In 1868, Reconstruction was still a major political battleground in America. The Republican Party promised more radical changes in the South, while the Democrats vainly tried to quickly move the South back into the day-to-day affairs of the United States. There were still many Southern sympathizers both in the House and Senate, and the ongoing impeachment proceedings of the stubborn and unsavvy Andrew Johnson lingered over the upcoming Presidential election. Each party had much to gain by winning the top executive seat in America - the utmost victory being the appointment of a Supreme Court justice to replace the retired James Wayne, a Southerner. If the seat was lost to a Northerner, a dramatic shift in the ideology of the nation could occur.
What made Reconstruction even more important was the political process for adding Constitutional amendments. To become law, an amendment must be approved by 3/4 of the states through state conventions. Since some Southern states still were not considered part of the Union, the 14th Amendment had narrowly slipped through, guaranteeing equal protection and due process to all citizens. Even more flippantly, Congress required each Southern state to ratify the Amendment before it would be allowed to return to the Union. Some states felt it violated states' rights and refused.
The Republicans were worried about their image. Radicals like retired Chief Justice Salmon Chase and Senator Benjamin Wade were hammering for crippling reforms and stifling requirements to be placed on the South. Many Republicans felt that this was not the time to divide, but rather to unite, and so they looked for a candidate they felt would be above partisanship, instead embracing those ideas that were best for the nation. In turn, they looked at the acting Secretary of War and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant had already been a presidential nominee in 1864, when a few exasperated Republicans had persuaded him to run (half-heartedly) against a determined Abraham Lincoln. Although Grant had tended to pursue Democratic ideas, his war record and moderate political stances were considered major plusses by the party. He had some detractors in newspaperman Horace Greeley and Wade, who felt he had been too chummy with Andrew Johnson (currently the subject of impeachment hearings), whom they had viewed as a Southern sympathizer and traitor to Lincoln's cause. They were silenced by the 1867 state elections, in which several Northern states rejected the radical Republican agenda, allowing Democratic control of the legislature and governorship. Finally on May 16, 1868, Johnson beat his impeachment rap by one vote, securing his Presidency. If he had been convicted, Wade, the president pro tem of the Senate, would have become President, and possibly could have blocked Grant's nomination at the Republican convention.
Instead, three days later in Chicago, Grant was nominated for President by a unanimous first ballot. Although Wade took the early lead in the vote for Vice President, Schuyler Colfax (R-Ind.) and Speaker of the House came from behind to secure the nomination. In his rousing acceptance speech, Grant spoke of the honor and responsibility Republicans had for ensuring "universal suffrage" (although still excluding women) and finished with a rousing call of "Let us have peace," which became the party's Presidential slogan.
Interestingly enough, Grant had already been approached by the Democrats to run for President for them in 1866. He had declined, citing his conflict of interest as Undersecretary of War to the administration. Other nominees were similarly brought up and discarded - current party chairman August Belmont was born in Sweden; relative unknown Samuel Tilden had little political experience; Senators James Doolittle and Thomas Hendricks; and Governor Joel Parker of New Jersey. Although every Democratic candidate opposed Reconstruction, there was another major issue permeating through the nomination process: hard money.
The American system of currency had always backed every dollar and cent with gold, thereby curbing inflation. This "hard money" system was considered archaic by some, including George Pendleton, the party's 1864 vice president candidate. He earned a lot of support as a likeable man, but many Democrats were still tied to the gold standard, and looked for another candidate, which they found in Hendricks. Then something remarkably unexpected occurred. While Hendricks and Pendleton duked it out in the newspapers, accusing each other's campaign of some underhanded tricks, major Democratic politicos decided to reach out to a person they felt would be the best President of the United States: radical Republican and recent Supreme Court retiree Salmon Chase. Chase was a strong-willed and principled man, but he made many demands about suffrage, citizenship, and equality for the black man, an idea many Democrats opposed. Still, he proved to be a dark horse at the convention, held at Tammany Hall in New York City, along with the current President Andrew Johnson, who clung to a few supporters of his restricted Reconstruction policies.
On July 4, the convention opened with the party platform, full of both surrenders and line-drawing statements. "Secession is over," convention chairman Horatio Seymour spoke, "but our cause persists." He railed against "military despotism and Negro supremacy," demanded amnesty for Confederate soldiers, and called for a return to states' rights. With the 13th amendment in place, what fear did the North have? A resounding round of applause followed.
