Stalwarts, Half Breeds, and Political Assassination

Most summaries of the assassination of President James A. Garfield describe his attacker, Charles Guiteau, as nothing more than a “disappointed office seeker.” When police apprehended him after he shot Garfield on July 2, 1881, Guiteau calmly told them, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts…Arthur is president.” Were these just the ramblings of an almost surely mentally unbalanced murderer? Or was there something more to Guiteau’s statement? Understanding the factionalism in the Republican Party during this era helps one understand not only how James A. Garfield ascended to the presidency, but also that his murder was wholly political in nature. 

One main issue led to the split in the Republican Party: patronage. Under the patronage system, the winners of congressional and presidential elections had the power to appoint whomever they chose to fill numerous federal jobs. Experience and qualifications mattered little (if at all). Powerful politicians loved the so-called “spoils system” because it allowed them to put friends and relatives into lucrative positions and ensure loyalty from everyone they appointed. According to author Kenneth D. Ackerman, “Senatorial courtesy—deferring to senators of the president’s party on local positions—helped the party in power to build a national base. Breaking the system apart would threaten everyone.” Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was the undisputed king of the patronage system, and the key weapon in his spoils arsenal was the position of Collector of the Port of New York.

Roscoe Conkling was the senior Senator from New York and the undisputed king of the spoils system. He controlled the most nation’s most prized patronage position: Collector of the Port of New York. (

Conkling was also the leader of the Republican faction that came to be known as “Stalwarts.” These Republicans strictly adhered to the patronage system and continued to believe that sectional appeals (“waving the bloody shirt”) were still valid even after the Rutherford B. Hayes administration of 1877-81 began to gradually end Reconstruction in the South. Senator James G. Blaine of Maine was Conkling’s counterpart on the other side of the issue, leading the faction that came to be known as “Half Breeds.” Blaine and his followers “were known as ‘Half Breeds’ because of their willingness to depart from Stalwart orthodoxy,” writes historian Lewis L. Gould. Many of this faction, including President Hayes, believed that the patronage system contributed to the scandals and graft that had recently embarrassed the party during the eight years of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. Civil service reform—the idea that candidates for federal jobs should have some qualification besides just their political affiliation or connections—became a popular cause among the Half Breeds.

Much of the nation’s trade flowed through the Port of New York. Because the Collector of Customs there received a percentage of the customs duties, the job was the most prized appointment in the country. Roscoe Conkling demanded that he alone select the man to fill this politically important and personally lucrative position. President Hayes, seeking to wrest control from Conkling, nominated two different men as Collector. Conkling rallied his Senate colleagues to defeat both and eventually succeeded in getting his own choice, an acolyte named Chester Alan Arthur, appointed instead. In 1878, President Hayes and Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman fired Arthur from his position for turning a blind eye to corruption inside the Customs House. In response, Conkling had Arthur named chairman of the New York Republican committee and made plans to have Arthur elected as the junior U.S. Senator from New York in 1880.

Chester Alan Arthur was Collector of the Port of New York until fired for corruption by President Rutherford B. Hayes. He was a Conkling loyalist who was eventually placed on the 1880 ticket with Garfield to appease the Stalwarts. (

Led by Conkling, Stalwarts encouraged former president Ulysses S. Grant to seek an unprecedented third term in the White House in the 1880 election. Despite the many scandals of Grant’s two previous terms (1869-1877), the former Union general was still immensely personally popular with the American public. Grant was disheartened at Hayes’s attempts to dismantle the patronage system and, in consultation with Conkling and other Stalwart allies, agreed to run again. Conkling looked forward to reclaiming control of the New York Customs House and once again serving as President Grant’s right hand man, just as he had done during the earlier Grant administrations. On the other side of the aisle, Half Breeds supported none other than James G. Blaine for the Republican presidential nomination. The personal hatred between Conkling and Blaine, dating back to their early service together in the House of Representatives during the Civil War, made the issue that much more heated and complicated.

