By 1868 the United States had experienced several unprecedented, pivotal events since the last presidential election: the end of the Civil War; the abolition of slavery by the 13th Amendment; the assassination of a president; the impeachment and near removal from office of another president; and the continuing clash over the policies and implementation of Reconstruction—i.e., of admitting the former Confederate states back into the Union and of incorporating the freed slaves into the political and social life of the nation. In fact, many observers viewed the 1868 presidential contest between Republican Ulysses S. Grant and Democrat Horatio Seymour as a referendum on Reconstruction.

The Republicans had to defend the 14th Amendment (1868), which gave black Americans citizenship and prohibited state governments from violating the due process rights, the equal protection, and the privileges and immunities of all citizens. The amendment sparked controversy because Congress required its passage by unreconstructed states before they could be readmitted to the Union, and because it was ratified unenthusiastically even in some Northern states. Both party platforms sidestepped the important question of black manhood suffrage. The Republican platform endorsed the Reconstruction policy of requiring black manhood suffrage in the former Confederate states, while leaving the Northern and border states free to decide the matter. The Democratic platform condemned "Negro supremacy" and demanded a restoration of states’ rights without specifically mentioning suffrage. The readmission of several Southern states with large black electorates, however, forced the issue into the forefront.

The Republican Nomination
Republicans, led by their Radical faction, had scored decisive victories in the 1866 elections. If that trend continued in the 1867 elections, then the party’s presidential nomination would likely go to a Radical like Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase or Senator Benjamin Wade. Chase had the support of important figures like Senator Charles Sumner and financier Jay Cooke. More moderate Republicans, such as Senator William Fessenden, Charles Francis Adams Jr., and The New York Times, had interpreted the 1866 elections not as a mandate for radicalism, but as a rejection of President Andrew Johnson’s programs and personality; therefore, they were wary of a Radical nominee.

Since no moderate Republican had the national stature to secure the nomination, they turned to General Ulysses S. Grant. He had been considered a potential presidential candidate ever since his battlefield exploits in the Civil War won him plaudits for courageous leadership. Early in the 1864 presidential campaign some disgruntled Republicans had wanted to replace Lincoln with Grant, but the general refused resolutely and supported the president wholeheartedly. Although he had been a nominal Democrat, Grant was a popular war-hero and perceived as someone who rose above partisan interests in both war and peace to battle for the common good. Moderates saw in the general-in-chief a man who would support Reconstruction without the radical proposals of land redistribution and social equality between the races.

Grant had accompanied President Andrew Johnson on the president’s disastrous "Swing ‘Round the Circle" speaking tour in 1866, and had accepted the position of acting secretary of war in August 1867 when the president suspended Edwin Stanton, who had been supporting the Congressional Republicans on Reconstruction. His association with Johnson roused suspicion among Radicals, but the general had undertaken those assignments out of patriotic duty, and privately disagreed with the president over Reconstruction. Yet for a variety of ideological and personal reasons, his candidacy was initially opposed by leading Radicals, such as Wendell Phillips, Horace Greeley, Whitelaw Reid, Benjamin Wade, and Benjamin F. Butler.

The Grant candidacy, though, took on momentum in the wake of the state elections in 1867. The electorate rejected the Radical Republican agenda by voting for Democratic control in the key Northern states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and by rejecting black manhood suffrage amendments in Kansas and Ohio. The election results bolstered the case of the moderate Republicans and seemed to close the door to a Radical nominee. Georges Clemenceau, a Paris Temps journalist who would later be the French premier, reported accurately that "The real victims of the victory of the Democrats are Mr. Wade and Mr. Chase."

The movement to impeach and remove President Johnson was also a factor in the 1868 presidential campaign. Within the Republican party, Johnson’s removal from office would have resulted in Benjamin Wade, president pro tem of the Senate, becoming president, giving Radicals control of patronage and a way to deny Grant the nomination. But by the time Johnson’s impeachment became a reality in early 1868, Grant had broken publicly with the president and most Radicals were reconciled to his nomination.

On May 16, 1868, the U.S. Senate failed by one vote to convict President Johnson on the first article of impeachment. The body then adjourned so that Republicans could attend their national convention in Chicago on May 20-21. By that point, it was unlikely that the president would be removed from office. (On May 26 the Senate failed to convict the president on two other counts, then dropped the case.) The delegates to the Republican National Convention included a dozen black men, such as P. B. S. Pinchback of Louisiana and Robert Smalls of South Carolina. The Republican platform endorsed Congressional Reconstruction, mourned the death of President Lincoln, denounced President Johnson, encouraged immigration, and advocated veterans’ pensions.

Since Grant’s nomination was a certainty before the convention began, Congressman John Logan of Illinois simply placed the general’s name in nomination without a speech and the assembly roared its approval, with banners waving and a band playing "Hail to the Chief." Grant was nominated unanimously on the first ballot. The leading candidates for vice president were Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, and Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, plus several favorite-son nominees. Wade led on the first four ballots but was overtaken by Colfax, who secured the nomination on the sixth ballot.

Grant had at first been uninterested in becoming president, partly because he feared it would undermine his reputation. Over time, however, he realized that the esteem he had earned in the Civil War was tied to making sure that the Reconstruction process fulfilled those principles for which the Union had fought. Therefore, to secure his personal honor and further the political aims on which it rested, Grant accepted the Republican presidential nomination- . His letter of acceptance was brief, broad, and patriotic. He closed the public letter with the hopeful proclamation: "Let us have peace." Those words promised an end to national turmoil and became the slogan of the Republican campaign.

