General Winfield Scott Hancock was defeated at the Presidential election, not because he was unpopular, not because he was considered unworthy of the position of Chief Magistrate, not because the people dared not entrust him with the administration of the government, but simply because the great business interests of the country were afraid that a sudden and complete change in the politics of the National Executive would be ruinous to their properties. Only a short time before the day of election this decision was made by representative financiers and capitalists. The word was flashed over the telegraphs; it ran along the railways; it was whispered in the manufactories; it was quoted in the exchanges:  that Hancock must be beaten lest the success of the Democratic party might unsettle values, disturb trade and bring about a financial crisis. To this secret but powerful syndicate against him General Hancock must attribute the result of the only battle which he ever lost. As he looks back upon those busy and bustling days — saddened in his memory still by the death of a favorite grandchild — he may sincerely thank Providence for keeping him out of the White House and casting his lines in such a pleasant place as Governor's Island.

How "the wisest plans o' mice and men gang aft agley" was shown by the sequel to the Presidential election. The popular vote was so close that General Hancock would have been elected by the change of a hundred thousand ballots. The electoral vote was so close that a few more Democratic votes in this city would have carried the State of New York and given General Hancock a majority. The financial and business syndicate of which we have spoken neutralized the vote of this city and placed Garfield in the Presidency; but their caution brought about the very evils which they had plotted to prevent. Garfield was assassinated, and for over two years the stock market has not recovered from the shock. Even unto this day business has not been what it was before the Presidential election. The success of the Democratic party, postponed in 1880, came like a tidal wave in 1882. The bullet of Guiteau elevated to the White House a man who would never have been elected to that position by the people, and handed over the National administration to the very faction against which the Republican party had protested by the nomination of Garfield. Disraeli's epigram that a government has never been changed by an assassination is thus controverted by recent history. Never has there been an instance in which the wisdom of shrewd and clever men was more signally turned into folly by the accident of unexpected events.

Recent as it is in years, this page of history seems ancient to us now, and to General Hancock, as he reflects upon it, his candidacy must appear as a troubled dream. In fact, when it was safely over, he found that it had affected his position very little. He had been sensible enough not to resign his Major-Generalship, and President Garfield was too prudent to disturb him in his command of this Department. He was Major-General Hancock, with his headquarters at Governor's Island, before the election; he is Major-General Hancock, with his headquarters at Governor's Island, still. The election had great possibilities and many disagreeable incidents; but it passed away, like a Western blizzard, to be forgotten in the sunshine of the present. One circumstance will prove how far away its incidents are. Our readers will remember the forged letter about Chinese labor purporting to have been written by Garfield, and the fervid order which Garfield telegraphed to "hunt the rascal down." The rascal has been hunted down; the forgery has been fastened upon him; his written confession has been in the hands of the United States authorities for several months, and yet no newspaper considers the matter of sufficient interest now to obtain this confession and publish it.

A curious subject of speculation is whether, if General Hancock had been elected, Guiteau would have assassinated him instead of Garfield. On the one hand, it is argued that Guiteau killed the President because he was refused an office, and that he would have killed any President — Garfield or Hancock — who excited his homicidal mania by refusing to appoint him. On the other hand, the theory is that Guiteau was excited by the Stalwart Republican attacks upon Garfield and that he would have had no animosity toward Hancock, who, indeed, was never half so bitterly attacked by the Stalwarts as their own candidate was. But such speculations are more curious than profitable, and, we may be sure, do not occur to General Hancock, who has faced too many bullets really intended for him to waste time in reflecting upon the hypothetical direction of a bullet which might never have been fired in his direction. Quite aside, however, from the possibilities of Guiteau's pistol and the treatment of the doctors, we may congratulate General Hancock upon his Presidential defeat for his own sake, and, we sincerely believe, for the sake of the country.

Great soldiers are a proud possession for any people, but it is best for a free people to keep their great soldiers in the army; not to entrust them with the National Government. England rewarded Wellington by making him Prime Minister, as the United States rewarded Grant by making him President; but in neither instance was the experiment satisfactory. The very qualities which go to make a soldier great are out of place in a civil executive.

From Off-hand Portraits of Prominent New Yorkers by Stephen Fiske. Originally published by G.R. Lockwood & Son in 1884.


Articles in this Issue

1864 - George B. McClellan (D)
1868 - Salmon P. Chase (D)
1872 - Horace Greeley (D)
1876 - Samuel J. Tilden (D)
1880 - Winfield Scott Hancock (D)
1884 - James G. Blaine (R)
1888 - Grover Cleveland (D)
1904 - Alton B. Parker (D)
1908 - William J. Bryan (D)
1916 - Charles E. Huges (R)
1920 - James M. Cox (D)