What Issue Divided the Republican Party in 1880?

Ulysses S. Grant was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination until chaos struck at the 1880 Republican National Convention.
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The Republican Party was sharply divided by political factions in 1880, with New York senator Roscoe Conkling’s Stalwarts on one side, and Maine senator James G. Blaine’s Half-Breeds on the other. The Stalwarts were conservative Republicans who viewed themselves as “stalwart” against sitting President Rutherford B. Hayes’ efforts to reform the “spoils system,” the tradition of awarding jobs to political supporters. The Half-Breeds, meanwhile, were composed of the moderate faction of the party. Ultimately neither the Stalwart-backed candidate, former President Ulysses S. Grant, nor the Half-Breed backed Blaine were able to receive enough support to obtain the presidential nomination during the 1880 Republican National Convention. Instead, on the 36th ballot the two factions endorsed a compromise choice, Ohio senator James A. Garfield.

1 Stalwart Republicans

Stalwart Republicans opposed the civil service reform measures advocated by the Hayes administration. Instead, the group favored a patronage system – known as as a "spoils system" – that awarded political supporters with jobs in the federal government. At that time the Stalwarts had a base of conservative support in the South, an area where Republicans relied specifically on the patronage system to obtain posts in the heavily Democratic region. The Stalwarts were also adamantly opposed to the Hayes policies that abetted the end of Reconstruction, particularly his decision to remove troops from Louisiana and South Carolina.

2 Half-Breed Republicans

The Half-Breeds represented the moderate wing of the Republican Party – in fact, the term "half breed" was originally used as a disparaging term by Stalwarts to suggest their moderate rivals were only "half-Republican." The faction, led by James Blaine, supported Hayes' efforts to institute civil service reforms. The Half-Breeds penned the 1883 Pendleton Civil Reform Act, which put an end to the patronage system, instead specifying that federal government jobs should be awarded based on merit. Blaine, who campaigned unsuccessfully for the 1880 Republican presidential nomination, became Secretary of State under President James Garfield in 1881.

3 1880 Republican National Convention

Former President Ulysses S. Grant was considered the leading contender for the 1880 Republican nomination after Hayes announced he would not seek a second term. However, Grant’s nomination was opposed by both the Half-Breeds and liberal Republicans – known as Reformers – who took issue with the political corruption that had been a hallmark of the Union Army general's presidency. Although nearly two-thirds of the delegates had been pledged to either Grant or his Half-Breed opponent Blaine when the Republican National Convention convened, securing a majority of 370 proved impossible for either candidate. After more than 30 ballots resulted in a stalemate, James Garfield emerged as a compromise candidate. At the 36th ballot, when Grant still had the support 309 delegates, the party’s moderate and liberal factions joined forces behind Garfield, sweeping him to victory with the support of 399 delegates.

4 Garfield Assassination

Garfield was shot and killed by an assassin less than a year after his presidential inauguration. The assassin, Charles Guiteau, was a Stalwart supporter who purportedly targeted Garfield after being denied an appointment as the United States consul in Paris.

Ashley Portero has been covering state and national politics since 2011. Her work has appeared in "The Boston Globe," "The Boston Business Journal" and the "International Business Times." She received a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism from Emerson College.