At the Republican convention in Chicago, Half Breeds worked tirelessly and successfully to block Grant’s nomination. In turn, the Stalwarts gave absolutely no consideration to supporting Blaine. After the first several ballots, it was clear that neither man could obtain the necessary votes to capture the nomination. A compromise candidate was needed. James A. Garfield of Ohio, longtime member of the House of Representatives and currently Ohio’s Senator-elect, was liked and respected by members of both factions. Garfield had traveled to the convention to nominate another candidate Conkling and the Stalwarts would never support: Treasury Secretary John Sherman. On the 36th ballot, Garfield, still stunned that his name had been forwarded as a candidate at all, received the nomination. To appease the Stalwart faction, Conkling disciple Chester A. Arthur, just two years removed from his New York Customs House firing, received the party’s vice presidential nomination.

This cartoon depicts Roscoe Conkling trying to solve “the great presidential puzzle” and deduce who would be the Republicans’ best candidate in 1880. Conkling hoped to see U.S. Grant nominated for a third term, but many Republicans, including James A. Garfield, opposed a third term. (

Garfield went on to defeat Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock by a razor-thin popular vote margin in the 1880 election and assumed the presidency on March 4, 1881. If the Arthur nomination was intended to be an olive branch to the Stalwarts, that branch cracked when Garfield made James Blaine his Secretary of State. The branch then splintered into a thousand pieces when the new president nominated William H. Robertson to be Collector of the Port of New York without consulting Conkling. Historian Heather Cox Richardson notes that Conkling was “a famously touchy character” and that he was “undoubtedly personally affronted.” However, as Richardson points out, Conkling opposed Robertson’s nomination by claiming that the Senate’s role to advise and consent to presidential appointments gave senators the power of appointment itself. “What was really at stake,” writes Richardson, “was whether or not Conkling would control New York.”

Conkling devised a bold plan to force the issue and embarrass President Garfield. He and New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned their seats in protest and fully confident that the New York legislature would immediately reappoint them. (Recall that at this point the people did not elect their senators; rather, they were chosen by state legislatures.) Conkling and Platt miscalculated; the New York legislature was happy to be rid of them and promptly elected others to fill their seats. The Senate confirmed Robertson as head of the New York Customs House, and James A. Garfield won the only political victory of his very brief term in the White House.

So what does any of this have to do with Charles Guiteau and his attack on Garfield? Guiteau considered himself to be a Stalwart Republican. He had supported U.S. Grant for the party’s nomination in 1880, even preparing a nonsensical speech he hoped to give for the Grant campaign throughout New York. When the Republicans ended up choosing Garfield instead, Guiteau simply crossed out all references to “Grant” in his speech’s text and replaced them with “Garfield.” During the campaign, Guiteau hounded Republican officials to let him give his speech, which he finally did to a small and puzzled crowd. This odd performance led the mentally unbalanced Guiteau to believe that he had helped Garfield win New York, the most coveted electoral prize of the 1880 contest and the state that put Garfield over the top and into the presidency. His contribution to the party’s victory entitled him, he felt, to a patronage position, and he soon went to Washington, D.C. to present himself for consideration for the American consulship to Paris. Of course, he had no skills, qualifications, or experience to warrant such a position, but lesser men had received prized jobs under the patronage system.

Charles Guiteau was almost certainly mentally unstable, but he also thought of himself as a Stalwart Republican who opposed President Garfield’s intention to reform civil service. Guiteau was more than just a “disappointed officer seeker.” He was a political assassin. (

Once he got to Washington, Guiteau was sorely disappointed. His efforts to secure the Paris appointment failed, and he became a nuisance to the new administration. He aroused the ire of Secretary of State James Blaine, who at one point thundered at Guiteau, “Do not ask me about the Paris consulship ever again!” Once Guiteau realized that he would not get the position he wanted and that the Garfield administration was serious about scrapping the patronage system all together, he decided that “removing” Garfield was his best option. Making Chester A. Arthur president would not only save the country from a Half Breed Republican like Garfield, but would also, considering Arthur’s past affiliation with Roscoe Conkling, save the patronage system and quash civil service reform once and for all. As a nice by-product, Guiteau would also surely receive the Paris consulship from a grateful President Arthur.

