James A. Garfield and “Rain Follows the Plow”

James A. Garfield pursued many vocations during his relatively short life of 49 years and ten months, including canal worker, janitor, minister, college professor and president, lawyer, soldier, congressman, and President of the United States. Less well-known, though, is his lifelong interest in agriculture, which prompted him to purchase a 120-acre farm in Mentor, Ohio in 1876. “I must get a place where I can put my boys at work, and teach them farming,” he wrote in his diary on September 26, 1876. After purchasing the property, Garfield wrote his wife, Lucretia, “So, my darling, you shall have a home and a cow.” Today, about eight acres of that farm and its buildings are preserved as James A. Garfield National Historic Site. Here Congressman Garfield grew wheat, rye, and barley, and also had an orchard of apple and peach trees.

In early June 1880, Garfield traveled to the Republican National Convention in Chicago to nominate fellow Ohioan John Sherman as the party’s presidential candidate for that November’s election. The next time he saw his Mentor farm, Garfield himself was the somewhat surprised Republican presidential nominee, and the farm became his campaign’s headquarters. Even as a candidate for the nation’s highest office, Garfield meticulously tracked the work being done on his farm. On July 31, 1880 he recorded: “Men continued threshing until noon. Had the oats hauled in from the field and threshed as they arrived. Result 475 bushels. Not so good a yield as last year.  All spring grain seems to be lighter this year than the fall sown crops.”

This image shows James A. Garfield's property as it appeared during his 1880 presidential campaign.  The barn and other farm buildings are visible.  The expansive lawn around the house led reporters covering the campaign to nickname the property "Lawnfield."  (Lake County Historical Society)

This image shows James A. Garfield’s property as it appeared during his 1880 presidential campaign. The barn and other farm buildings are visible. The expansive lawn around the house led reporters covering the campaign to nickname the property “Lawnfield.” (Lake County Historical Society)

Two weeks later, on August 13, he noted, “Have agreed to send my wheat, about 200 bushels of it, to Cleveland for sale at 90 cents per bushel.” On September 19: “Did not attend church, but made a tour over the farm, inspecting the cattle and crops.” On Election Day, November 2: “Arranged for plowing and seeding garden east of house, and starting a new one in rear of engine house.”

Garfield won the election, and from November 1880 to late February 1881, he hosted many visitors seeking an audience with the new President-elect. On January 26, 1881, Garfield recorded in his diary, “Profs. C.D. Wilber and Aughey of Nebraska came at noon, and spent the night…I sat up too late with Wilber for my health.” So just who were these Nebraskans who stopped by to visit and spend the night in the President-elect’s home?

Naturalist and geologist Samuel H. Aughey was a faculty member at the University of Nebraska who published widely on the natural features of his adopted state (he was a Pennsylvania native). He was also a shameless booster of settlement on the Great Plains, encouraging homesteaders and other land seekers to settle in Nebraska. During an unusually wet period in 1880, Aughey asserted that prairie sod being broken by plows was the reason for the increased rainfall. It stood to reason, then, that more settlers turning over more acres of soil would lead to ever more rainfall, and drought on the Great Plains would never be a problem as long as farmers continued to plant and harvest crops. The prairie soil would, according to M. Jean Ferrill in Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, “absorb the rain like a huge sponge once the sod had been broken. This moisture would then be slowly given back to the atmosphere by evaporation. Each year, as cultivation extended across the Plains…the moisture and rainfall would also increase until the region was fit for agriculture without irrigation.”

Samuel Aughey was a faculty member of the University of Nebraska and a vocal promoter of western settlement who developed the theory eventually encapsulated in the phrase "rain follows the plow."  He eventually left the University of Nebraska to become the state geologist of Wyoming.  (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Samuel Aughey was a faculty member of the University of Nebraska and a vocal promoter of western settlement who developed the theory encapsulated in the phrase “rain follows the plow.” He eventually left the University of Nebraska to become the state geologist of Wyoming. (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Journalist and author Charles Dana Wilber picked up on Aughey’s theory and included it in his 1881 book The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest. It was Wilber, in fact, who coined and popularized the phrase “rain follows the plow,” which made Aughey’s bizarre theory more easily accessible to the public by breaking it down to a single phrase: 

“God speed the plow…. By this wonderful provision, which is only man’s mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains … [the plow] is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts a desert into a farm or garden…. To be more concise, Rain follows the plow.”

