Hancock’s Response To The 1880 Election Results

1880 Democratic Campaign post with Hancock and English

As I’m writing this on the evening to November 4 to be published in the morning of the 5th, the modern presidential election remains undecided. I’ve spent the day keeping an eye on projections and results until my head was ready to burst. Fortunately, work required me to take a drive, a little hike, and get some sunset photos.

While flying along the curves (safely and at the speed limit) along Brock Road, I drove through part of Wilderness battlefield and started thinking about the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Then stream of consciousness took over and my mind started wandering, eventually landing on the II Corps commander in the Wilderness—Winfield S. Hancock—and his life story.

Hancock ran for president in the 1880 election on the Democrat ticket. Spoiler: Hancock lost to Republican candidate James A. Garfield. Then, I remembered the account that his wife recorded about Hancock’s response to the election results. Can we draw some lessons for this year?

Hancock, election era photograph

All was turmoil, excitement and discomfort of every known kind. The conclusion was earnestly wished for, by none more eagerly than by General Hancock himself. The ordeal to him was severe, requiring herculean strength the entire campaign. Indeed, he was never afterwards so robust in health.

At 7 o’clock, P.M., on the day of the election, he yielded to the extreme weariness and prostration that ensued from his five months’ labor and went to bed, begging me under no circumstances to disturb him, as the result would be known sooner or later, and tomorrow would be time enough. 

At 5 o’clock on the following morning he inquired of me the news. I replied, “It has been a complete Waterloo for you.”

“That is all right,” said he, “I can stand it,” and in another moment he was again asleep.

An extraordinarily balanced temperament, it then occurred to me, as often before; one that was never quite comprehended by his superiors, or, indeed, by those who were the nearest to him. The only disappointment that he gave expression to, was the difference that his defeat would make in the future of many of his friends, who had suffered long and in various ways in consequence of their adherence to his cause. He accepted, however, the situation as a soldier, not as a politician….

James A. Garfield

A few days after, while the events of the election were under discussion, General Hancock remarked that he was entirely satisfied with the result; that while it was his firm conviction that he had been really elected, and then defrauded, he would not exchange positions with Garfield for any earthly inducement.

Like other candidates before and after him, Hancock’s acceptance extended into graciousness and a desire to do what was best for the good of the nation. He had received 4,414,082 of the popular vote while Garfield led with 4,453,295. In the electoral college, though, Hancock had just 155 votes while Garfield swept with 214.

Hancock would simply remain in command of the Division of the Atlantic and continue with his military duties. However, after a request from his commanding officer, he decided to attend Garfield’s inauguration. This prompted some reflections on elections, results, and the importance of peaceful transition for the republic form of government.

Yes, I am going to Washington on the 3d of March for a few days. General Sherman, my commanding officer, has asked me to be present. I have no right to any personal feeling in the matter. It is clearly my duty as a soldier to obey. A Democratic Congress has formally announced that the people have duly elected a President, and this James A. Garfield. It certainly seems that a Democratic candidate should be there support the assertion, otherwise he would not be a good Democrat… The will of the majority rules, you know. What I can do in Washington, with dignity, I shall do. I do not expect to be in advance of, or follow, the triumphal car, either on foot or on horseback. I only expect to do my level best. The situation does not, from this standpoint, look very well. I hope it may look better as I look back. I wonder how they did these things in Rome. I have read of the Roman ways, to be sure, but it was a long time ago. When I return from Washington I can tell you how the Americans do it under the new census….

Winfield Scott Hancock, post Civil War

Perhaps in this turbulent week of modern history-making moments, we can all take a lesson or two from Winfield S. Hancock and his belief in following a course for the best of the nation and the process of democracy.

7 Responses to Hancock’s Response To The 1880 Election Results

  1. Thanks Sarah for this great post! Interesting that we are living through parallel events. These are truly historical times, one in which we must all maintain a sane perspective on.

  2. I tend to think that Hancock’s attitude was also affected by his ongoing health issues. He was dead within 6 years, and his weight had ballooned with his diabetes.

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