James Abram Garfield was a successful general in the Civil War who was elected to Congress in 1863. Before the war, he had served as a teacher, a minister and a college president (the last at the age of only 26). He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from March 4, 1863 until his resignation on November 8, 1880. He resigned because he had just been elected President. While in the House, he served as the Republican Party floor leader, and was an able leader who maintained a good working relationship with both of the angry factions of the Republican Party. Mainly due to that fact, Garfield was the compromise candidate at the Republican convention in 1880, when the two factions, the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds, could not agree on a candidate from either faction.
Also while in the House, Garfield served on the Electoral Commission of 1877, which decided the disputed presidential election between Hayes and Tilden. (Read my earlier article “The Stolen Election of 1876” published on November 8, 1999.) McKinley served as the chairman of the Committee on Revision of the Laws and chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. In 1880, Garfield was elected to the U.S. Senate for the term to commence March 4, 1881. He was also elected, by an extremely narrow majority, to be President of the United States. So, as 1880 drew to a close, James Garfield was a U.S. Representative, a U.S. Senator-elect, and President-elect. He chose the White House, and was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. On July 2, 1881, he was shot in the Washington railroad station. He died on September 19, 1881.
Chester Alan Arthur was Garfield’s Vice President, and succeeded to the Presidency when Garfield died from his wounds. Arthur never held an elective office before becoming Vice President. Yet he turned out to be a good President, signing the Pendleton Civil Service Act, which both Hayes and Garfield had unsuccessfully tried to get Congress to pass.
In 1884, the United States elected the first Democratic President since the Civil War. Grover Cleveland had served as mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, but had never served in Congress. He was an able President, but still lost his re-election effort at the end of his first term. He was re-elected the next time, however, making him the only President to serve non-consecutive terms.
In between the two terms of Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison served as President. He defeated Cleveland in the Electoral College, even though more people voted for Cleveland than for Harrison. Harrison was also a successful general in the Civil War. Before the war, he had served as the reporter of the Indiana state supreme court. After the war, he was re-elected to the same job. He was defeated for governor of the state in 1876, but was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1880. He served in the Senate from March 4, 1881 to March 4, 1887. Towards the end of his term, the Democrats took control of the Indiana state legislature. Prior to the 17th Amendment in 1913, U.S. Senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than by the people. The Democratic legislature defeated Harrison for a second term in the U.S. Senate by just one vote.
While in the Senate, Harrison had supported civil service reform, a protective tariff and a strong navy. He had led the opposition to Cleveland’s veto of the Dependent Pension Bill, favoring much higher payments to veterans and their dependents. This made him a hero to the Grand Army of the Republic, a powerful veterans organization. With their support, he was nominated to oppose Cleveland in the election of 1884.
As President, Harrison continued to support the same things he had as a Senator. He supported passage of, and signed into law, the Dependent Pension Bill, which doubled the amount of money the federal government paid out to veterans and their dependents. He also signed the McKinley Tariff, which raised tariff rates to all-time high levels. He also approved the building of a new two-ocean navy, which would make us a world naval power. Harrison’s program was very inflationary, and the economy suffered. As a result, he was defeated (by Cleveland) in 1892. His wife died two weeks before he was defeated for re-election. It was a rough month for Benjamin Harrison.
After Cleveland’s second term, William McKinley was elected President. McKinley enlisted in the Union army in the Civil War at the age of 18. He rose from private to brevet major by the end of the war. His original regimental commander had been Rutherford B. Hayes, who was elected President in 1876.
After the war, McKinley studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1867. In 1876, the same year his former commander was elected President, McKinley was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He served from March 4, 1877 until March 3, 1891, except for a brief period (May 27, 1884 to March 4, 1885). He was declared re-elected in 1884 and began his term, but his opponent challenged the election and the House declared the other man the winner on May 27, 1884. McKinley won the re-match that November and resumed his seat in the House.
McKinley was most famous in the House for his support of high protective tariffs. In 1890, Congress passed, and President Harrison signed, the McKinley tariff, which raised tariff rates to new high levels. This tariff proved unpopular, and McKinley was defeated for re-election in 1890. Contributing to his defeat was the gerrymandering (the drawing of election district lines in unusual shapes to benefit one party at the expense of the other) of his district by the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Not one to be down for long, McKinley was elected governor of Ohio the next year. He was re-elected two years later. In 1892, his supporters started a McKinley-for-President drive at the Republican convention. They had no intention of defeating President Harrison for re-nomination, but they wanted to give McKinley a boost for the 1896 nomination. McKinley won the nomination, and the election, in 1896. He was re-elected in 1900, but was assassinated in 1901.
Although the corruption in government continued, many reforms were made during this period. The Presidents in this period were experienced and capable politicians, and accomplished many of their goals. Certainly, these Presidents relied heavily on the experience they gained in Congress, and worked well with the Congress unlike some of their immediate predecessors.