Wilber also offered divine allegories for man’s besting of the natural environment in the area once labeled “the Great American Desert”:

“In this miracle of progress, the plow was the unerring prophet, the procuring cause, not by any magic or enchantment, not by incantations or offerings, but instead by the sweat of his face toiling with his hands, man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasures of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling… The raindrop never fails to fall and answer to the imploring power or prayer of labor.”

For western settlement boosters like Aughey and Wilber, “rain follows the plow” provided an easy response to those who worried about drought in western states and territories. The theory also appealed to those who put stock in ideas about America’s “Manifest Destiny,” the opinion that the United States had a God-given right and obligation to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific. “Rain follows the plow” could easily be interpreted to justify removing American Indians from their traditional lands since few western tribes lived as sedentary farmers and therefore, according to many, were not using the land to its full potential. Even railroad companies got in on the act, using the theory to draw settlers to their land grants. (Railroad land available for purchase by settlers was often of far higher quality than that available from the federal government for free under the Homestead Act.) The Burlington and Missouri River Railroad eventually went so far as to have a stenographer in the crowd when Samuel Aughey spoke so that copies of his speeches extolling the virtues of western lands could be printed and distributed to prospective immigrants in Europe.

Aughey and Wilber's "rain follows the plow" theory encouraged many to try their hands at homesteading and farming in western states like Nebraska.  New settlers often found dry, barren land and built their first homes from prairie sod.  This famous photo by Solomon D. Butcher shows the Sylvester Rawding family in Custer County, Nebraska.  (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Aughey and Wilber’s “rain follows the plow” theory encouraged many to try their hands at homesteading and farming in western states like Nebraska. New settlers often found dry, barren land and built their first homes from prairie sod. This famous photo by Solomon D. Butcher shows the Sylvester Rawding family in Custer County, Nebraska. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

“Rain follows the plow” fell by the wayside when the Great Plains endured severe droughts in the 1890s that even the steel plows and increasingly mechanized implements of farmers could not prevent. Today, the theory is considered junk science, on par with phrenology, séances, and fad diets. But in January 1881 when they visited President-elect James A. Garfield, Samuel Aughey and Charles Wilber were just entering the period that would make them and their now-discredited theory famous. What fun it might have been to be a fly on the wall and eavesdrop on the conversation on the night of January 26, 1881, when the President-elect “sat up too late with Wilber for my health.”

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation and Education

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. (wikipedia.com)

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. (wikipedia.com)

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. (wikipedia.com)

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. (wikipedia.com)

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. (wikipedia.com)

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation and Education

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. (www.handwritinganalysis.ca)

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. (www.handwritinganalysis.ca)

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

“As a Matter of Fact, I Presume I Shall Live to be President”: A Brief Biographical Sketch of Garfield’s Assassin

From the year he was born in Freeport, Illinois in 1841, Charles Julius Guiteau had lived a life of nearly constant instability.  His mother died when he was just seven years old and his father was harsh and often negligent, and as a result he was usually looked after by his older sister Frances.  According to Frances, he was very late in learning to speak and always seemed in constant, excited motion.  However, Guiteau apparently strove for self-improvement and worked to educate himself.  In 1859 he used an inheritance to attend the University of Michigan, but he was slow to make friends and left after a year to join a religious commune in Oneida, New York.  He struggled to fit in with the community there as well and was described by most of his acquaintances as moody and egotistical.

The Oneida community as it looked in the mid-to-late 1800s. (New York Public Library)

This theme of instability in Guiteau’s life progressed and grew with time.  He spent his adult years travelling from city to city, trying his hand at a variety of vocations and wild business schemes, but all ended in failure.  One such idea was to start a theocratic newspaper in 1865, but the venture fell apart after three months.  A few years later he tried the more direct approach of buying out a Chicago daily paper and reprinting New York Tribune articles.  However, no one would loan him the money for his outlandish plan, despite a supposed promise to make one of his investors President of the United States if he would contribute. 

