Sherman for President: When Mansfield Was at the Top of National Politics

When you live around here for a while you can’t help but hear the name John Sherman cropping up around town in various contexts.  It is easy enough to dismiss the awe with which is name has always been invoked locally because he lived in an age so long ago and so very different from our own—so different it seems like another world.

But in many ways his time wasn’t all that different from ours, and comparisons that make his legacy seem more approachable are particularly easy to draw during a Presidential election year.  Especially as the Republican Convention draws near, because that’s when he always made his biggest headlines.

If things had worked out slightly differently in national politics in the 1880s, Mansfield could well carry the distinction of having been home to the 20th President of the United States.  Or the 22nd, 23rd, or the 24th.

The Mansfielder

John Sherman didn’t grow up around here but he came here as a young man, married a local woman from an old Mansfield family, went into law practice here, and launched his political life from here.

Throughout his entire career in Washington DC he was always referred to in the Congressional records as Senator John Sherman of Mansfield, Ohio.

In his lifetime he was forever associated with our town and, even though he maintained a residence in DC, his home was always on Park Avenue West.

He was initially our Congressman at the onset of his political career, elected in 1855, and then at the start of the Civil War he was appointed Senator to fill the term of Ohio’s senator who moved into Lincoln’s cabinet.

A portrait of John Sherman at the beginning of his long political career in Washington D.C.Library of Congress

Sherman was quick to own the Ohio seat in the US Senate, and became so indispensible and influential that he was appointed to the Cabinet of the Hayes administration as Secretary of the Treasury.

With his finger on the pulse of the American economy, and directing the course of US finances, he became very widely recognized and respected.  When Hayes pledged to be a one-term President, the White House became available right when Sherman hit his peak of popularity.

The first time John Sherman ran for President was in 1880.

Republican Convention 1880

The whole cycle and drama we experience today—of Primary Elections to select Presidential candidates—didn’t exist when John Sherman was running in the 1800s.  Back then the party candidates were selected solely by party conventions.

In the 1800s there wasn’t exactly mass media either.  There were newspapers, of course, but they were primarily very partisan and regional.  The only sort of informative media that stretched from coast to coast was in the form of books.

With the approach of any Presidential election year every major candidate who wanted to be taken seriously by the voters of America had to have a book written about him.  And if he was a candidate who actually stood a decent chance of getting elected then the book was a guaranteed best seller.

In 1880 one of the best selling books in the US was a biography and political resume about John Sherman of Mansfield, Ohio.

Going into the Republican Convention there were three major candidates, and one of them was Sherman.  The other two were big dogs with fierce supporters, and most analysts assumed these two would take each other out of the fight and Sherman would be the one left standing.

The way the race played out however, the dark horse who emerged at the end was a surprise of a different kind.

It was James Garfield who stood up at the convention to nominate John Sherman.  His speech was so compelling that in the end, when delegates were looking for the compromise candidate, they chose Garfield.

1880 Republican Convention in Chicago.

The voting took two days and 36 ballots, and Sherman was prominently considered until the very last vote.

Afterward in the autumn election Garfield won the Presidency, and it is not unlikely that if Sherman had been the Republican candidate that he could have been similarly elected.

Republican Convention 1884

Four years after his stinging loss Sherman was cautious and demurring about the Presidency.  He denied often and emphatically to the press any desire to be a contender.

He still had his devotees though, and his name was nominated and received polite votes throughout the balloting.

The Republican candidate selected at the 1884 convention was defeated in the general election that fall, so it was just as well for his reputation that Sherman kept at arm’s length from electoral proceedings that year.

Republican Convention 1888

Another four years added considerably to the serious attention with which the nation regarded John Sherman as a major national character and force to be reckoned with.

This can easily be attested to simply by the great number of times his caricatured face appeared in the political cartoons and magazine covers of the day.

His had become an iconic and nationally recognizable face.

A detail from cover of Punch magazine in 1886 depicting John Sherman.

When the 1888 election approached, it was assumed by newspaper writers and political experts, that Sherman easily had the most momentum, and was most likely to emerge from the convention as Republican candidate.  He was the ‘presumptive candidate’ before the balloting began.

Sherman himself was much less enthusiastically optimistic.  His wife begged him not to run.  “The office of President,” she said “had killed Lincoln and Garfield” within their lifetimes.

Ultimately whether or not he had to wage a national campaign was not up to John or his wife, but was left to the devices of politicians in Chicago at the Republican Convention of 1888.

Think of the “Gilded Age” when all this took place and it is not hard to picture the scenes in Chicago: cigars and booze and smoky back room negotiations.  Sherman didn’t really fit into that crowd—he didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, barely joked at all.

Campaign ribbon from 1888 Republican Convention.

What he did really well though was crunch numbers, and in an era mad for making money he was very highly admired in that regard.

His personal estate when he died was worth over 2 million dollars in 1900, which in today’s numbers would be about 57 million.

But all that cash didn’t necessarily translate into negotiable cachet when it came to convention time.  Sherman was rather too scrupulously honest for most of the wheeler-dealers.  When he lost the convention in 1888 it was generally rumored that a large chunk of his delegate bloc was simply bought off by New York schemers with good old-fashioned folding money.

There were only 8 ballots that year, and Sherman was way, way ahead of everybody else until the end when suddenly it all swung to Benjamin Harrison in a quick and stunning reversal.

Harrison won the election in November and became the 23rd President.  It could just as easily have been Sherman.

Republican Convention 1892

In the 1892 election cycle, as President Harrison’s first term of office was concluding, it was pretty much assumed that the Republicans would nominate the President for reelection.

Sherman “declined to contest,” though there were those still so devotedly determined to get him elected that they had ‘Sherman cigars’ made up for the Republican convention.

Emblem from a cigar box distributed at the 1892 Republican Convention.

Republican Convention 1896

Even in 1896, when he was 73 years old and had spent more than 40 years of his life on Capitol Hill, the American press was assuming he would be running for President again.  By then it was just one of those quadrennial rites in Washington. 

The cover of Punch magazine in 1896.

John Sherman never did get to be the President.  Maybe you already knew that…otherwise there would be a much bigger sign in the Square with his name on it.


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