The Election of 1872

From the time that Ulysses S. Grant became a household name in America—during the Civil War—and particularly following Lincoln’s assassination, there was no more popular American in the remainder of the Nineteenth Century. The presidential election of 1868 showed the level of support that Grant had: although it was his first election, he won the entirety of the Midwest and New England and even took six of the former Confederate states. He was always going to be a formidable opponent. As the election of 1872 approached, it became clear that Grant, a Republican, would not have to vie for re-election against a candidate with the stature of a fellow former general or even a well-established politician; instead, his challenger would be the founder and editor of a newspaper: Horace Greeley, a Democrat. Although Greeley had one term in the House of Representatives at the end of the 1840s, his following stemmed not from his brief time as a politician but rather the incisive pieces that he wrote and published in his newspaper, the New-York Tribune. As loyal as his readers were, there remained a question whether Greeley’s following could grow to unseat the man who still, seven years after the war, was viewed as bringing peace and prosperity to the country.

Ulysses S. Grant. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

When it comes to presidential elections, voters and the media look to the candidates’ respective records to get a sense of what each potential presidency could be. With Grant being an incumbent, there would be little mystery of how a second term would look; Greeley, having accomplished little during his one term in the House over 20 years prior, would be scrutinized based on the company he kept and the numerous articles he published in the Tribune. The New-York Times, then a strongly and openly Republican newspaper, published a “campaign edition” which detailed Greeley’s “chief supporters” as including William Tweed, the “Boss Thief of the world.”[i] That campaign edition also recounted Greeley’s positions during the war: first, he encouraged the South’s rebellion, even endorsing secession, pledging his support, and then insisting on letting the South “go in peace” only to reverse course and turn on the South once the war began: he suggested dividing up the Confederacy’s land, bringing “privation” to the wives and children of Confederates, and then “exterminat[ing]” them.[ii] Despite the fact that Greeley was running as a Democrat, he had shown no loyalty to party in his newspaper: the Democrats were comprised of the “lewd, ruffianly, criminal, and dangerous classes,” and the “essential articles” of the party’s creed were to “love rum and hate niggers. The less one learns and knows, the more certain he is to vote the regular ticket.”[iii]

Campaign Banner. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

For some, the appeal of Greeley was his coarseness, his unsavory beliefs. For others, it was more principled, more ideological. In the years leading up to the election, Americans had started to see a more active, growing federal government, and with that came regulations. Many potential voters saw that the Grant administration was no better than its predecessors when it came to corruption and patronage; and there was also a growing belief that any regulation—even that stemming from experts who swore that the changes would benefit the common man—was worse than having no regulation.[iv] Greeley was not the natural fit for filling the role of principled Democrat, and other men had been considered for the nomination: Charles Francis Adams, Sr., the son and grandson of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, had been a leading contender until his “supporters mismanaged their attempt to nominate him” and had him appear as “contradictory, arrogant, and daft.”[v] Greeley was the beneficiary of Adams’ mistakes, but as the Democratic nominee, he had a reputation to overcome; a reputation that left some to view him as “conceited, ignorant, half cracked, [and] obstinate.”[vi] He was a relic of antebellum America: he did not support wage labor; he insisted on self-reliance; he “opposed strikes, refused to embrace legislation for the eight-hour day, urged reconciliation between ex-Confederates and Unionists, and repudiated Reconstruction.”[vii] He was no ideologue, however. Many of the Democratic Party’s fundamental policies, such as free trade, Greeley would never have come to espouse. Frederick Douglass, in the New-York Times, denounced Greeley’s candidacy and called Greeley “an uncertain man; an inconsistent man; one whom you do not know today and can give no guess what he will do to-morrow, what he will say to-morrow, what principles he will advocate, what measures he will propose.”[viii]

Cartoon supporting Ulysses S. Grant depicting a mouse (as Horace Greeley) emerging from a pile of mud labeled “Liberal Mountain.” By: Thomas Nast. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Predicting how the country’s electorate would react to Greeley was difficult, but Greeley was certain to garner the vote of Southern Democrats: those men could have hardly brought themselves to vote for the former general, Grant, who had overseen the destruction of the South without repent.[ix] However, Grant and the Republicans knew that Greeley’s approach of “amnesty and reconciliation” toward the former Confederates would be an effective message to not only former Confederates and their families but those around the country who sympathized with the former Confederates: Republicans approved the Amnesty Act—effectively allowing the former secessionists to again run for office (with a few limitations) and ordering all actions pending against former Confederates based on the Fourteenth Amendment to be dismissed or discontinued; then, Grant pardoned all but 500 of the top Confederate leaders.[x] The Republicans had shown that Greeley, a relatively weak candidate to begin with, would nonetheless be taken seriously, and where he had strengths, the Republicans would act to sap those strengths.

Out of Greeley’s many musings in his newspaper, one turned out to be the truest: “Gen. Grant never has been defeated, and he never will be.”[xi] In a low turnout election, Grant won fifty-five percent of the popular vote (a margin that no candidate would match for the remainder of the century), and Republicans took two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress[xii] The defeat for Greeley could not be understated: he wrote, “I was the worst beaten man that ever ran for that high office, and I have been assailed so bitterly that I hardly know whether I was running for President or the penitentiary.”[xiii] As a matter of fact, he would not have an electoral vote to his name; but not because of his failure to appeal to voters. By the end of November 1872—five weeks after losing his wife, four weeks after losing the election, and two weeks after learning that he was facing ouster from his newspaper—Greeley died.

Horace Greeley. Courtesy: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

[i] Campaign Edition of The New-York Times, at 1.

[ii] Id. at 2.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 209.

[v] Id. at 209-10.

[vi] Id. at 210.

[vii] See id.

[viii] Id. at 210-11 (quoting “Vote The Regular Republican Ticket,” New York Times, July 25, 1872, in Frederick Douglass, The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One, Speeches, Debates, and Interviews [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979], 4: 321).

[ix] See Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 211.

[x] See id.

[xi] Campaign Edition of The New-York Times, at 3 quoting Horace Greeley, Speech at Cooper Institute, May 27, 1868.

[xii] See Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 211.

[xiii] Id.


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