The Election of 1868

In 1864, as the election neared, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, wagered that his re-election prospects depended on having a unity ticket: rather than choose a fellow Republican for the nomination for Vice President, he opted for a War Democrat and southerner, Andrew Johnson. With Johnson being from the South, condemning the Confederacy, and supporting the prosecution of the Civil War without negotiated peace—unlike the faction in his party known as the Copperheads (which called for immediate peace negotiations with the Confederacy)—he served as a useful balance to the Republican, Lincoln, whose party was increasingly vocal about abolition and subjugating the South, political issues that chilled some parts of the electorate to Lincoln. By 1868, much had changed. Lincoln had been assassinated, Johnson had poorly navigated Washington politics (and had come to within one vote of the Senate removing him from the presidency), and Ulysses S. Grant had continued his meteoric rise in popularity. There was little doubt that Grant would be the Republican nominee; he was one of the most popular Americans of the 1860s and would remain so for the duration of the 19th Century. The bigger questions were who the Democratic Party would choose as its nominee and whether that nominee would have a chance at becoming the first Democrat elected to the Presidency in twelve years—when James Buchanan won the election of 1856.

The Democratic Party and Johnson had tarnished their reputations during his administration, but the politics of the period played a significant role in that tarnishing. Johnson had erred in removing the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—the Secretary who had overseen much of the Union war effort—and Congress took notice: it “refused to approve” the dismissal, and Stanton retook his office in January 1868.[i] Stanton had the support of Radical Republicans (that branch of the Republican Party that wished to see a robust and prolonged Reconstruction), and the Republicans sought to keep Stanton as Secretary to ensure that Johnson would not stymie the Reconstruction Act’s execution but would rather utilize the military to oversee Reconstruction.[ii] Johnson, fearful of Stanton and Grant as political rivals in the upcoming election—and wishing to end Reconstruction in the South—again removed Stanton and replaced him with “old, garrulous, and ineffectual” General Lorenzo Thomas.[iii] Stanton refused to step down and filed an action in court; Thomas was placed under arrest for a violation of the Tenure of Office Act “which Republicans had passed to prevent the removal of officials appointed with the Senate’s consent until the Senate had approved” a successor.[iv] Thomas made bail, returned to Stanton’s office where they shared “a few amiable drinks,” and then he left again, but the House of Representatives—in which the Republicans held a majority—voted to impeach Johnson on February 4, 1868 for violating the Tenure of Office Act.[v]

Posturing for the upcoming election underlaid the House’s impeachment vote and the Senate’s trial: following the 1792 law that then governed presidential succession, the president pro tempore of the Senate, Benjamin Wade—a Radical Republican—would become president if the Senate removed Johnson.[vi] Wade, at the time of the impeachment, was running for president.[vii] To Radicals in the spring of 1868, the year was slated to become their best since the days of the Lincoln administration; not only could they potentially remove Johnson and have Wade in the White House, Wade could also use the bully pulpit of the presidency to secure himself a victory in the election. But moderates had no allegiance to Wade, and Wade was not the only one with presidential ambitions. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon Chase, had his own aspirations, and he would be prominent in the impeachment as he would be presiding over the Senate’s trial of Johnson on the charge of violating the Tenure of Office Act.[viii] Both Chase and Wade must have known that Grant was the heavy favorite for the Republican nomination, but that would not deter them from using Johnson’s impeachment to bolster their prospects.

The Senate’s trial of Johnson was a drawn out affair: Johnson’s attorneys utilized delay tactics with the hope that the moment, and its high emotions, would fade—or divisions would develop that Johnson’s attorneys could exploit to negotiate a resolution. Some senators had doubts as to the legitimacy of the charge as Lincoln, not Johnson, had appointed Stanton to his post, but more than anything, senators saw Johnson as “impolitic and racist” but not having committed an act deserving his removal.[ix] Negotiations with the moderate Republican were fruitful for Johnson. The Senate voted, and senators cast one vote fewer than the two-thirds majority necessary for conviction.

Ulysses S. Grant. By: Mathew Brady.

Events proceeded as expected: Grant received the nomination without a campaign either on his own behalf or others on his. At the convention in Chicago, no candidate challenged Grant, and perhaps none dared to after entering the hall having passed Union veterans swapping “battle tales” and reassuring each other that there was no better man for the presidency than their former commander.[x] While in Washington, Grant received word that he had secured the party’s nomination—on the first ballot.[xi] He wrote in response to the news: “In times like the present it is impossible, or at least eminently improper, to lay down a policy to be adhered to, right or wrong, through an administration of four years. New political issues, not foreseen, are constantly arising; the views of the public on old ones are constantly changing, and a purely administrative officer should always be free to execute the will of the people.”[xii] He concluded with the four words that would come to define his legacy: “Let us have peace.”[xiii]

Johnson’s fortunes darkened as the election approached. His presidency was approaching its end: he would not be on the ballot, and when the Democrats convened in New York in early July, it became evident that the party did not know who was best suited to challenge Grant’s candidacy. New York’s Governor Horatio Seymour, on the twenty-second ballot, emerged as the party’s nominee, but—as the number of ballots illustrated—he was not as likely as Grant to garner votes. However, if Grant were to lose the election, it would be due to rumors circulating about him: that he was a drunkard, that he had “fathered a daughter by an Indian woman in the Pacific Northwest,” and that he had hated Jewish people.[xiv] His supporters assured voters that he did not have a drinking problem and that when the child at issue was conceived, he was hundreds of miles away, but the third rumor Grant personally addressed for it involved his command of the army in Tennessee during the war.[xv] He admitted that he issued a poorly written order to expel Jewish people from the military district of Tennessee (after having complaints that trade between his soldiers and the Jewish merchants was disrupting the army’s progress), and his admission assuaged those in leadership positions: Simon Wolf, a fellow Ohioan and a prominent figure in the Jewish community, wrote that Grant “never intended to insult any honorable Jew; that he never thought of their religion; that the order was simply directed ‘against certain evil-designing persons who respected neither law nor order, and who were endangering the morale of the army.’”[xvi]

Horatio Seymour. By: Mathew Brady.

In the end, Grant soundly won the election. Seymour took Louisiana and Georgia—states that had been grappling with the emerging Ku Klux Klan and its widespread violence, which caused Republicans to virtually concede the elections there to Democrats—as well as his home state of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Oregon.[xvii] Grant took the remainder: the entirety of New England and the Midwest plus six states of the former Confederacy.[xviii] He won the popular vote by 300,000 and the electoral vote 214 to 80. The Republicans—Radical and moderate alike—now had their man.

Grant ascending to the presidency was remarkable, and of those who contended with him in the election of 1868, the subsequent months and years were kindest to Grant. Grant, instead of opting to bring Wade onto the ticket, chose House Speaker Schuyler Colfax as his Vice President, and Wade lost his bid for re-election to the Senate in 1868.[xix] Grant nominated Stanton to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, but while the Senate took up its review of the nomination, Stanton succumbed to asthma on Christmas Eve 1869.[xx] Chase eventually became a Democrat in pursuit of his presidential dream but fell short and died in 1873.[xxi] Johnson’s political career effectively ended after leaving the White House, and he died in 1875.[xxii]

[i] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 92.

[ii] See id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] See id.

[v] See id.

[vi] See id. at 91.

[vii] See id.

[viii] Id. at 91-92.

[ix] See id. at 93.

[x] See H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, 417.

[xi] See id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id. at 417-18.

[xiv] See id. at 422.

[xv] See id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] See id. at 423.

[xviii] See id.

[xix] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 95.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] See id.


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