Reconstruction was in full swing! But just because the Republicans had a lot of power, didn’t mean that everyone in the party was happy. Would President Grant’s status as a war hero be enough to win him a second term?
The Last Four Years
President Grant had a good heart, but he wasn’t so great at actually being president. Since I’ve come to respect him more this week, I’ll start with the good things! Although Reconstruction was controversial, Grant believed in an active Executive Branch to ensure the protection of African American civil rights. Likewise, he established the Department of Justice to bring down the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. He was instrumental in passing the 15th Amendment (guaranteed voting rights for all US citizens, regardless of race) and the Naturalization Act of 1870 (created a process for nonwhite residents to become American citizens). Grant advocated for peace with Native American tribes after years of chaos (results may vary) and appointed the first Native American man as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. In foreign policy, his administration faced demands for British reparations for damage done by warships they built for the Confederacy. Luckily, the negotiations led to a treaty that initiated a period of peace between the two countries that we still enjoy today! And last but not least, Grant established Yellowstone National Park.
And now, unfortunately, for the bad stuff. The Spoils System (otherwise known as patronage) was at a height during Grant’s administration. This meant that friends and family of Republican loyalists were rewarded with government jobs and contracts. While obviously corrupt, this also was a major way parties maintained their support. This system predictably set the stage for several scandals. There were already a few major controversies in Grant’s first term.
In the Star Routes Postal Ring, contracts for rural postal routes (known as Star Routes because they were marked with asterisks on postal documents) were being assigned based on bribes. Similarly, officials at the New York Custom House, which collected revenue from imports, were receiving money on the side to store private goods. The local party was run by patronage-lover, Senator Roscoe Conkling. When the con was finally put to an end, Chester A. Arthur, another Conkling loyalist that we will see again soon, was appointed head of the Custom House. In the Crédit Mobilier Scandal, executives for the Union Pacific Railroad scammed the system with a fraudulent bank, named after a famous, real French bank, Crédit Mobillier. They billed inflated costs of the Transcontinental Railroad to their own company so they could pocket the surplus. Many politicians were bribed to keep regulations favorable for the companies, including Grant’s own VP, Schuyler Colfax. Grant also faced the Gold Ring scandal. Grant’s brother-in-law, along with a business partner, was using his insider info to profit off of gold prices. When Grant and his Secretary of Treasury discovered the scheme, they sold $4 million of gold in one day to tank prices. They successfully ended the ring, but, of course, also tanked the stock market and food prices. The economy saw months of turmoil, which specifically hurt farmers. Lastly, Grant made enemies with Congress, even within his own party, with his plan to annex Santa Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) as a US state. Grant believed the island could be a safe haven for African Americans and an important military base. He also hoped that increased US presence in the Caribbean would help end slavery in Spanish colonies like Cuba. Unfortunately, he didn’t spend enough time selling the idea to the public and it faced lots of opposition Congress.
Even though Grant was personally honest, he wasn’t tough enough on the corruption happening right under his nose. The trend became known as “Grantism.” The situation became such an embarrassment, that even members of Grant’s party became frustrated.
Party Watch & The Candidates
Republicans that opposed Grant actually formed their own party! The “Liberal Republicans” were founded in 1870 and held their own nominating convention in 1872. Their platform mainly called for civil service reform. Like the rest of the Republican party, the Liberal Republicans wanted to provide equal rights for former slaves, but they also called for the end of Reconstruction. They felt that the military occupation of the South had gone on long enough. Prominent party members included Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner and John Quincy Adams’ son, Charles Francis Adams. After a few rounds of voting at their convention, the Liberal Republicans made a surprise choice with Horace Greeley as their nominee. Greeley was a former New York representative, but he was better known as the founder of the famous Whig/Republican newspaper, the New York Tribune. While he was known as an intellectual, Greeley also considered to be very eccentric for his favorable views on spiritualism, vegetarianism, prohibition, and socialism. The Liberal Republicans chose Missouri Governor B. Gratz Brown as his running mate.
Democrats, for their part, just wanted to beat Grant. Now a few years after the Civil War, they realized that they could not rely on the racist Southern vote to win. Under the “New Departure” plan, they instead focused on the economic reasons to oppose Reconstruction. In a pragmatic choice, they voted to also back the Horace Greeley as their nominee, knowing that a split opposition vote would ensure a Grant victory. Their only problem, Greeley had been a life-long critic of the Democratic Party. This decision did not excite their voter base, to say the least.
