Grant Administration Record
The great popularity of General Ulysses S. Grant with Unionists during the Civil War carried over into his presidency. Although his administration is often derided by historians, his stature remained high with many Americans at the time, and most of the scandals that would later plague his presidency had not yet been exposed when he sought reelection in 1872. Grant assumed the presidency in March 1869 as America was undergoing the sweeping, unresolved changes of Reconstruction; thus the important and difficult responsibilities of implementing Congress’s Reconstruction Acts fell upon his shoulders.

During Grant’s first term, all of the former Confederate states were fully recognized with new state governments and Congressional representation; the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in an attempt to secure the voting rights of black men; the Enforcement Acts, including the Ku Klux Klan Act, augmented the president’s powers to fight anti-black violence; and the Amnesty Act pardoned nearly all former Confederates. In addition, the economy was good, and the national debt had been reduced substantially.

It was President Grant who established the nation’s first federal civil service commission, a reform dear to the liberal wing of his Republican party. Yet many of those same reformers believed that Grant’s practice of appointing allegedly unqualified cronies—which critics dubbed "Grantism"—contradicted his rhetorical commitment to a merit system of public service. The liberals were also upset by the president’s foreign policy, which included an aborted attempt to annex Santo Domingo (today, the Dominican Republic) and flirtation with the independence movement in Spanish-controlled Cuba.

Grant’s first administration negotiated the Treaty of Washington (1871) between the United States and Great Britain. The parties agreed to submit American financial claims against Britain for constructing and refitting Confederate warships during the American Civil War (collectively called the "Alabama claims"), as well as a dispute between British Canada and the U.S. over fishing rights, to an international commission for arbitration. The panel awarded the U.S. $15.5 million in damages.

The Grant administration’s only major scandal of the first term—Crédit Mobilier—would break in the press late in the reelection campaign. Managers of Crédit Mobilier, the holding company for the federally subsidized Union Pacific Railroad, were accused of siphoning off huge amounts of public money for personal gain. Trying to cover up their misdeeds and gain leniency in Congress, the corporation’s officers gave key Congressmen bribes in the form of discounted stock. Among the accused were Grant’s vice president, Schuyler Colfax, and his 1872 running-mate, Henry Wilson.

Liberal Republican Movement
As issues related to Reconstruction began to fade in importance for many Northerners, a faction of liberal Republicans became increasingly dissatisfied with the Grant administration. The liberals identified the patronage system as the source of inefficient and corrupt governance, so they pushed for civil service reform—i.e., the replacement of the partisan patronage system of government bureaucracy with nonpartisan merit hiring, promotion, and tenure. Most liberals also advocated free trade, the gold monetary standard ("hard money"), and public education, and opposed a continued military presence in the South, an expansionist, bellicose foreign policy, and public funds for sectarian (read: Catholic) education.

Although limited in numbers, the liberals—many of whom were politicians, newspaper editors, public speakers, or writers—were influential in promoting issues and defining the terms of public policy debate. The movement, with somewhat shifting membership, can be traced from their temporary break with the Republican party in 1872 to their support of Benjamin Bristow for the Republican nomination in 1876 (with a few eventually supporting the Democrat Samuel Tilden) to their bolt from the Republican party in 1884 to support Democrat Grover Cleveland.

In September 1870, Missouri liberals were the first to establish a separate Liberal Republican party. Foreshadowing the national strategy in 1872, they formed an alliance with the state’s Democrats to overthrow the regular Republicans. On January 24, 1872, U.S. Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri, judging the Grant administration to be irredeemable, issued a call for a national convention of liberals to nominate a candidate for president. Over the next few months, Liberal Republican editors, delegates, and other supporters warned repeatedly that caution should be taken in choosing the best nominee.