The Democratic Nomination
After the 1866 elections, a Grant presidential nomination for the Democrats had also been discussed, mainly by a group of New York-based party kingpins, including Democratic party chair August Belmont, New York World editor Manton Marble, and New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett Jr.. They thought that Grant’s candidacy for the Democrats would downplay economic issues upon which the party was divided and would cleanse it of the stain of treason. The general, however, refused to be associated with the Democratic party, and once Republicans rallied around him, the idea was dropped.

The leading Democratic candidate for president in 1868 was Representative George Pendleton, the party’s 1864 vice-presidential nominee. The handsome Ohioan had been a principled opponent of the Lincoln administration during the war, was respected on both sides of the aisle for his intelligence and civility, and had built a loyal following in the Western states. He faced strong opposition, however, from powerful Eastern Democrats for his "soft money" views, which endorsed printing paper currency to spur inflation in an effort to ease the burden of debtors.

The Eastern politicos, primarily Belmont, former New York governor Horatio Seymour, and lawyer Samuel Tilden, searched for a "hard money" answer to the Pendleton problem. Belmont’s foreign birth, Tilden’s lack of experience in public office, and Seymour’s insistence that he had retired from elective politics seemed to exclude each of them. An attractive alternative was Senator Thomas Hendricks of Indiana, a Westerner like Pendleton, but an advocate of "hard money" (money tied to the gold standard). The Pendleton-Hendricks rivalry, though, turned bitter when newspapers publicized accusations from each camp that the other was engaging in shady practices.

That public rift caused Seymour to shift his sentiment from Hendricks to Chief Justice Chase, whom the former New York governor considered to be the most qualified of any American to be president. As the Republicans coalesced around Grant, Chase began courting the Democrats and secured the support of influential Congressmen like S. S. "Sunset" Cox of New York and Daniel Voorhees of Indiana. The chief justice was hated by Democrats in his home state of Ohio, but the main obstacle to his nomination was his insistence on black manhood suffrage and other basic civil rights for black Americans. From March into June signs for a Chase nomination were positive, but by the time of the convention in July, his star had faded.

Other Democratic presidential candidates included Senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin, Governor Joel Parker of New Jersey, Governor James English of Connecticut, General Winfield Hancock of Pennsylvania, former lieutenant governor Sanford Church of New York, and former Congressman and railroad president Asa Packer of Pennsylvania. In addition, President Johnson had worked unsuccessfully since assuming office to cobble together a coalition of conservatives to support his Reconstruction policies and his nomination. The impeachment proceedings against him eroded all but a core group of supporters.

On July 4 the Democratic National Convention convened in the new Tammany Hall building in New York City. Party chair Belmont opened the proceedings, followed by the keynote address of Henry Palmer of Wisconsin, and the selection of Seymour as the convention’s chairman. The party platform accepted the demise of slavery and secession, but in effect demanded the end of Reconstruction by calling for the return of authority to the states, the non-renewal of the Freedmen’s Bureau, amnesty for all former Confederates, and military retrenchment (the army enforced Reconstruction). The platform accused the Republicans—"the Radical party"—of violating the constitutional rights of the Southern states and of subjecting them to "military despotism and Negro supremacy."

Despite dimmed prospects, ardent Chase-backers, led by John Van Buren (President Martin Van Buren’s son) and Kate Chase Sprague (daughter of Chase and wife of Republican Senator William Sprague) worked behind the scenes at the convention for his nomination. Because of the large field of candidates, though, they decided not to place his name in contention in the early rounds. Pendleton’s troops exhibited the opposite strategy of demonstrating their candidate’s strength in the early balloting before picking up additional support to top the Democratic party’s two-thirds requirement for nomination.

The first ballot confirmed that Pendleton, with 105 votes, was the man to beat. President Johnson came in second with 65, followed by New York’s favorite-son candidate, Sanford Church, with 34, General Hancock with 33, then Packer, English, Doolittle, Parker, Reverdy Johnson, and finally Francis P. (Frank) Blair Jr. tagging behind with of a vote. For several ballots Pendleton continued building steadily on his strong lead, with Hancock a distant second, Hendricks moving up to third position, and support for Johnson dwindling until it disappeared on the 14th ballot. Pendleton peaked on the seventh and eighth ballots at 156, provoking New York to switch from favorite-son Church to hard-money Hendricks. Pendleton’s support was widespread, drawing from 26 states, including nearly 50 votes from the 11 states of the former Confederacy, but, as was evident to many delegates, it was not enough to push him over the top.

As Pendleton’s bloc eroded, Hendricks edged by Hancock until the general’s home state of Pennsylvania added its substantial numbers to his column on the 15th ballot, allowing him to take the lead on the next vote. Although young (44), Hancock would have been an attractive choice for the Democrats (and they did finally nominate him in 1880). He had the backing of the powerful Pennsylvania delegation, he was not objectionable to the South, and his status as a former Union general would have severely blunted Republican claims that the Democrats were the party of treason. Yet the latter trait was held against him because many Democrats were more interested in charging Grant and the Republicans with military despotism than in redeeming their party with their own former Union commander.


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