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September 20, 1881
President's Death Eases Senate Deadlock

Photo of William Mahone of Virginia
William Mahone (R-VA)

Rarely in its history has the Senate been evenly divided between the two major political parties. When the Senate of the 47th Congress convened on March 4, 1881, its membership stood at 37 Democrats, 37 Republicans, and 2 Independents. One of the Independents agreed to vote with the Democrats on such organizational matters as appointment of committees and selection of Senate officers. The other Independent, William Mahone of Virginia, owed his election to a breakaway faction within his state's Democratic Party. Senate Democrats optimistically believed they could count on him in their bid to control the Senate's committee chairmanships and staff appointments.

The Republicans had come too close to give up without a stiff fight. If they could capture Mahone, the balance would be 38 to 38 and allow Republican Vice President Chester Arthur to provide the tie-breaking vote for his party.

Mahone, a freshman, exacted a high price from the Senate's Republicans. It included the chairmanship of the influential Agriculture Committee and the right to select the Senate's Secretary and Sergeant at Arms, both of whom controlled extensive patronage appointments. President James Garfield also reluctantly handed him control of Virginia's federal patronage. The day after Mahone's vote allowed the Republicans to organize the Senate's committees, a large basket of flowers from the White House conservatory appeared on his chamber desk.

As Republicans then moved to appoint Senate officers, Democrats balked. They employed various parliamentary tactics that brought the Senate to a standstill and blocked a long list of Republican executive nominees. To honor their promise to Mahone, Republicans threatened to "fight it out if it takes all summer."

That fight ended on September 20, 1881, when President Garfield died of wounds from an assassin's bullet. This removed Vice President Chester Arthur and his tie-breaking vote from the Senate and caused the parties to declare a truce. For the balance of that Congress, Republicans controlled the committees and Democrats managed the patronage.

Reference Items:

Blake, Nelson Morehouse.  William Mahone of Virginia: Soldier and Political Insurgent.  Richmond: Garrett and Massie, 1935.


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