The 1872 United States Presidential Election was one of the least contested elections in US History, but also one of the most interesting. The election pitted the enormously popular incumbent president, victorious Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant, in a battle for reelection against enormously popular newspaper editor Horace Greeley (most famous for advising in an 1865 editorial: "Go west, young man, go west!").
Grant derived his popularity from the fact that he was an honest, sincere, and genuine personality, without a false bone in his body. His party, the Republicans, still benefited in the northern states from a special aura as the party of the martyred Abraham Lincoln, whereas in the South it enjoyed devoted support from the newly-enfranchised black majority.
This bi-regional support made Grant extremely likely to win in a general election, and his personal popularity among the masses made his nomination seem like a no-brainer to the mainstream Republican leaders. However, Grant's first presidential administration had been wracked by rampant corruption, which was just beginning to be investigated and brought to light, not coincidentally, among others, by noted New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley.
Meanwhile, Grant's continuing support of the so-called "Radical Reconstruction" of the South and his decision to use federal troops to enforce it had begun to alienate some of the more liberal members of the Republican party, who were also appalled by the corruption they saw spreading around them. As the 1872 election drew near, these liberal Republicans split off to form a new party, the "Liberal Republican Party", which separately nominated Horace Greeley, a onetime Grant supporter and lifelong Republican who had recently turned against Grant over corruption and reconstruction. Then, in a bizzare twist, the badly disorganized Democratic Party, unable to agree on nominating one of its own, awarded its nomination as well to Greeley, even though he had spent his entire career eviscerating their party in his newspaper.
Unfortunately for the Liberal Republicans and the Democrats however, Greeley, who was a lifelong newspaper man with no previous political experience, proved to be a disastrous campaigner. While an inspiring writer, he proved to be less inspiring at public speaking and interacting with people in person. Moreover, his long career as an bold and outspoken editorial writer left a long public record of various odd and outrageous opinions for his enemies to lampoon, and his former stalwart support of Grant gave them a chance to portray him as a flip-flopper and a turncoat. The famous cartoonist Thomas Nast produced some particularly vicious cartoons. And only further adding to Greeley's image problems, his running mate, B. Gratz Brown, turned out to be a drunken incompetent who showed up so sloshed to one political rally that he tried to butter a watermelon.
Meanwhile, Grant's winning personality and impeccable record in the civil war made his personal image hard to assail. The result was that Grant won in a landslide, capturing the popular vote 56% to 44%, and winning the pledged electoral votes 286 to 66.
But the election of 1872 had one more strange twist left. It turned out that 1872 had not been a good year for Horace Greeley. In addition to the grueling campaign and vicious attacks, Greeley wound up being one of several high-profile investors defrauded by con-man Philip Arnold in a famous diamond hoax. And then Whitelaw Reid, Greeley's rival at the New York Herald, took advantage of Greeley's being busy with the campaign to engineer a hostile takeover of his newspaper, the New York Tribune.
But the tragedy would not end for Greeley. Just a few days after his crushing defeat in the election, his beloved wife suddenly passed away. Unable to stand the strain anymore, Greeley descended into madness and passed away himself. The problem was, although the popular vote already counted, the electoral votes had yet to be to be cast. This threw the choice of how to vote back into the hands of Greeley's pledged electors, who were free to vote for whomever they wished. They wound up splitting their votes between four other men, with three electors actually voting a dead man for president by selecting Greeley anyway (these votes were later invalidated by Congress).
Grant was thus returned to the White House with what seemed to be a sweeping mandate to continue on as before. But the problems of corruption and deepening divisions over race in the South which had plagued his first administration only got worse in his second. Although Grant was personally an honest man and knew little or nothing of what was going on, the men he surrounded himself with helped make his second administration one of the most corrupt in US history, and in combination with the continued presence of Federal troops in the South would eventually lose Grant almost all of his personal popularity and very nearly cost the Republicans the presidency in 1876, in one of the most disputed presidential elections ever.
US Presidential Elections
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