Nearly everyone who crossed paths with Guiteau noted his odd behavior, such as rapid mood swings and his habit of never looking someone in the eye while talking.  Many family members and acquaintances believed him to be insane.  His egotistical personality from his days at the Oneida Community seemed to intensify and his grandiose plans for himself continued unabated.  Guiteau married a librarian named Annie Bunn in 1869, but after years of abuse and instability she divorced him in 1874. She would later recount Guiteau’s interest in the 1872 election and his hope that he would be appointed Minister to Chile if Horace Greeley won.  He limped through a less-than-thorough examination for the Illinois bar (he was apparently asked three questions and got two correct, a score of 66%) but he rarely participated in trials, mostly working as a bill-collector.  Guiteau ran into legal problems as a bill-collector, though, and spent brief stints in jail for scamming clients of their legal fees.  He then tried the life of a traveling preacher for a few years in the late 1870s, where most in his audience struggled to make sense of his confused and disjointed speeches.

Charles Julius Guiteau. He would allow portraits to be taken (for a fee) and signed numerous autographs during his murder trial. (Smithsonian-National Portrait Gallery)

Guiteau finally believed he had discovered his purpose in early 1880 when he once again became interested in politics and the upcoming election.  This time he attached himself to former President Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley’s opponent in the 1872 election.  He moved to New York City and tried to befriend the leaders of the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party, who supported Grant’s reelection.  He even wrote a rambling, clichéd speech for the Republican frontrunner titled “Grant against Hancock”; when Garfield ended up with the nomination in June of 1880 Guiteau kept the speech largely the same and simply substituted Garfield’s name for Grant’s.  After repeated requests, the Stalwarts allowed him to give his speech one time in front of about two dozen spectators.  Despite his minimal audience, Guiteau claimed that it was his ideas that had won Garfield the presidency.

Convinced he had earned himself a prestigious appointment as a “personal tribute” for his work during the campaign, Guiteau was a regular presence in the White House reception room.  He wrote to Garfield numerous times and once even received a brief audience with the President where he requested an appointment to the Paris consulship.  But after months of waiting it eventually dawned on Guiteau that he would not receive the position he believed was owed to him. Shortly after this realization, he concluded that God wanted him to “remove the President for the good of the American people.”  In support of his “revelation”, he recalled his numerous brushes with death, such as surviving a shipwreck and being thrown from a moving train, and he thus believed he had divine protection.  Believing he would be viewed as a hero for saving the Republican Party from Garfield’s desire to reform civil service by ending the patronage system, Guiteau borrowed money from an old acquaintance (he was nearly penniless at this point) and purchased an ivory-handled pistol.  He was sure that the ivory handle would look better should the pistol ever be put on display in a museum.  Guiteau stalked the President for weeks before finally shooting Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac train station in Washington D.C. on July 2, 1881.

Harper’s Weekly sketch of Guiteau during the trial. He often feigned disinterest in the proceedings by reading a newspaper. (University of Missouri-Kansas City, http://www.umkc.edu)

Guiteau’s trial began in November 1881, two months after Garfield’s death.  Guiteau insisted that he had been temporarily insane and denied having any responsibility for his actions because, in his mind, he was merely the “appointed agent” of God’s will.  Guiteau argued that “It was transitory mania that I had; that is all the insanity that I claim” and said that he never would have shot the President under his own free will.  Guiteau also maintained that it was malpractice that had actually killed the President, stating “The doctors did that. I simply shot at him” and “…we acknowledge the shooting, but not the killing.”  But while Guiteau claimed temporary insanity, his lawyers argued that he was entirely insane by pointing to testimonies from family and acquaintances regarding his long history of odd behavior. However, at the time the insanity defense relied on the M’Naghten rule, which held a defendant responsible if he knew his actions to be unlawful and understood the consequences; Guiteau was clearly aware of these two facts.  The prosecution also maintained that even if Guiteau was insane he was still sane enough to know what he was doing and was thus accountable for his actions.