Guiteau bought a pistol and stalked the President of the United States around Washington before finally shooting him on July 2, 1881. Garfield lingered for eighty days and suffered horrendous medical treatment before dying on September 19. Rather than being heralded as a hero for saving the Republican Party, Charles J. Guiteau was incarcerated, tried, and found guilty of murder. (In what was probably one of the most lucid statements he ever made, Guiteau, when accused of murdering Garfield during his trial, replied, “The doctors did that. I merely shot at him.”) Guiteau was hanged on June 30, 1882.  He died a “disappointed office seeker,” to be sure, but to describe him as that and nothing more only tells part of the story. He was also a political assassin that killed President Garfield in an attempt to force the Republicans to change course on civil service reform. The Republican Party’s factionalism, clearly responsible for the selection of Garfield as its standard bearer in 1880, also led to the president’s murder at Guiteau’s hands.

This “Puck” cartoon depicts Guiteau threatening murder if not given a patronage job. He sought the American consulship to Paris; he eventually said he would accept the appointment to Vienna instead. Of course, he had no qualifications or experience, but that mattered little under the spoils system. (

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation and Education

Mrs. Mount Rushmore, Part II

A little while back we posted a blog that asked the question: if you could design a Mount Rushmore for our First Ladies, who would you carve into that mountain? The results of that questions revealed that our Facebook fans would choose Dolley Madison, Martha Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abigail Adams (in that order). We couldn’t help but ask though, “Why?” So in the spirit of exploring what these women did to earn the admiration of people generations later, we’re going to explore each one of them one at a time.

So with that said, our next edition of Mrs. Mount Rushmore explores the accomplishments of Mrs. Dolley Payne Todd Madison. What do you know about Dolley Madison? I was surprised by the sheer number of answers I received to this question. Even among “history buffs” there are a staggering number of stories associated with Dolley Madison. And upon some reading and research a staggering number of these staggering stories are, staggeringly, mythical in nature. Meaning they’re a tad… embellished. Reading about Dolley Madison paints a picture of a powerful woman who loved beautiful dresses, big parties, politics, and America. She’s almost larger than life. But which of these stories is true and which ones have been blown up?

Dolley Madison, painted by Gilbert Stuart. Married to fourth President James Madison, she was both a noted entertainer and a shrewd political operative during their eight years in the White House. (The James Madison Museum)

Researcher Mary Ellen Scofield recently published an article entitled “Unraveling the Dolley Myths.” In her article Scofield points out that most of the tall-tales associated with the great Dolley Madison are rooted in truth. For example: cupcakes and ice cream. Everyone is familiar with the famous brand of snacks called “Dolly Madison.” And of course the stories of how Mrs. Madison was the first to serve ice cream in the White House. While Mrs. Madison loved herself a party, she can hardly be credited for creating a brand of snack cakes – the Dolly Madison brand came about in 1937 when Roy Nafziger founded a brand of snack and named it after a First Lady whom he found fascinating. And Dolley wasn’t the only White House hostess to serve ice cream. Abigail Adams beat her to the punch, as did Thomas Jefferson for that matter.

These aren’t the stories that make people adore Dolley Madison though. These are simply stories that inflate her a little bit. The big story that even some school children can recite is the story of how Dolley Madison saved the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Dolley braved the flames of the White House, burning down around her during the War of 1812, so that she could save this classic portrait of our first great leader. This paints for us an amazing picture of a woman concerned more about her country’s well-being then her own. And needless to say it’s the grounds for a great action scene in some Hollywood blockbuster. But….not 100% true.

A detail from the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that Dolley Madison “saved” when the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. (

While Dolley Madison certainly saved the famous portrait of our Commander-in-Chief, she herself didn’t actually carry it out of the White House. The First Lady and remaining White House staff had advanced notice of the enemy advance on Washington, D.C. before the British even there. Before they had even hit the city limits, Mrs. Madison had asked a staff member to break the frame of the painting and rescue the canvas because they were unable to unscrew the frame from the wall itself. The Madison’s doorkeeper and gardener, both still present, assisted Mrs. Madison with loading valuables, including the painting, into a wagon that set off well before the British arrived. And while it’s also true that Mrs. Madison stayed in the White House far longer than would have been safe, she didn’t actually run from a burning building.

