Rutherford B. Hayes had little political power during his four years in office, having barely squeaked into the White House by one vote after the Compromise of 1877 , in which the Democrats ceded the White House to the Republicans in exchange for an end to Reconstruction in the South. The real winners in the election were Republican spoils seekers who flooded Washington, D.C., in search of civil service jobs.
Disputes over these spoils split the Republican Party into two factions: the Stalwarts, led by Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, and the Half-Breeds, led by Congressman James G. Blaine of Maine. Neither group trusted the other, and the split left the Republican Party unable to pass any significant legislation during this time.
The only major upheaval during Hayes’s presidency was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, when railroad workers throughout the United States went on strike to protest the lowering of their salaries. More than a hundred people died during violence related to the strike, forcing Hayes to use federal troops to suppress the uprisings.
By the election of 1880, the Republicans, no longer supporting Rutherford B. Hayes, nominated the relatively unknown Ohioan James A. Garfield for president, along with the Stalwart running mate Chester A. Arthur. Democrats nominated Civil War veteran Winfield Scott Hancock, and the pro-labor Greenback Party nominated James B. Weaver. In the election, Garfield received a sizable majority of electoral votes but won the popular vote by only a slim margin over Hancock.
Like Hayes’s, Garfield’s presidency was overshadowed by Stalwart and Half-Breed infighting. In the summer of 1881, Garfield’s term was cut short when a delusional Stalwart supporter named Charles Guiteau assassinated Garfield in Washington, D.C. Guiteau hoped that Vice President Arthur would become president and give more federal jobs to Stalwarts.
Although Arthur did replace Garfield, the assassination convinced policymakers that the U.S. government was in dire need of civil service reform to combat the spoils system. Congress therefore passed the Pendleton Act in 1883, which created the Civil Service Commission to ensure that hiring of federal employees was based on examinations and merit rather than political patronage.
The election of 1884 was one of the most contentious in U.S. history. The spoils system remained the central issue of the political contest, and candidates debated about what it would take to reform civil service. Republicans nominated Half-Breed James Blaine of Maine, while Democrats nominated Governor Grover Cleveland of New York. The Democratic Party accused Blaine of conspiring with wealthy plutocrats to win the White House, while Republicans attacked Cleveland for having an illegitimate son. In the end, Cleveland barely defeated Blaine, by a margin of only forty electoral votes and a paltry 30,000 popular votes.
Cleveland’s first four years were fairly uneventful; his only major action was his proposal of a lower tariff to reduce the Treasury surplus near the end of his term. When the election of 1888 rolled around, Republicans rallied big business in the North and nominated Benjamin Harrison, a grandson of ninth U.S. president William Henry Harrison. Republicans were afraid that Democrats would succeed in lowering the protective tariff, so Harrison campaigned for an even higher tariff. Democrats countered by renominating Grover Cleveland. The results of the election were just as close as the other presidential elections of the Gilded Age, and Harrison ended up victorious.
During Harrison’s term, the Republican-majority Congress passed several notable bills, including the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which allowed the government to buy more silver to produce currency; the Pension Act, which distributed more money to Civil War veterans; and the controversial McKinley Tariff, which increased duties on foreign goods to about 50 percent.