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.