The Democratic National Convention
The odd became surreal in Baltimore on July 9-10 when the Democratic party also nominated the Greeley-Brown ticket and adopted the Liberal Republican platform whole-cloth. It is the only time in American history when a major party endorsed the candidate of a third party. Greeley had been an outspoken abolitionist, one of the founders of the Republican party, and the needle in the side of many a Democrat. Now he was to be their champion. During the Civil War, Greeley had first advised letting the South secede, then urged an aggressive Union military policy, followed by attempts to arrange a cease-fire and negotiated settlement. Early in the Reconstruction process, he was one of the first to call for both universal manhood suffrage and universal amnesty. By 1872 the Democrats rhetorically accepted the former and desperately desired the latter. They were also a party in disarray with no other viable candidate to offer the nation. Like in Missouri in 1870, national Democratic leaders saw the Liberal Republican movement as a Trojan Horse which could carry them back into the White House. (The Liberals, conversely, thought they were taking over the Democrat party.)

The Republican National Convention
The Republicans had already met a month before on June 5-6 in Philadelphia, where Grant was renominated by acclimation. The only suspense at the convention was the choice of vice president. The Crédit Mobilier scandal had not yet come to light, but Colfax had alienated himself from the president when he let it be known that he was available for the regular Republican presidential nomination should Grant chose not to seek a second term. The breach was exacerbated when some Liberal Republicans considered the sitting vice president as a possible presidential candidate of their own.

On the first ballot in Philadelphia, U.S. Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts bested Colfax 364½ to 321½ (with 66 scattered) before Virginia switched to give Wilson the vice presidential nomination. The Republican platform called for vigorous enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments, equal rights under the law, civil service reform, amnesty for former Confederates, Union veterans’ benefits, but waffled on the tariff issue. In May, the Republican Congress had passed the Amnesty Act and slightly lowered the tariff so as to rob the Liberal Republican-Democratic coalition of those issues.

The Campaign
One wag remarked that the Grant-Greeley contest was a battle pitting a "man of no ideas" against a "man of too many." The campaign degenerated into a mudslinging melee, epitomized in the anti-Greeley cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly and the anti-Grant cartoons of Matt Morgan in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (many of which are featured on this site). Greeley partisans called Grant a dictator and a drunk, while the president’s forces depicted the editor as a traitor and a flake. At the end of the campaign, Greeley complained, "I have been assailed so bitterly that I hardly knew whether I was running for the presidency or the penitentiary." Grant could have said much the same.

The Republicans had the advantages of a popular president, a good economy, and an efficient party organization animated by thousands of patronage appointees who doubled as campaign workers. The GOP took every opportunity to "wave the bloody shirt" and thereby remind voters of the Democratic association with secession and the Confederate cause. Their Liberal Republican-Democratic opponents, on the other hand, suffered from weak and uncoordinated organization, internal feuding, low funds, and a candidate about whom even his own supporters had doubts.

State and Congressional elections held in the late summer and early fall were considered a bellwether of the presidential elections held in early November. In 1872, the first test was in North Carolina on August 1. Republicans took no chances, sending Cabinet members and black students from Howard University to campaign throughout the state. To make sure that Republicans, especially blacks, were not prevented from voting, federal officials arrested over 1000 under authority of the Reconstruction Enforcement Acts. Fraud was committed by both sides, and the results were mixed, with the Republicans electing the executive ticket and the Democrats capturing the legislature (and thus able to elect a U.S. senator). In September, though, Maine and Vermont went firmly in the Republican column.

Grant opted for the traditional silence of a sitting president, but his challenger took to the hustings. On September 19-29, Greeley embarked on a grueling campaign tour through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, delivering up to 22 speeches per day for a total of nearly 200. Although some detractors were impressed, others judged the effort to be counterproductive, with Greeley saying the wrong things to the wrong audiences. His vice-presidential running-mate, Gratz Brown, made matters worse by delivering a speech at Yale while drunk, fainting before a gathering in New York City, and generally making misstatements.

In late October, the Republicans won the Pennsylvania elections by a larger-than-expected margin, and the dye seemed to be cast for the upcoming presidential vote. On election day, Grant overwhelmed the Liberal Republican-Democratic nominee, winning 31 of 37 states, 286 electoral votes to 66 slated for Greeley, and 56% of the popular vote to his rival’s 44%. Grant’s winning percentage was the highest between 1828 and 1904, while Greeley’s losing percentage was the lowest between 1848 and 1904. Grant, however, had not done well in the South, and the Republican party base there was primarily limited to black men. Greeley’s political defeat was accompanied by personal tragedy. In early October his wife had fallen sick and died later that month, a few weeks before the election. Exhausted and demoralized, Greeley himself died a few weeks after the election.

Sources consulted: Paul F. Boller Jr., Presidential Campaigns; Charles S. Campbell, The Transformation of American Foreign Relations, 1865-1900; William A. DeGregario, The Complete Books of U.S. Presidents; Richard Allan Gerber, "The Liberal Republican of 1872 in Historiographical Perspective," Journal of American History 62 (June 1975): 40-73; William Gillette, "Election of 1872," in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections, vol. III, pp. 1303-1330.

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