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The Road to Obscurity

May 21, 2020

Senator Roscoe Conkling was the Republican boss in the state of New York and the leader of the Stalwart faction in the national party.  The Stalwarts were those who supported former President Grant’s candidacy for a nonconsecutive third term in 1880.

In 1876 the Republican candidate lost in New York but was able to win the Presidency due to the Electoral votes of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina.  Now that Reconstruction had ended, it would be nearly impossible for a Republican to win all three Southern states.  In fact, it would be another 96 years before this would happen again.  This made the Electoral votes of New York all the more important in 1880.

If the Republican nominee did not have a New Yorker as a running mate, he should at least have a Stalwart.  Congressman Levi Morton of New York satisfied both requirements.  He was one of the few Stalwarts on good terms with the man at the top of the ticket.

Although James Garfield had been stunned by his sudden nomination for President, he had the presence of mind to realize that Morton could help unite the Grand Old Party.  Of course, Morton would need the blessing of Senator Conkling, which he sought before giving Garfield an answer.

Conkling replied, “If you think the ticket will be elected, if you think you will be happy in the association, accept.”

But Morton was not satisfied with that answer.  He then said to Conkling, “I have more confidence in your judgment than in my own.”

Conkling then suggested, “Governor Boutwell of Massachusetts is a great friend of yours.  Why don’t you talk with him?”

Just as Conkling had expected, Boutwell advised Morton to decline.

Morton did eventually become Vice President in another administration, but if he had accepted Garfield’s offer, he might have become the 21st President.  That honor would go to the most unlikely of candidates.



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