After the second (or third, depending on the channel) edition of the media-labeled Super Tuesday round of voting, Hillary Clinton, facing a limited pool of competitors with little national name recognition from the outset, has all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination after a valiant (and still ongoing fight) by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. However, the other side of aisle has been the subject of much speculation, as real estate tycoon Donald Trump has secured the highest number of delegates, but in a much more fractured race, is not on pace to claim the needed 1237 delegates to earn the Republican nomination before the party’s convention this summer. With two other active candidates in the race (Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich) and many Republican leaders and party members concerned with a Trump nomination, the idea of a contested convention has received increasing attention.
And while many scoff at delegates and party leaders muting the voices of the electorate, it’s not as if the nomination process has always worked smoothly. Take 1880, for example.
In June of that year, as Republican delegates descended upon the recently fire-ravaged and rebuilt city of Chicago, there were three leading contenders for the presidential nomination. On the one hand, a plurality of delegates supported the candidacy of former two-term President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had left office in 1876 before jet-setting (not literally) around the world. While he had wide support, he had his opposition, primarily raised by those who did not want to break the two-term precedent set by George Washington.
But much like anti-Trump voters can’t fully unite against him today, those opposing Grant could not agree on a single candidate, instead spreading their votes among two: Maine Senator James Blaine and Secretary of State John Sherman of Ohio. Blaine stood as the stiffest challenger to the renomination of Grant, but the small group of Sherman supporters remained steadfast.
One of those supporters was Ohio Representative and Senator-elect James Garfield. Garfield had earned a stellar reputation over his 18 years in the House of Representatives, becoming the chamber’s leading Republican. He had an impeccable record as a brigadier general in the Civil War, attorney, and before that had served as a professor of ancient languages and literature—while enrolled as a sophomore—at what is now known as Hiram College in Ohio. He would be addressing the gathered crowd in Chicago to urge voters to choose Sherman.
So the day came for Garfield’s speech amidst the contentious proceedings. He took the podium and began his wonderfully eloquent argument for his friend and fellow Ohioan’s candidacy. Consider his opening paragraph as he addressed the state of the fractured convention (I’d say our collective rhetorical and oratorical skills have eroded since then):
“I have witnessed the extraordinary scenes of this Convention with deep solicitude. Nothing touches my heart more quickly than a tribute of honor to a great and noble character; but as I sat in my seat and witnessed this demonstration, this assemblage seemed to me a human ocean in tempest. I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man; but I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured. When the storm has passed and the hour of calm settles on the ocean, when the sunlight bathes its peaceful surface, then the astronomer and surveyor take the level from which they measure all terrestrial heights and depths.”
And then he spoke his third paragraph:
“Not here, in this brilliant circle, where fifteen thousand men and women are gathered, is the destiny of the Republic to be decreed for the next four years. Not here, where I see the enthusiastic faces of seven hundred and fifty-six delegates, waiting to cast their lots into the urn and determine the choice of the Republic, but by four millions of Republican firesides, where the thoughtful voters, with wives and children about them, with the calm thoughts inspired by love of home and country, with the history of the past, the hopes of the future, and reverence for the great men who have adorned and blessed our nation in days gone by, burning in their hearts,—there God prepares the verdict which will determine the wisdom of our work to-night. Not in Chicago, in the heat of June, but at the ballot-boxes of the Republic, in the quiet of November, after the silence of deliberate judgment, will this question be settled. And now, gentlemen of the Convention, what do we want?”
This is where the convention took a decided turn. Garfield surely intended his question as a rhetorical device. But instead one in the crowd answered: “Garfield.” Then another, and another. Soon, Garfield’s speech was impeded by a barrage of vocal supporters.
Several rounds of voting proved unsuccessful in any one candidate receiving the necessary 379 delegates. Garfield’s name first appeared on the 34th ballot when the Wisconsin delegation switched their votes in his favor. Eventually, on the 36th vote, the delegations from several states switched their votes to Garfield, giving him 399 votes and the nomination. The Ohio Representative had earned the nomination without even throwing his name into the ring.
He wrote to his wife, Lucretia, who treasured her quiet life back in Ohio, and asked her to consider the nomination. Imagine that conversation.
Garfield accepted the nomination and won the presidency in November over Democrat Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.
Lucretia’s life would never be the same as her husband was shot by crazy man Charles Guiteau in July of 1881, just months after being sworn in to office. In her bestselling book, The Destiny of the Republic, author Candice Millard makes the compelling case that his medical care was incompetent and the invasive and unsanitary attempts to retrieve the bullet led to his death in September of that year.
So wild things can and have happened at national conventions. Delegates are only obligated to vote the way of the electorate on the first ballot and then are free to change. As such, rumors of politicians jockeying for those votes have been swirling.
If Donald Trump is unable to secure the nomination and the GOP heads to a contested convention, I’ll be listening carefully to people like Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, or Paul Ryan. It could get pretty exciting if any of them try to end a paragraph of their speech with the phrase “gentleman of the convention, what do we want?” They might get a surprise—or the answer they’ve desired all along.
- James Garfield. (2014). Retrieved March 18, 2016, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/jamesgarfield
- Schlafly, P. (2007, December 26). Dark Horse Looks Good in GOP Presidential Race | Human Events. Retrieved March 18, 2016, from http://humanevents.com/2007/12/26/dark-horse-looks-good-in-gop-presidential-race
- His Speech Nominating Sherman for President by James Abram Garfield. America: III. (1861-1905). Vol. X. Bryan, William Jennings, ed. 1906. The World’s Famous Orations
- Millard, C. (2011). The destiny of the republic: A tale of madness, medicine and the murder of a president. New York: Doubleday.
- Murder of a President [Television series episode]. (2016, February 2). In American Experience. PBS.