Even at the end of his trial, Guiteau clung to the belief that he was a hero.  In a “Christmas Greeting” sent to newspapers Guiteau compared his patriotism to that of George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant and declared “As a matter of fact, I presume I shall live to be President.”  In the trial he denied being a disappointed office-seeker and maintained that Garfield’s death was a political necessity, commanded by God, in order to unify the Republican Party and save the nation from a second civil war.  His defense, which was lead for the most part by his brother-in-law George Scoville, tried to keep him quiet but Guiteau interrupted virtually every testimony with clarifications and insults (even taking numerous opportunities to insult his lawyer, Scoville, for his inexperience with criminal trials).  The proceedings lasted nearly three months but after deliberating for just under an hour the jury found Guiteau guilty. He was hanged in Washington DC on June 30, 1882, just two days shy of a year after he shot President Garfield.

Guiteau being escorted from the courthouse. The courtroom was usually packed with spectators, and there were several attempts to shoot Guiteau. (“Guiteau the Assassin,” by George B. Herbert)

-T.J. Todd, Visitor Use Assistant

“If Any Outsider is Taken, I Hope it Will be Garfield”: The 1880 Republican Convention

         Every four years, America’s political parties hold national conventions to nominate candidates for President and Vice-President. Cities vie to host the event, and convention week is always full of rallies, parades, demonstrations and buzz. Until the second half of the 20th century, conventions actually did choose the presidential candidates. Nomination battles, now decided in primaries and caucuses, were fought out on the convention floor and in back rooms. Rumors flew, reporters listened, delegates caucused, supporters rallied. The sense of possibility and opportunity for surprise gave conventions a kind of excitement seldom seen in political gatherings today.

          Republicans met for their seventh national convention in Chicago in early June, 1880. They convened in the brand new Industrial Exposition building, called the “Glass Palace” by locals for its enormous windows and skylights. It could hold 15,000 delegates, dignitaries and spectators. Some 500 reporters were provided tables right below the speakers’ platform where they could hear every word; they could report to the country by telegraph directly from the convention hall. Ladies filled the galleries while delegates settled under their state flags on the convention floor. The stage was set for the longest nominating battle in the history of the Republican party.

The “Glass Palace” on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, site of the 1880 Republican convention. http://www.grantstomb.org.

          In 1880, the Republican Party had no clear leader. Rutherford B. Hayes (R., Ohio) was president, but his term in office was tainted by the bitter battle that put him there. He had announced that he would not seek re-election. U.S. Grant (R., Illinois) had been president before Hayes. He left office after two terms under a cloud of scandal. But he had just returned from a triumphal world tour and was anxious to return to the White House for a third term as President.

         Unfortunately for Grant and his supporters, many Republicans remembered the graft and corruption of his presidency. Some opposed a third term for any president, though it was then allowed by the Constitution. When the Republicans held their convention in Chicago in early June 1880, Grant was supported by the largest bloc of delegates. But he did not have enough votes to win the nomination on the first ballot.

          The “anybody but Grant” Republicans were led by Senator James G. Blaine (R., Maine).  A smaller group, led by Congressman James A. Garfield, supported former Ohio Senator and current Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman. Several “favorite son” candidates were also nominated. The anti-Grant faction could not muster a majority for any one of those candidates.

Roscoe Conkling, John Logan, and Don Cameron drive the Grant train into Chicago. Cartoon by Joseph Keppler. Puck magazine archives.

       Delegates to the National Convention were chosen in state and local caucuses, and their votes were usually pledged to one or another of the candidates on the first ballot. Those votes had been counted and analyzed by politicians and newspapermen for weeks. On the eve of the convention the Albany Evening Journal reported that 277 votes were committed to Senator Blaine, former President Grant could count on 314 votes, Secretary Sherman had 106, and 49 votes were scattered among several “favorite son” candidates. With 379 votes needed to win, a first ballot victory for any candidate was unlikely.

          But it was not impossible. The Grant forces at the convention were led by three important U. S. Senators: Don Cameron of Pennsylvania, John Logan of Illinois, and Roscoe Conkling of New York. They led three of the largest delegations at the convention, and if all three gave all of their votes to Grant, he could win on the first ballot. The delegations, however, were not unanimous. The three senators wanted the Republican national committee to invoke a “unit rule,” requiring that all the votes of a state delegation go to the candidate with the majority of votes from that state.

