As it happened, electing a man with no political experience to the presidency might not have been a very good idea, even if the man was Ulysses S. Grant, one of the best generals in American history. Grant’s presidency was not the disaster it has often been made out to be. The Grant administration had some solid accomplishments to its credit. Grant consistently upheld the civil rights of the freed Blacks in the South and used federal troops to crush the Ku Klux Klan. Grant sought, not very successfully. to ensure that the Native Americans were treated with some degree of justice. I suspect that the poor reputation as a general and president that Grant has had for most of the twentieth century was the result of Southern historians, the same ones who concocted the Lost Cause mythology, blackening Grant’s reputation as revenge for his defeating their idol Robert E. Lee and standing up for the rights of the former slaves. Recently, Grant’s military reputation has been rehabilitated by military historians who now see him as a masterful strategist and I hope that political historians will follow suit.
That being said, no one is likely to list Ulysses S. Grant as one of the top ten Presidents of the United States. The problem was that Grant turned out to be a remarkably poor judge of character, at least in the civilian sphere. Grant himself was honest, but many of the men he appointed to office were not. Because this was the time before civil service reform when the Spoils System was still in operation meaning that almost every government post was a political appointee. If an incoming president appointed corrupt men, it didn’t take very long for the whole government to become thoroughly corrupt, which is what happened in Grant’s first term.
Despite several scandals, Grant was still personally popular and there was no question that the Republican Party would nominate him for a second term. A number of the more liberal Republicans were sufficiently disgusted with the corruption in the federal government and dissatisfied with Grant’s Reconstruction policies to separate themselves from the Republican Party to form the Liberal Republican Party. This new party, which included such prominent Republicans as Ambassador to Britain to Charles Francis Adams, Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase, and Senator Carl Schurz from Missouri held its convention in Cincinnati from May 1-3. There they nominated Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the New York Tribune for the presidency.
Greeley was an unexpected and somewhat unusual choice for the nomination. He was not really a politician, only having served a brief term in Congress back in 1848-1849. He had been one of the founders of the Republican Party and may have given the party its name. He was chiefly a newspaper man however and was used to speaking his mind on every subject. People often say that they want a candidate you says what he really thinks, but they are lying. What people say is that they want a candidate who says what they want to hear and Greeley was not that man He simply didn’t know when to keep quiet or carefully parse his words as an experienced politician learns to do. This openness would not help him during the campaign.
The Liberal Republicans went on to nominate Benjamin G. Brown, the liberal Governor of Missouri. Like Greeley, Brown had been one of the founders of the Republican Party and had served as a Senator from Missouri from 1963-1867 and then Governor from 1871-1873. Brown had served in the Union Army from 1861-1863 before being appointed Senator to fill a vacancy left by the departure of his pro-confederate predecessor. The Liberal Republicans adopted a platform which attacked the corruption of the Grant administration, supported civil service reform and ending Reconstruction and the military occupation of the South. They had some problems with the important issue of protective tariffs, but they made some vague statement about it being up to the people to decide.
The Republicans met in Philadelphia from June 5-6. They nominated Grant for reelection by acclamation on the first ballot. Grant’s nomination was seconded by William Henry Grey, the first African-American to address an American political convention. Vice-President Colfax was dropped from the ticket because of his suspected involvement with the Credit Mobilier scandal and the convention nominated Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts in his place. Senator Wilson had long been an anti-slavery activist and was a founder of the Free Soil Party, the predecessor to the Republican Party, which he also helped found. Wilson had served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate, before going on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1855-1873. As the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs from 1861-1973, Wilson had played an important role in the Union’s war efforts. The Republicans went on to adopt a platform praising Republican achievements since 1861. The Republican platform made some mention of civil service reform and tariffs, without too many details on either subject, and favored the protection of the civil rights of all citizens in every part of the country.
The Democrats met in Baltimore from July 9-10, and promptly nominated the Liberal Republican ticket and platform. At only six hours, the Democratic National Convention of 1872 was the shortest political convention in American, and possibly world, history. It might seem strange that the Democrats did not nominate candidates who were actually Democrats, Horace Greeley had been an especially fierce critic of the Democrats, but they wanted to see Grant out of office and believed that nominated their own candidates would only have split the anti-Grant vote, allowing him to win. It didn’t turn out to be an especially good plan.
The campaign was a nasty one, as usual. Grant was assailed as an ignorant, corrupt drunkard. Grant remained silent, preferring not to actively campaign, but his supporters had plenty of ammunition to use against Greeley. During his long career as editor of the New York Tribune, Greeley had endorsed any number of fringe causes; socialism, utopian communes, vegetarianism etc, and the Republicans had a field day making fun of his eccentricities. It probably wouldn’t have mattered even if the Democrats had nominated someone more, well, normal. Grant was popular enough among regular Republicans, bankers and industrialists, Civil War veterans, and Blacks, that he would have probably beaten any Democrat.
In the end, Grant won in a landslide with 3,598,235 (55.6%) popular votes against Greeley’s 2,834,761 (43.8%). The electoral vote was even more lopsided. Grant won all but six states gaining 286 electoral votes. Greeley won just Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Missouri, and Texas, for a total of 66 electoral votes. Arkansas and Louisiana had voted for Grant but the electoral votes were rejected due to irregularities arising from Reconstruction and so weren’t counted.
Horace Greeley took his defeat hard. He became ill and died just three weeks after the election, before the Electoral College met to cast the official ballots. This created the unprecedented situation in which a presidential candidate had died before the election was formally concluded. The Democratic electors resolved the issue by simply casting their votes for four other candidates. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the victor of the popular election had ever died before the Electoral College met.