The Last Lincoln Republican

The Presidential Election of 1880

Benjamin T. Arrington

Of all the great “what if” scenarios in American history, the aftermath of the presidential election of 1880 stands out as one of the most tantalizing. The end of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln had thrown the future of Lincoln’s vision for the country into considerable doubt; the years that followed—marked by impeachment, constitutional change, presidential scandals, and the contested election of 1876—saw Republicans fighting to retain power as they transitioned into the party of “big business.” Enter James A. Garfield, a seasoned politician known for his advocacy of civil rights, who represented the last potential Reconstruction presidency: truly, Benjamin T. Arrington suggests in this book, the last “Lincoln Republican.”

The story of the presidential election of 1880, fully explored for the first time in The Last Lincoln Republican, is a political drama of lasting consequence and dashed possibilities. A fierce opponent of slavery before the war, Garfield had fought for civil rights for African Americans for years in Congress. Holding true to the original values of the Republican Party, Garfield wanted to promote equal opportunity for all; meanwhile, Democrats, led by Winfield Scott Hancock, sought to return the South to white supremacy and an inferior status for African Americans. With its in-depth account of the personalities and issues at play in 1880, Arrington’s book provides a unique perspective on how this critical election continues to resonate through our national politics and culture to this day.

“At last a stylish, succinct, and up-to-date biography of James Garfield and a coherent argument about what Garfield’s election might have meant for the Republican Party and the United States had he lived. As Arrington argues, Garfield was a bold and strategic defender of the principles that the Republican Party had been founded upon, particularly its vision of equality. Garfield’s death shortly after his inauguration was a lost opportunity and a turning point in the history of Reconstruction. With a careful eye to detail and a deep knowledge of the political system, Arrington tells this tragic story clearly and well.”

—Gregory P. Downs, author of The Second American Revolution: The Civil War–Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic

“Making masterful use not only of a vast array of primary sources but also of his own voluminous knowledge, Benjamin Arrington has written a clear-eyed, fast-paced, important new book about one of the most fraught and fascinating presidential elections in our nation’s history.”

—Candice Millard, author of Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

A close look at the contest of 1880 reveals that Garfield’s victory could have been the start of a period of greater civil rights legislation, a continuation of Lincoln’s vision. This was the choice made by the American people—and, as The Last Lincoln Republican makes poignantly clear, the great opportunity forever lost when Garfield was assassinated just a few months into his term.

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington is site manager, James A. Garfield National Historic Site, Mentor, Ohio. He is the author of The Medal of Honor at Gettysburg as well as essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Additional Titles in the American Presidential Elections Series