         James A. Garfield, an at-large delegate from Ohio, arrived in Chicago on Saturday, May 29, 1880.  The unit rule controversy met him as soon as he reached the city. He told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune that “all delegates…are political units, each one of which has a right to express his own political sentiment by his own personal vote…It is wholly un-Republican for one man to cast another man’s vote.” It was a principal of political autonomy that Garfield had held all his life and he told the reporter that for him it was “more important than even the choice of a candidate.” As an opponent of a Grant third term, and as chairman of the convention’s rules committee, Garfield spent the days before the convention opened working to block any attempt to impose a unit rule. Ultimately a compromise was reached that allowed all the delegates to vote on the question and the unit rule was defeated 449 votes to 306.

The interior of the “Glass Palace” on June 2, 1880 during the Republican convention. Library of Congress.

        Two of the party’s best speakers were on hand to present candidates. Roscoe Conkling of New York nominated “the man who can’t be defeated—General Ulysses S. Grant!” It was a speech interrupted over and over with cheers and demonstrations, and most reporters agreed that if the balloting had begun right after Conkling’s speech, Grant would have won the nomination by acclamation.

        James A. Garfield took the stage next to nominate his fellow Ohioan, John Sherman. He spoke calmly and thoughtfully, reminding the delegates that the presidential election would be decided “not in Chicago in the heat of July, but at the ballot-boxes in the Republic, in the quiet melancholy days of November.”

        As the evening ended, one delegate told a reporter, “If any outsider is taken, I hope it will be Garfield. If Ohio wants a man, let Ohio ask for her best.” That same night James Garfield received a letter from his wife. “I begin to be half afraid that the convention will give you the nomination,” Lucretia wrote, “and the place would be most unenviable with so many disappointed candidates. I don’t want you to have the nomination merely because no one else can get it, I want you to have it when the whole country calls for you…My ambition does not fall short of that.”

        None of the presidential candidates was in Chicago. Tradition demanded that they keep a seemingly disinterested distance while their political friends worked to secure the nomination for them. But the three major candidates were in close contact with their teams at the convention. Each had a dedicated telegraph line—Senator Blaine’s at his home on 15th Street in Washington, and Secretary Sherman’s to his Treasury Department office. Grant felt this was unseemly, so his neighbor in Galena, Illinois had a line brought to his home a few steps from Grant’s front door. With this rapid communication available, all three could be kept informed and send instructions to their forces in the convention hall. They could respond to events, propose strategies, and approve deals.

        When the balloting began on Monday morning, June 7, none of the candidates was far from his telegraph. The first ballot brought no surprises: U.S. Grant had 304 votes, James G. Blaine 284 votes, John Sherman 93 votes, Elihu Washburn 30, George Edmunds 34, and William Windom 10 votes. The chairman of the convention announced, “No candidate having received the 379 votes needed to nominate, the clerk will call the roll for the second ballot.” By the end of the day twenty-eight ballots had been taken, and the vote totals had barely budged. Grant had 307 votes, Blaine had 279 and Sherman 91. One vote had been cast for James Garfield on the second ballot, by a delegate from Pennsylvania. That delegate continued to vote for Garfield on every ballot, but no others joined him that day.

         Overnight, all three campaigns met in private caucuses to plot strategy for the next day. Telegraph lines to Washington and Galena hummed with news and advice. Each camp was sure that a break by one of the others would lead to the nomination, so in the end none was willing to cede votes and the stalemate continued. They began Tuesday with the twenty-ninth ballot, but there was no real change in the vote totals until the very end of the roll call for the thirty-fourth ballot. When the clerk called Wisconsin, the chairman of the delegation stood on his chair to announce “two votes for General Grant, two votes of James G. Blaine, and (pause) sixteen votes for James A. Garfield!”