The German-born Schurz was ineligible for the presidency and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took himself out of the running. Chief Justice Salmon Chase had long desired to be chief executive and indicated interest again in 1872, but, aging and ill, he was unable to secure sufficient backing. Governor Gratz Brown was Missouri’s favorite-son candidate, but lacked broad appeal. Horace Greeley, the maverick editor of the New York Tribune, had some support among the New York delegation, but was considered more as a possible vice-presidential nominee. U.S. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois was a real possibility, but he was rather colorless and was unenthusiastic about the prospect. The two top candidates were former diplomat Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts and Supreme Court Justice David Davis of Illinois.

Adams, the son and grandson of Presidents John Quincy Adams and John Adams, respectively, had earned a distinguished record as the American minister to Britain during the Civil War and a reputation for personal integrity. The aristocratic Adams, however, refused to sully himself with behind-the-scenes politicking for the nomination. That aloofness, plus his advanced age (65), pro-British views, questionable commitment to reform, and close association with the irascible, unpopular Schurz, all combined to work against his selection as the Liberal Republican nominee.

In the months leading up to the convention, the amiable and ambitious Davis was the front-runner, drawing strength from Southern and Midwestern delegations. He was also popular with Democrats; so much so that some Liberal Republicans wondered if he was really a Democrat in Liberal-Republican clothing. A quartet of Liberal-Republican editors—Samuel Bowles of the Springfield Republican (MA), Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial, Henry Watterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and Horace White of the Chicago Tribune—conspired to deny Davis the nomination by each attacking him editorially from different angles. The boozy, boisterous, brazen behavior of Davis’s own campaign workers at the convention was the coup de grâce to his candidacy.

The Liberal Republican convention, chaired by Schurz, convened in Cincinnati on May 1. The large, disparate group of delegates, partially inspired by keynote-speaker Schurz, were confident that they were initiating a new era of reform, although there was not clear agreement on which reforms. The party platform denounced corruption in government, endorsed civil service reform, a one-term presidency, the Reconstruction Amendments, equal rights under the law, amnesty for former Confederates, and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. After much debate, it left the divisive tariff issue to be decided by the electorate through their Congressional representatives.

In the battle for the presidential nomination, Adams made a strong showing on the first ballot with 205 votes, but well short of the necessary 358. Greeley placed a surprisingly competitive second with 147 votes, followed by Trumbull with 110, Brown with 95, and the weakened Davis with 92. Governor Brown promptly withdrew and endorsed Greeley, in part to block Adams, the candidate of Brown’s sworn enemy in Missouri, Senator Schurz. That gave momentum to Greeley, who edged past Adams on the second ballot, 245 to 243, even though not all of the Brown men cast their ballots for the editor. Southern delegates began to coalesce behind Greeley, while Midwesterners shored up Adams, permitting the diplomat to regain and hold the lead on the next several ballots.

Meanwhile, Davis’ base collapsed while Trumbull picked up steam, peaking at 156 votes on the third ballot. After the fifth ballot, the Greeley and Adams forces blocked a move to call a recess. The sixth ballot proved to be decisive, as the South and West solidified behind Greeley, allowing him to retake the lead (334 to 324), and as it became apparent that enough delegates were refusing to vote for Adams to prevent him from winning. Minnesota and Pennsylvania then switched to Greeley and other states jumped on the bandwagon, putting the editor over the top with 482 to a diminished 187 for Adams. Next, the delegates chose Gratz Brown as the vice-presidential nominee.

Carl Schurz and other Adams supporters were shocked by Greeley’s selection, as were much of the press and public. For one thing, the largely free-trade Liberal Republicans had chosen an ardent protectionist as their standard-bearer. Moreover, the Tribune editor had virtually no experience in government, was known for his eccentric, erratic persona and support of a wide variety of fringe ideas from vegetarianism to spiritualism, and had left a massive paper trail of controversial and sometimes contradictory public statements for the press and his political enemies to pick over. One reporter blamed the nomination on "too much brains and not enough whiskey" at the convention. In truth, it was probably the demise of Davis; the skillful back-room maneuvering of Greeley’s campaign managers—Whitelaw Reid, Theodore Tilton, and William Dorsheimer; the unpalatable nature of Adams to some; and the popularity of Greeley as many delegates’ second choice.

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