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Stalwarts: Definition & History

Instructor: Jason McCollom
Stalwarts, Half-Breeds, and Mugwumps, oh my! Learn about the Stalwarts and other Republican factions of the 1870s and 1880s, and discover how a presidential assassination affected them all.

Who were the Stalwarts?

'To the victor goes the spoils.' This well-known phrase was often used in reference to war. But politics is a type of war, too. In the 1870s and 1880s, the spoils system saturated all levels of American politics. In this system, when political control changed hands from the Democrats to the Republicans, or the Republicans to the Democrats, the winner had the honor of filling government positions with their supporters. This was serious business, because in the 1880s, over half of all federal jobs were these types of patronage positions - almost 56,000 jobs in 1881 alone.

If the spoils system was the driving force behind politics in the late 19th century, it also spawned political corruption and party factionalism. Both the Republicans and Democrats relied on patronage and the spoils system to create and maintain party loyalty. On the Republican side (also called the GOP, or Grand Old Party), the Stalwart faction was the most adept at exploiting the spoils system.

New York Senator Roscoe Conkling led the Stalwarts, who fiercely supported the patronage system and mastered the political trickery of the spoils system. Conkling held power because he handed out political jobs to Stalwart supporters. The Stalwarts got their name for two reasons. One, they were 'stalwart' (loyal and reliable) in support of President Ulysses S. Grant when he was under fire for the political corruption of his cabinet. Two, and more obviously, the Stalwarts were stalwart in their reliance on the spoils system.

A cartoon caricaturing political corruption. Roscoe Conkling is slumped against a row of buildings and a railroad.
conkling cartoon

Opposing Factions and the Election of 1880

Not all Republicans agreed with the beliefs and methods of Conkling's Stalwarts. There were the Half-Breeds of the GOP, supposedly half-loyal to Grant and half-supportive of the patronage and spoils systems. Maine Senator James G. Blaine headed the Half-Breeds, and he labeled the Stalwarts as 'desperate bad men of the party, bent on loot and booty.' The Stalwarts and Half-Breeds butted heads so much in the 1870s primarily because Blaine and Conkling couldn't stand each other.

There was also the Mugwump group of Republicans, derided by the Stalwarts as 'goo-goos' (good-government types). Mostly politicians from Massachusetts and New York, the Mugwumps wanted nothing to do with the spoils system, and they sought drastic reforms to make politics more honest and transparent.

GOP President Rutherford B. Hayes was caught in the middle of his party's factionalism during his tenure. He tried unsuccessfully to stay neutral and announced he wouldn't run for reelection in 1880. This led to fighting among the Stalwarts, Half-Breeds, and Mugwumps regarding whom to nominate for president.

They eventually choose a little-known candidate unaffiliated with any faction, James A. Garfield of Ohio. To avoid angering the Conkling group, party leaders chose Stalwart Chester A. Arthur as Garfield's running mate. President Hayes had fired Arthur as head of the United States Customs House because Arthur ruled over it with 'ignorance, inefficiency, and corruption,' according to Hayes.

Stalwart vice presidential candidate Chester A. Arthur
arthur

The Stalwarts, Mugwumps, and Half-Breeds papered over their differences long enough to eke out a win in 1880. The violent death of President Garfield, however, would prove the undoing of the Stalwarts.

Garfield's Assassination and the Fall of the Stalwarts

After only a few months in office, President Garfield was assassinated by a gunshot at close range. The killer, Charles Guiteau, was a Republican who was fired from his federal job because he didn't support Garfield during the 1880 election. Guiteau was on the wrong end of the spoils system.

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