Half-Breeds, Stalwarts, and Contingency

Heather Cox Richardson

A year or so ago, a graduate student studying for her comprehensive exams asked me if I could explain the difference between Stalwart and Half-Breed Republicans in the nineteenth century. I could, I said, so long as she understood that no one cared.

I went on to explain that the difference between Stalwarts and Half-Breeds crystallized in the Republican national convention in 1880. In that contest, Stalwarts, led by Roscoe Conkling and Don Cameron, wanted to secure the nomination for former president U. S. Grant. Half-Breeds backed James G. Blaine.

What was at stake in the nomination was really nothing other than a personal feud. Conkling and Blaine had hated each other since the war years. Conkling had become Grant’s right-hand man during his presidency, and he hoped to become the crucial figure in a renewed Grant government, handing out patronage to his supporters in New York. Blaine had a different set of friends, and they pushed his nomination in the hope that he would cut out the Conkling men.

The nomination process did not proceed as either camp hoped. A significant body of delegates refused to support either Grant or Blaine. They threw their votes to a dark horse, James Garfield of Ohio. The Blaine delegates, willing to vote for anyone but Grant, followed. Garfield won the 1880 nomination, and the 1880 election.

I told my friend that the distinction between Stalwarts and Half-Breeds didn’t matter because there was little daylight between the actual policy positions of Conkling and Blaine. The ascendancy of either would not have changed the course of the Republican Party, or the legislation it supported. For the purposes of the country they were interchangeable, and so, for that matter, was Garfield. The difference between Stalwarts and Half-Breeds was rather like the difference today between John Boehner and Eric Cantor: a difference in style, to be sure, but not such a great difference that one can imagine history graduate students in 2130 being asked to explain its significance.

Today, as I wrote about this fight, I rethought that flippant dismissal.

In order to quiet the angry Stalwarts, the Republican convention put Stalwart Chester Arthur into the vice presidency. But then, to calm the Half-Breeds, President Garfield named James G. Blaine himself to the position of Secretary of State in the new administration. This was the most powerful position in the Cabinet, and Stalwarts—led, as ever, by the insatiable Roscoe Conkling—cried foul.

When Garfield offered the fabulously lucrative position of collector of the port of New York to an appointee without consulting Conkling, the fat was in the fire. Conkling, a famously touchy character, was undoubtedly personally affronted. But he claimed to oppose the appointment on the grounds that the Senate’s power to advise and consent gave Senators the power of appointment. Garfield was usurping power, he insisted; senators had ultimate say over who received government appointments in their home states. What was really at stake, though, was whether or not Conkling would control New York.

To force the issue into the open, Conkling resigned his position in the Senate. New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, joined him (thereby earning the memorable nickname “Me Too” Platt). They were confident the New York legislature would reelect them, thus slamming Garfield and returning the Stalwarts to the top position in the government. They were wrong. New Yorkers had had enough of Conkling’s dictates and were not willing to endorse the idea that senators should hold sway over the president’s appointments. The legislature turned to entirely new senators.

Traditional historians who even tried to find any significance in this teapot tempest blamed the fight between Conkling and Blaine for the assassination of President Garfield two months later. In July, Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield in an apparent attempt to put Stalwarts in power after all. From this the nation got civil service reform, but, as I told my scholarly friend, no real change in governmental policies.

Here is where histories generally drop the Stalwarts and Half-Breeds.

But I came to realize today that there was, in fact, a terrifically significant event to come out of this clash: Roscoe Conkling was out of a job.

With his political career suddenly gone, Conkling had to find a way to rebuild his fortunes. He had always been a brilliant orator, and he turned naturally to the law. The first client through his door was Jay Gould, the railroad magnate. Conkling used his great popularity and fame as a legislator to become one of the nation’s premier litigators for big business. It was in that capacity that he argued the case of San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad in December 1882. In this case, Conkling argued that a county tax on the railroad violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He insisted, based on his position as a congressman who had participated in the framing of that amendment, that when it adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress had intended for it to protect corporations as well as individual persons. The court did not explicitly comment on Conkling’s really quite outrageous claim in 1882, but in 1886, it announced that Conkling’s doctrine was so definitive that it would not hear arguments to the contrary. The principle that corporations were protected by the Fourteenth Amendment limited government regulation of business well into the twentieth century.

And therein lies the great historiographical revelation of my current project. I have always seen political history as the story of competing ideas, but again and again I find small personal quirks changing the course of history. If only Thurlow Weed had not wanted to protect William Henry Seward we would not have gotten President Andrew Johnson; if only Charles Sumner hadn’t been so snobbish the Grant presidency would have succeeded.

And if only Stalwarts and Half-Breeds had been on speaking terms, corporations might never have been protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.