Sure, today the First Lady has a staff and office of her own. But it can be very safely said that this is a more recent development. Our first First Ladies were simply expected to run the household, raise the kids, organize and prepare parties, and so forth. Not that any of those are easy tasks, especially when they’re being held under a microscope – but you get the idea.

However, what the First Lady does have is recognition. Going back in time, the First Lady has always been one of the most easily recognized women of her time. At a time when women had few rights, “famous” women were hard to come by. People certainly knew who Martha Washington was though. So while the First Lady has no real power outlined by any document, the sheer amount of recognition and attention she gets, just by being married to one certain man, is where her power comes from. As early as Dolley Madison’s time, the First Lady had begun to realize what she could do with that little bit of attention. Today the role has evolved to the point where we actually expect the First Lady to set goals and accomplish them. Our First Ladies take on projects and causes in an effort to better the world in their own special ways – from Lucy Hayes’s feelings for the temperance movement to Michelle Obama’s fight against childhood obesity. The First Lady has a truly unique chance to affect people all over the country simply by being herself.

Betty Ford’s openness about such previously undiscussed subjects as breast cancer and addiction endeared her to many Americans, male and female alike.

So, with all of that being said, how do we measure her success? The four women chosen up above certainly experienced success in affecting the American public in some beneficial fashion. Dolley Madison showed us the power behind a successful dinner party and how it could bolster the President’s popularity. Eleanor Roosevelt proved that a woman was capable of as much politicking as any man – and she could be just as good, if not better, at it. Abigail Adams showed us that a woman could handle business decisions, moral dilemmas, and be a trusted advisor even when the rest of the world wouldn’t have believed it so. And Martha Washington set a precedent for activity by being present to mend soldier’s uniforms, cook them meals, and nurse them to health.

But haven’t other First Ladies been equally “successful” by those same standards? What about Betty Ford’s open honesty about breast cancer? How many lives were saved because she told women what happened to her and told them to go get checked? Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s wife, Happy Rockefeller, stated outright that she was checked and her breast cancer discovered early because of Betty Ford’s openness. And what about her desire to discuss addiction and how to treat it? And then there’s Caroline Harrison. Sure, she’s a name that people don’t really know today. But she single-handedly managed to get Johns Hopkins University to begin expecting female students. She started the Daughters of American Revolution, a group dedicated to the preservation of history. And she brought electricity to the White House, while also ridding it of a terrible rat and bug infestation. Are Mrs. Harrison’s accomplishments any less important than Betty Ford’s? And is Mrs. Ford’s ability to discuss anything with anyone more valuable than Eleanor Roosevelt’s political savvy? Our Facebook poll reveals VERY few votes for Betty Ford and even less so for Caroline Harrison.

Caroline Harrison wanted to make a difference as First Lady. She made the White House more livable by adding electricity and updating rooms. She also struck a deal with Johns Hopkins University: the school agreed to enroll women in return for her support in building a new wing on a Baltimore hospital. (

So now I pose the question to you again: who deserves to be up on “Mrs. Mount Rushmore?” Is our list of four women at the top sufficient? Who would you put up there, and why? Over the course of a few blog posts I will explore these four choices with you and see if we can get to the bottom of why these four women deserve to be up on a mountain. Tune in again soon for further discussion on “Mrs. Mount Rushmore.”

-Andrew Curtiss, Volunteer