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Michele Bachmann, a Republican Representative of Minnesota and a presidential candidate, has done well in early polling in Iowa, which happens to be her home state. But one of the biggest obstacles in her path to the White House is the House she is coming from.

The founders did not expect the presidency to be filled by people as low as those elected to the House of Representatives. Most presidential candidates have served in high federal office: vice president, senator or Cabinet secretary. A state governor, or even a war hero, has been acceptable in a pinch. Although many presidents, from James Madison to George H.W. Bush, did serve in the House, nearly all of them stepped up to some higher job before winning the big one.

The House makes an unsuitable launching pad because congressional districts limit the exposure to people and media their representative is likely to have. Even when a representative makes a mark beyond his or her district, the belittled character of the House clings. One British diplomat marveled that the House included a tailor, a weaver, a butcher, a grazier, a curer of hams, four swindlers, half a dozen tavern keepers and several schoolmasters and Baptist preachers.

James A. Garfield in 1880 was the only man to make the leap that Bachmann is now attempting, but his story underlines the difficulty. Garfield was born on a subsistence farm outside Cleveland. He put himself through college, joined the brand-new Republican Party and fought in the Civil War. He won his first election to the House in 1862.

Garfield valued learning as only the self-made do. Author and editor William Dean Howells, a longtime friend, remembered an evening on Garfield’s porch, discussing the literary men he knew in Boston. Garfield stopped him, went out on the lawn and called the neighbors. “Come over here! He’s telling about Holmes, and Longfellow, and Lowell, and Whittier!”

As a congressman, Garfield was a typical Republican hardliner: suspicious of Lincoln’s moderation, happy to impeach Andrew Johnson and eager to award the contested election of 1876 to Rutherford B. Hayes. The Ohio legislature voted to promote him to the U.S. Senate, but in 1880 he was still serving out his ninth House term.

The race for the Republican nomination in 1880 had two-and-a-half front-runners. Former President Ulysses Grant, four years out of office, wanted a third term. James G. Blaine, the senator from Maine and a former speaker of the House, believed 1880 was his time. He detested and was detested by Grant’s main backer, New York Sen. Roscoe Conkling. (Blaine once referred to Conkling’s “turkeygobbler strut.”) The alternative to both was Treasury Secretary John Sherman.

The biggest difference between Garfield’s road to the White House and Bachmann’s is that in 1880 there were no primaries to sort out contenders. The Republican nomination was made at the party’s convention in Chicago. One pre-convention count showed each candidate short of the 379 votes needed to wrap it up: Grant with 314, Blaine with 277 and Sherman with 106. “Everything is in the vague of vastness and uncertainty,” Garfield, a delegate from Ohio, wrote his wife.

One aspect of that situation anticipated Bachmann’s. Among her rivals was Tim Pawlenty, former two-term governor of Minnesota. Although Pawlenty is younger than Bachmann, his eight years in the statehouse trumped her five in the House of Representatives as a résumé credit. Garfield’s in-state rival was Sherman, who had been a senator from Ohio before becoming treasury secretary. The Ohio delegation was pledged to him; Garfield had to tread carefully.

His first step was to take a moral stand on an inflamed side issue. The 1880 convention was obsessed with procedure: Unit rules and loyalty pledges exemplified the heavy hand of party bosses. When Conkling tried to expel three delegates who would not promise to support the eventual nominee, Garfield spoke up for them. “There can never be a convention…that shall bind my vote against my will on any question whatever.” The three delegates stayed.

His next opportunity came during the nominating speeches. Blaine was nominated by a 70-year-old railroad executive who mangled his name, calling him “James S. Blaine.” Conkling nominated former President Grant, in the greatest speech of his life. The senator left the podium and stood on a table used by journalists at the front of the hall. There he uncorked a stemwinder: “If asked what state he hails from / Our sole reply shall be / He hails from Appomattox / And its famous apple tree” (famous because Robert E. Lee was under it when he got Grant’s offer to meet). The delegates went nuts.

Sherman was nominated next—by Garfield. He stepped onto the same table Conkling had used, but painted a sober picture of the campaign ahead, reminding delegates that it would not be decided by them in Chicago, but at “the ballot boxes of the Republic, in the quiet of November.” Don’t be swept away by Conkling and your admiration for Grant, he said. Think of who would be best for the party. That, of course, could be James Garfield as well as John Sherman.

The first 28 ballots reflected the pre-convention counts. At the end of the day, Grant had 307 votes, Blaine 279, Sherman 91, and 78 were cast for others, including two for Garfield. There were some switches to Sherman on the 29th ballot, but not enough to break the logjam. Sherman was handicapped by his personality—he was known as the Ohio Icicle—and by contemporary protocol, which required declared candidates to stay away from the convention. The man who had nominated Sherman was on the spot.

On the 34th ballot, 16 votes in Wisconsin switched to Garfield, who rose to a point of order. “No man has the right without the consent of the person voted for…to vote for him in this convention.” But he was gaveled down. The front-runners were stalemated, the delegates were tired and Garfield suddenly seemed like a plausible compromise. On the 35th ballot he got 50 votes; on the 36th, he took the nomination with 399.

How calculated was Garfield’s behavior? He must have known that protesting the Wisconsin shift to him would fail, because the rules stated that votes could be challenged only by a delegate from the same state. It was a good show: two speeches and a delightfully humble reluctance to be nominated.

Yet in victory he seemed ambivalent, saying he would “rather be shot to death.” He might have been more careful about what he wished for: Eight months after the election, he was shot by a lunatic who wanted to be the U.S. consul in Paris and died two months later.

Michele Bachmann cannot feign coyness. A modern presidential candidate has to run a gantlet of primaries and caucuses, schmoozing supporters and raising money for months in advance. Nor could she sneak around Pawlenty as Garfield slipped past Sherman. The two fought it out (Pawlenty left the race in August). Bachmann has followed Garfield’s lead by raising her rhetorical profile—not in the name of open conventions or the party’s welfare, but as the champion of hard-line conservatism.

The main lesson of the Garfield story is that Bachmann’s task may be quixotic. Garfield won only because his rivals ground each other down, leaving a void freakishly suited to his situation.

Of course, Bachmann can wait. At 55, she is young enough to run again, and if she becomes vice president, or even a losing vice presidential candidate, she could sidestep the curse of the House.


Originally published in the December 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.