Historical Highlights

The 1879 Rider Wars

March 18, 1879
The 1879 Rider Wars Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
During his House service, James Garfield of Ohio chaired three committees: Military Affairs; Banking and Currency; and Appropriations.
On this date, a special early session of the 46th Congress (1879–1881) convened to consider unfinished spending bills in a constitutional standoff with Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes after House Democrats attached a series of riders—specific provisions in appropriations bills that dictate exactly how federal money could be used—to key funding packages that would have restricted the voting rights of African Americans in the South. For years, U.S. troops had been stationed in the American South to uphold the voting provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment and to protect Republican and freedmen voters from being terrorized by white supremacists. But by 1879, congressional Democrats, many of which hailed from former Confederate states, began legislative efforts to directly limit the authority of the President to intervene in southern elections. Working off military funding bills, Democrats attached riders that would have prevented Hayes from financing the U.S. Marshals and Army personnel stationed in the South who were safeguarding the right to vote. Instead of agreeing to the riders, Hayes vetoed five bills and prompted a 14-month showdown between the executive and legislative branches. “The new doctrine, if maintained, will result in a consolidation of unchecked and despotic power in the House of Representatives,” Hayes said in his first veto message. “A bare majority of the House will become the Government.” Four of Hayes’s vetoes were sustained with the help of the House Republican floor leader James A. Garfield of Ohio, who denounced riders as “a revolution against the Constitution and Government of the United States.” House Democrats continued to submit riders opposed by Hayes, while part of the government went unfunded through May of 1880. But the intransigent Democrats eventually gave up, and by the end of the second session of the Forty-sixth Congress in June, all of the regular appropriations bills had been signed into law, rider-free. Republicans, meanwhile, regained control of Congress in that year’s November elections, and Garfield became the first sitting House Member elected President. The special deputy marshals hired to safeguard the 1880 elections, who went unpaid during the previous Congress, finally received back pay for their services in August 1882.

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