The Chase supporters took an interesting strategy at the ballot by leaving his name off the early rounds, in order to weed out some of the less-worthy candidates (particularly Andrew Johnson, whom they viewed as the most looming obstacle to their nomination). After the first ballot, Pendleton took the lead, with Johnson in 2nd, former New York governor Sanford Church in 3rd, Civil War hero Winfield Hancock in 4th, and various others filling out the race. As the ballots continued, Pendleton continued to add to his lead, Johnson dropped off of the ballot, and Thomas Hendricks moved on, becoming a strong third-place contender behind Hancock. Soon, the backstage game became most important, as Pendleton's votes continued to rise after each ballot. Finally on the 15th ballot, Church removed his named from the nominee list, and his votes swung to fellow hard money advocate Hendricks. Pendleton's supporters saw he had no chance of gaining any more support on the issue, and slowly began dividing their votes among Hendricks and Hancock.
On the 17th ballot, Chase finally entered the race, stealing away minor votes from Hendricks, and Pendleton's exit from the race left Hancock firmly on top, but without enough votes to seal the nomination. The three men jockeyed for some position for four more ballots, until finally George McCook, a Civil War veteran who had lost his right arm, stood up and called out, "I nominate Horatio Seymour." No one was more shocked than the convention chairman, who had showed virtually no interest in the nomination before the night.
Still, the crowd loved it and roared its approval. Seymour stepped up the podium, graciously thanked the crowd, and declined the position. The crowd was unmoved, however, and one ballot later, Seymour had won the spot. Shortly thereafter Congressman Frank Blair Jr. of Missouri was nominated vice president.
Grant did little campaigning, instead staying at his home in Galena, Illinois for the bulk of 1868. He was particularly hesitant to speak to the press, who labeled him "the American Sphinx." He did make one trip to Denver with some of his fellow war heroes, but did little but wave to the people. Despite Grant's general complacency, his supporters were very active in the campaign.
The Republican campaign consisted of three main points: first, that they stood for integration, reforming the South, and the end of slavery; secondly, that the Democrats stood for slavery, secession, and had opposed the Union war effort; and finally, that with the Senate in Republican hands, a Democratic president would stalemate the government. Republicans frequently waved the bloody shirt, mentioning that Seymour, while governor of New York, had praised a group of men who had rioted against a draft, calling them "my friends" in an open letter. Thomas Nast, the eminent political cartoonist, was particularly acrid in his treatment of Seymour and his Southern sympathies. They also attacked Vice Presidential candidate Frank Blair, a political loose cannon who rarely spoke nicely of the Republicans, which caused some moderates to shy away from the Democrats. Still, their campaign was mostly a self-aggrandizing reminder of who had freed the slaves, and what else good could come from their re-election.
On the other side of the fence, the Democrats portrayed Grant as a simple-minded, low class drunk. Grant's refusal to speak to the papers, the Democrats claimed, was on account of him being too stupid to understand the simplest questions asked of him. They produced several reports of Grant being publicly drunk while on duty during the Civil War (the Republicans retaliated with bills of stay for Frank Blair showing he had a penchant for whiskey, too), and they never stopped to remind people that before joining the Army, Grant had never held a steady job due to his alcoholism. They also attacked the veep candidate Colfax, showing his membership in the brief Know Nothing Party to be proof of his anti-Catholicism.
Despite the rhetoric on both sides, the Republicans won solid state election victories throughout September and October, causing a panic in the Democratic Party. Although some members tried to dump Seymour and nominate Salmon Chase, the head honchos refused and instead sent Seymour, a noted speaker, on a traveling tour of the Northeast. This was a risky endeavor: although today it is commonplace for Presidential nominees to stump all across America, in 1868 it was considered an affront to the dignity of the office. Seymour's tour reached nine stops, and reporters had mixed reviews of each speech - noting that the identical words grew more monotonous at each junction.
On November 3, the votes were tallied up, and the results were as follows:
Electors Total Votes
Grant/Colfax 214 (72.8%) 3.01m (52.7%)
Seymour/Blair 80 (27.2%) 2.71m (47.3%)
Despite remaining relatively close in the polls in virtually every state, Grant and the Republicans dominated the electoral college, taking every state in the Midwest, and winning 7 out of the 10 voting Southern states (Virginia and Texas had yet to ratify the 14th Amendment, making them ineligible for the election.) Claims of violence and intimidation against black Southerners were brought, but it appeared that enough of them had gotten to the polls to make a difference.
Shortly thereafter, Grant put a Northerner, William Strong, on the bench, and the 15th Amendment was passed, giving all citizens the right to vote, regardless of color. Reconstruction continued to have a harrowing impact on the South, and another key battle for states' rights had been lost. The Republican party was in firm control of the government: yet in Grant's Presidency they would face much more adversity than they had in earning him his title.