Both men were, in a sense, "accidental" chief executives: Garfield was a dark horse who had presidential ambitions but no real expectations of achieving them in the spring of 1880, and Arthur was elevated to the office by the assassin's bullet. The battle of that year's Republican nominating convention was supposed to take place between James G. Blaine and former President Ulysses S. Grant, a sign of a badly factionalized Grand Old Party. Behind Grant's third-term bid was the force of New York's imperious and arrogant Senator Roscoe Conkling, leader of the so-called Stalwart Republicans, undeviatingly loyal to the Radical Republican shibboleths of Grant's presidential heyday—the "bloody shirt," so-called carpetbag and black rule in the South, hard money, and high tariffs. Opposed to Conkling was Senator James G. Blaine, former Speaker of the House, a man of vast charm and, it was persistently suspected, little principle. Blaine's followers were allegedly (but not always actually) less Radical and therefore clubbed Half-Breeds.
The actual contest between the groups was over power and personality rather than ideology. Both Conkling and Blaine wanted control of the patronage, and they were like-minded in their disdain for the good-government and civil-service reformers, who had bolted in 1872 (as Liberal Republicans) and returned in 1876 to exert a strong influence in the administration of Hayes. Because Hayes had publicly condemned the spoils system, pursued corrupt officeholders, and pulled federal troops out of the South (abandoning southern Republicans to their dismal fate), he was anathema to both Stalwarts and Half-Breeds and, although an incumbent, stood no chance of renomination.
None of the three groups—Half-Breeds, Stalwarts, and Reformers, sometimes called Independents—was strong enough to win alone, a fact that became apparent after a few ballots. Convention brokers would have to build a majority (379-vote) coalition behind someone other than Grant or Blaine. One of the contenders was Ohio's John Sherman, brother of the general and secretary of the treasury; but the aging and colorless Sherman had too many liabilities. The politicos began to make overtures instead to his campaign manager, Senator James A. Garfield of Ohio. Garfield was, of course, supposed to be steadfast to his man's cause and to reject such bids, but he did not.
As a candidate, he had far greater assets than Sherman. He was born poor (in 1831) in rural Ohio, helped support a widowed mother, and worked briefly as a barge driver, creating the perfect title for Horatio Alger's campaign biography: From Canal Boy to President . He had traveled far from the tow-path, too. For a time after graduation from Williams College, he had been a professor of classics and then president of what later became Hiram College. He went into politics as an antislavery Republican in 1859 but left a seat in the Ohio legislature to see action in the Civil War, where he rose to be an unusually competent political general. That gave him first-class credentials to win election to the House (1863) and then to the Senate (1880).
Garfield was, to some extent, a perfect moderate. He read widely (and unobtrusively) without its visibly affecting his Christianity, his Republicanism, or his general laissez-faire orthodoxy. He was not so much a scholar in politics as a politic scholar. He was flexible enough about the tariff and civil service reform to be a Half-Breed but sound enough on the money question and the bloody shirt for the Stalwarts to live with him. He worked hard and was respected by his colleagues. He had enough ambition to move ahead in party ranks and enough self-doubt (well concealed) to avoid the kind of strutting that came naturally to a Conkling and that multiplied enemies.
On the thirty-sixth ballot, Garfield was nominated. Following custom, he immediately made a bid for unity by seeking for the vice presidency a member of the "defeated" Stalwarts. The choice of Chester A. Arthur was somewhat breathtaking, for he was no ordinary Stalwart but Roscoe Conkling's widely known lieutenant—or as many of Conkling's opponents more unkindly put it, his creature. In fact, he had been head of the New York Customhouse, the great fount of Stalwart patronage, and had been fired (to Conkling's undying rage) by President Hayes in a cleanup move. (Interestingly enough, Garfield himself did not make the offer; it came through a lieutenant. Conkling ungraciously and unsuccessfully advised Arthur to "drop it as you would a red hot shoe from the forge," since Garfield was bound to lose.) The reformers in the party had to swallow hard, but as one of their chief journals, the Nation , consolingly put it, there was no place in which Arthur's "powers of mischief will be so small as in the Vice-Presidency."
The Democrats nominated a candidate with no previous political experience—General Winfield Scott Hancock, sardonically described by the New York Sun as "a good man, weighing two hundred and eighty pounds." Both of the major-party platforms waffled on the issues of the tariff and civil service, and both repeated standard party pieties. A third force was in the field, the Greenback party, demanding not only inflation but such far-reaching measures as the eight-hour day, a graduated income tax, and federal railroad regulation, but its appeal was negligible.
If there was any incident of significance during the election summer, it was a meeting (5 August) of Garfield and Blaine with Stalwart leaders in New York City, at which, apparently, all the Republican factions agreed to cooperate in return for an appropriate sharing of offices. Conkling did not attend but did give his sanction and later visited (and campaigned for) Garfield in Ohio. The terms of the "Treaty of Fifth Avenue" were unrecorded and later disputed, with fateful results for Garfield's short administration. Garfield was also helped by a war chest that came from businessmen and Republican officeholders, who were "assessed" a percentage of their salaries, a practice shared in by the Democrats.
The campaign and election were scarcely noteworthy, except possibly for the closeness of the popular vote. Out of 9.2 million ballots cast, Garfield's final lead was a mere 7,368—not exactly a mandate. When the results were counted, he had won comfortably by 214 to 155 in the Electoral College, without carrying a single southern state, evidence of the final burial of Reconstruction. (The key electoral votes were the 35 of New York; had they gone to Hancock, the decision would have been reversed—a fact that Conkling did not forget.) Moreover, although the Republicans regained control of the House, the Senate was split exactly evenly between the two parties. Garfield therefore began more or less shackled. Even before his inauguration, the problems posed by his initial appointments fully justified one of his diary entries for November: "There is a tone of sadness running through this triumph."