The remaining Republicans made their choice easily. Still riding on his Civil War reputation, President Grant was re-nominated on the first ballot. Their platform threw a bone to civil service reform, but was mainly focused on protecting African American rights. There was a change-up in the VP spot, though. Republicans nominated a different Radical, Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, over sitting-VP Schuyler Colfax. Colfax had said he would not run for another term, and many worried he was looking to run against Grant. Wilson was seen as honest, which was much needed in Grant’s administration (turns out he wan’t).
There were a few other inconsequential third parties hanging around in the 1872 election, but the one I want to mention here is the Equal Rights Party, which argued that the 15th Amendment should include women. They nominated the first woman candidate, Victoria Woodhull, a stockbroker and newspaper editor. Unfortunately, she was arrested for distributing obscene newspapers just a few days before the election and couldn’t cast her own vote. Oddly enough, she was technically ineligible for candidacy because she was a few months short of 35 years old on inauguration day.
The 1872 campaign was summarized to be “a man of no ideas vs a man of too many.” Grant faced most of the same criticisms he had before, that he was a drunk and not a politician. Of course, now opponents also cited a laundry list of corruption charges from his administration. Despite this, Grant was still really popular and benefitted from a party with deep pockets to spend on campaigning.
Because of his radical beliefs, most people did not take Greeley seriously. His biggest problem though, was his history as a newspaper editor. All of his political positions could be researched and dissected by opponents. It was easy for them to nitpick unfavorable positions to complain about. Unlike Grant, Greeley had seemingly fixed views on almost every political issue. On top of this, Republicans attacked him for working with rebels and traitors from the Democratic Party. Sadly, Greeley stopped campaigning when his wife became sick following a trip to Europe. She died only a few weeks before the election.
It was obvious going into election day that Greeley was going to lose. To make matters worse, he was in danger of being removed from his job at the Tribune. He was eventually admitted to an asylum. Look, the guy had been through a lot! Greeley died on November 29th, after Election Day but before the official electoral votes were cast.
In other news, this is FINALLY the first election were all states had re-joined the Union and used the popular vote to determine their electors. South Carolina had been the popular vote hold-out that still picked electors via their state legislature, but now, they were finally on-board with voting.
Also notable in this election, Susan B. Anthony voted! And then was arrested a few days later. Anthony had attended each of the three major party conventions. Only the Republicans were willing to include a reference to their “obligations to the loyal women of America” in their platform. Anthony subsequently campaigned for the Republican Party (in addition to women’s suffrage, of course). When she voted for Grant in 1872, she intended to face a trial for it. She hoped to could argue in court that the 15th Amendment included women’s right to vote, too. Though her trial in a circuit court was highly publicized, she faced Justice Ward Hunt, fresh off his appointment to the Supreme Court. Controversially, he instructed the jury to vote guilty. He got his way and fined Susan B. Anthony $100. She never paid, but Hunt did not order her arrest, preventing her from taking the trial to the Supreme Court.
Ulysses S. Grant won again! He earned 286 electoral votes in a blowout.
With Greeley out of the picture, his 66 electors were split. Democratic Indiana politician Thomas A. Hendricks received his most votes with 42, and 18 voted for VP nominee B. Gratz Brown. Only 3 Georgia electors posthumously cast their vote for Greeley, though they were rejected in the official count. This was the last election with more than one “faithless” elector in the presidential vote until 2016.
What Did It Say About America?
The Grant administration scandals were bad, but they weren’t enough to take him out of office. Although the opposition was scrambling, they were slowing understanding how to build their new coalition. A bigger threat to the Republican Party than Grant’s scandals was America’s growing Reconstruction fatigue. Right or wrong, people were getting tired of fighting the South.
Was It The Right Decision?
Kind of! As stated many different ways above, Grant was a good guy but not a great leader. I will say, I appreciate him a lot more than I did going into this post! But the Liberal Republicans’ concerns were valid. Greeley didn’t seem well-suited for the job, either, but he was probably the best candidate of the time period that ran against the Republicans. As we will soon see, however, the Republicans’ Reconstruction policies served an important purpose in protecting African American rights. Even though slavery had ended, equality was still far away.