This Tom Freeman painting shows British soldiers burning the White House on August 24, 1814. Dolley Madison had escaped with the Stuart portrait of George Washington before the British troops arrived at the White House, but she certainly stayed longer than was safe. (White House Historical Association)

Another misconception is that Dolley Madison had served as Thomas Jefferson’s surrogate First Lady during his time as President. Jefferson’s own wife had died years before the Presidency. And tradition held that the host of a White House event, be it dinner or a gala ball, needed to have his wife or a female substitute present in order for other politicians and invitees to be able to bring their wives. This tradition is true enough. But the misconception began with two biographical pieces that were written about Dolley Madison in 1836 and 1886. The first was a biographical piece in which the author, Margaret Bayard Smith, states that, “the president’s house was the seat of hospitality, where Mrs. Madison always presided (in the absence of Mrs. Jefferson’s daughters).”  The second piece was a collection of letters published by Lucia Beverly Cutts, a grandniece of Dolley herself. In this collection Cutts states, “Mrs. Madison, aided by her sister, usually presided at the White House and was much depended upon.” Many authors over the years have taken these two women at their words and as such the stories have “become fact.”

The truth, however, is a little different. Thankfully Thomas Jefferson kept a very detailed list of guests who attended all of his functions. And upon doing some reading, some tallying, and some math, you quickly discover that Dolley Madison was not around nearly enough to be considered a surrogate First Lady. A vast number of dinners held by President Jefferson had no women in attendance. How much is “vast?” Only 20% of his dinners between 1804 and 1809 had women in attendance. If you further break down the dinners in that 20%, Dolley Madison wasn’t present at any more than half of them. To give her credit where it is due, Mrs. Madison was present more often than any other cabinet member’s wife. And at those dinners at which she was present she did perhaps assist in hostess duties. But her presence is far from consistent, and not nearly enough so that she could be called a surrogate First Lady.

Martha Wayles Jefferson died at age 33 on September 6, 1782, eighteen years before her husband was elected President. Contrary to popular belief, Dolley Madison did not serve as a substitue First Lady for Jefferson. (

So then…why is she held in such a great light? If some of these fundamental “truths” are not actually completely true, then how was this woman so great? Dolley Madison grew into a figure larger than life over the course of history because she herself was a bit larger than life for a woman of the time. Mrs. Madison could throw a party like it was no one else’s business. She understood the ins and outs of socializing and mingling and exactly what it could accomplish politically. Even if her ice cream wasn’t original, she put together guest lists, entertainment, and planned events that went down in Washington history. More than one politician and V.I.P. came away saying that Mrs. Madison’s charms made them feel not just welcome, but important. This set the stage for some hardcore political “moving and shaking” amongst the guests. Combine this with Dolley’s taste in fashion and love of fancy dress, and you have the makings of a hostess who could easily become a political heavyweight.

Dolley Madison was also a highly visible woman. Being the First Lady she was able to hold the same types of gathering that other socialites were already having. But by virtue of her position, and bolstered by her ability to entertain, her “crushes” as they were called (due to the sheer number of people present) garnered much attention. She was also known for her grace and delightful nature when giving and receiving gifts. As the wife of a politician, both of these things are necessary talents. These things made her a popular topic in social circles. These stories were passed along by word of mouth, perhaps inflated as they went. This ensured Mrs. Madison’s reputation among people whom she had never even met. So you have to ask yourself – how could she not have become bigger than life?

So if you step back to examine Dolley Madison in this light you find a woman who may not have had as many “firsts” as you previously thought. She may not have run from a burning building. And she may not have actually “reigned” over Washington like a queen. But what you have is a woman exercising her political know-how at a time when women didn’t usually have (or at least couldn’t show) a lot of political know-how. Politics was a man’s world – not fit for a lady. Dolley Madison broke stereotypes and proved to the young United States that the President’s wife was more than just an accessory. She was a valuable asset. And even though we have to separate some myth from some truth, you still have a woman who definitely seems to have earned her place on Mrs. Mount Rushmore.

-Andrew Curtiss, Volunteer