The most decisive triumph of the young liberals was yet to be won, and won against heavy odds. The wing of the Republican party which had lost its control during Mr. Hayes’s administration made a most determined and well-planned campaign to recover power in the now famous contest in the presidential convention at Chicago in 1880. No stone had been left unturned to send delegates pledged to nominate General Grant; and perhaps no political organization ever showed better discipline than was apparent in the steady and well-drilled evolutions of the “306” who never deserted their candidate. In the teeth of such a movement, managed by the most experienced politicians of the country, in an attempt to secure a return to the control of the executive, the balance of power was so wielded by the independents as to give them the nomination of Garfield, and his overwhelming election to the presidency. This result was gained simply because no candidate who could not command the votes of the independents could be elected.
Better results came, however, with organization and by a piece of good fortune. The office-broking wing of the Republican party, as already said, had lost the control of affairs during the administration of President Hayes. This loss was signalized in a dramatic way by the contest between President Garfield and Senator Conkling. Stung to the quick at realizing he could no longer command offices for his followers, and so perpetuate his position, the New York Senator broke out in open revolt against the elected head of the party, resigned, and went to his constituents asking for approval of his attitude by a reëlection (May, 1881). His attempt was a failure, and he was not reëlected. The discomfiture of the strongest “boss” and manipulator of offices in the country was a marked event. It at once broke the strength of the spoilsmen, and encouraged the new party.
President Garfield, it will be remembered, recognized the influence of the new party in his appointment of cabinet officers even more than did President Hayes. It will also be remembered that a name for the Bangor collectorship in Maine was sent to the Senate in direct violation of all the wishes of the reformers, and was awaiting a tardy confirmation. On Friday, the day before the shooting of the President, the Bangor affair was made a matter of cabinet discussion, and precipitated an open struggle between the friends and opponents of civil service reform in the administration. The friends of purer politics were, happily, vigorous, effective, and successful, and a resolution was agreed to establishing a civil service commission to govern admissions to the government service. This victory was gained on Friday, and on Saturday Garfield was shot.
The assassination of the President advertised the evil of patronage as nothing else could have done. Whether rightly or not, the vast number of voters believed that the spoils system had been the cause of the President’s murder. A nearly universal demand spread for legislation reforming the evils of our civil service, and a healthy agitation began all over the land. The story of this success is yet fresh in all minds. Politicians of the old school sat contentedly by, waiting for-the commotion to subside, and thinking it was only a visionary Utopian scheme; but again, in 1882, as in 1874, they suddenly found that their constituents were in deadly earnest, and had taken their seats in Congress from them and given them to the opposition. The politicians immediately granted a civil service bill. By this time the party leaders began to learn that an uncomfortably large number of voters cared more for principles and good men than for an old party with no issues.