          Garfield, at his place in the Ohio delegation, challenged the announcement, but was quickly overruled by the convention chairman. Telegrams flew to Sherman and Blaine. On the next ballot Indiana and Maryland switched their votes to Garfield. Blaine responded to his delegation and to Garfield, “Maine’s vote this moment cast for you goes with my hearty concurrence. I hope it will aid in securing your nomination and assuring victory to the Republican Party.” Sherman relayed this message: “Whenever the vote of Ohio will be likely to assure the nomination of Garfield, I appeal to every delegate to vote for him. Let Ohio be solid.”

        It ended on the thirty-sixth ballot when Wisconsin announced its 20 votes for James Garfield. That brought his total to 399, 20 more than needed for the nomination. Garfield sat stunned. The convention hall erupted with cheers. Outside on the lakeshore, cannon were fired. As the clamor subsided, Garfield was able to compose a telegram to Lucretia: “Dear Wife. If the result meets your approval, I shall be content. Love to all the household. J.A. Garfield.”

One party leader called it “the escape of a tired convention.” The Grant train derailed, Conkling, Cameron, and Logan limp out of Chicago. Cartoon by Joseph Keppler. Puck magazine archives.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

How Might the 1880 Election Have Gone Differently?

       Each week, the New York Times publishes an “Invitation to a Dialogue.”  On June 19, 2012, Professor Steven J. Brams of New York University proposed the idea of a national popular vote plan as a way around the Electoral College system that avoids the need for a constitutional amendment.  He points out that “as happened in 2000, and three times in the 19th century (1888, 1876, and possibly 1824), the electoral-vote winner might well be different from the popular-vote winner.”

       With the national popular vote plan suggested by Professor Brams, individual states could change their election laws to require that their electoral votes be cast for the national popular vote winner, regardless of the way the state voted.  The popular vote winner would thus be guaranteed an Electoral College victory and the drama of challenges, recounts, and outcomes decided outside the Constitutional framework would be avoided. 

       Perhaps…but consider the presidential election of 1880.  That year, Republican James A. Garfield of Ohio won 4,446,158 votes, 48.3% of all votes cast.  Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania won 4,444,260, or 48.2% of the total vote.     (Note: Various sources give different numbers, but all agree that the difference between Garfield’s vote total and Hancock’s was less than 10,000 nationwide.  The numbers provided here are from the National Archives.)  Garfield won 19 states; Hancock won 19.  It was a class red-blue election – the Republicans won every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line except New Jersey.  The Democrats won all the states of the old Confederacy, the border states, and Nevada.  California’s electoral vote was split 5 to 1 in favor of the Democrats.  James Garfield won 214 electoral votes; Hancock won 155.

Garfield-Arthur “The Union and The Constitution Forever” Portrait Handkerchief and Hancock-English Campaign Ribbon, 1880. Photos courtesy of Cornell University Library.

       In 1880, the Republicans’ victory was accepted without challenge because of the size of the Electoral College majority.  If Democrats, in response to the contested election of 1876, had induced the states that they won that year – which included New York and Indiana (fifty electoral votes between them) – to change to the national popular vote plan, the aftermath of the voting might have been very different.  An outcome that was generally recognized as conclusive could easily become a prolonged political battle like that of 1876.

Voters from Mentor, Ohio (home of James A. Garfield’s farm) gathering at Town Hall on election day, November 2, 1880 . Photo courtesy of Lake County Historical Society.

       With a popular vote majority so slim, wouldn’t the Democrats have demanded a recount?  If Democrats could find a few thousand more votes in places where they were strong, they could claim victory.  New York and Indiana, the swing states of the 1880 election, would then fall to the Democrats under the national popular vote rule, even though both were won by the Garfield ticket.  With 185 electoral votes needed for victory, Hancock would then have 205 votes, and Garfield 164.  At some point, elections must be decided; presidents must be chosen.  In a country with tens of thousands of voting precincts, voting and counting errors are inevitable, even with the best systems in place.  No two counts will ever be the same, and in close elections claims of fraud are probably inevitable.  The national popular vote system seems to invite challenges and nationwide recounts in very close elections.  The Electoral College system was designed to translate narrow or sectional election victories into convincing governing mandates, and most of the time it has worked.

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide