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News June 2020


From Vermont, a White House hopeful hailed as a reformer

Maury Thompson


Name a Vermont politician who served for more than two decades in Congress and mounted two unsuccessful presidential bids.

If your first guess is Bernie Sanders, that would not be wrong. But there is more than one correct answer.

U.S. Sen. George F. Edmunds of Burlington was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1880 and 1884.

Like Sanders, Edmunds was considered to be outside the establishment of his party, even though he held leadership positions in the Senate.

“The bare thought that such a man as George F. Edmunds may be likely to enter the presidential campaign as the nominee of the Republicans makes the politicians shake in their shoes,” a columnist for the McCook Weekly Tribune of Red Willow Creek, Neb., wrote on May 8, 1884.
Besides running for president, Edmunds, a lawyer who passed the bar exam at age 21, was known as author of the Edmunds Act of 1882, which prohibited polygamy in Utah. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in the face of several challenges.

In 1890, Edmunds helped draft the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibited businesses from engaging in monopolistic practices or forming anticompetitive alliances with other companies.
Edmunds served in the Senate 25 years, from 1866 to 1891.

He chaired several prominent committees and for a time was the chamber’s Republican leader. He was Senate president pro tempore when Chester Arthur became president after the assassination of James Garfield.

“As a parliamentarian he gained high repute. Any member who ignored the rules would promptly invoke the Vermonter’s biting satire,” The Barre Daily Times wrote in a tribute to Edmunds on Feb. 28, 1919, a day after the politician’s death, at age 91, after a long illness.

It was Edmunds’ two presidential campaigns that were most frequently mentioned in obituaries.
In 1880, Edmunds had modest support through the 29th ballot at the Chicago convention where Republican delegates ultimately gave the party’s nomination, on the 36th ballot, to a compromise candidate, Rep. James Garfield of Ohio.

“For the first time in her history, Vermont, always in the advance guard of the Republican hosts, comes to the front in a national convention,” the lawyer Frederick Billings proclaimed as he placed Edmunds in nomination at the 1880 convention. “Her Republicanism is not born of selfishness. It is bred in her bone. It runs in her blood.”

Billings was a native of Windsor County who went west amid the California gold rush of 1848 but returned to Vermont in 1864. The lawyer and financier served as president of the Northern Pacific Railway from 1879-81.

“Long tried and never found wanting … is George F. Edmunds, and him Vermont nominates for the presidency,” Billings said. “Welcome, gentlemen of the convention, this breeze from the Green Mountains. How quickly it will swell into a gale and how surely sweep the land.”
Front-runners going into the convention were Sen. James G. Blaine of Maine, former President Ulysses S. Grant, and Treasury Secretary John Sherman.

The Silver State newspaper of Unionville, Nev., editorialized on June 5, 1880, that the Republican platform, adopted before the nomination, appeared to be crafted to benefit either Blaine or Grant.

Blaine, who had voted in favor of banning immigration of Chinese laborers, would have approved of an immigration plank that Edmunds would have found impossible to support, the editorial suggested.

Edmunds “is committed on that question, having spoken and voted against the Chinese restriction bill in the United States Senate, and he is too conscientious to be a demagogue,” the newspaper wrote.

Grant, on the other hand, appeared to benefit from a plank calling for national harmony and political civility.

“This seems to have been intended for Grant, as Blaine never lets an opportunity to raise his bloody shirt pass, while Grant is called the candidate of reconciliation,” the paper explained.
Although Edmunds failed to win a spot on the national GOP ticket, Vermont did have a presidential candidate on the 1880 general election ballot. John W. Phelps of Brattleboro received just over 1,000 votes nationally, including 75 votes in New York, on the Anti-Masonry Party line.

Garfield went on to win the election but served only four months before being shot by an assassin. Vice President Arthur, another Vermont native, ascended to the presidency when Garfield died 11 weeks later.

In 1884, Edmunds was reported to be among the early front-runners for the Republican nomination if Arthur decided not to seek re-election.

Edmunds “never seeks honors, and accepts them with becoming modesty when tendered him,” the Northern Tribune of Cheboygan, Mich., wrote in an editorial on May 1, 1884. “He would fill the presidential chair with modest dignity and marked ability.”

At the Republican convention in Chicago that year, Edmunds received 94 votes on the first ballot -- and acclaim for the spirited nominating speeches supporters made on his behalf.
“Of the seventeen speeches made in nominating and seconding the candidates during the evening, the most able was made was made by [former] Gov. [John Davis] Long of Massachusetts in nominating Edmunds, and the next best was made by George William Curtiss in seconding this nomination,” a correspondent identified by the initials L.W.D. wrote in a report published June 18, 1884, in The River Press of Fort Benton, Mont. The writer allowed, however, that “possibly many others judge differently and prefer those made in behalf of their own favorite candidate.”

Edmunds’ first-ballot tally was considered a good showing for a reformer but far short of Blaine’s 334.5 votes.

Edmunds’ supporters knew the campaign was over when Montana changed its roll call response on the third ballot from “one vote for James G. Blaine and one vote for George F. Edmunds,” its tally from the first two rounds, to “one vote for James G. Blaine and one vote for James G. Blaine.”

“This was followed by an audible smile,” The River Press correspondent wrote.
Blaine, in his third consecutive quadrennial try, won the Republican nomination on the fourth ballot and narrowly lost the general election to Grover Cleveland.


Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.