[Edited fairly thoroughly, February 2010]





Introduction: Negative Campaigns?

Many Americans complain today about negative campaigns, and most of us dislike the sneery television and radio ads that have become so prevalent in recent elections. But negative campaigns are nothing new.  The presidential campaigns of the last third of the 19th century were characterized, not only by mudslinging, but by violence, corruption, and outright fraud.  In view of this, it is not surprising that the men elected to the presidency during this period were seldom great leaders.  It is perhaps more surprising that these men were as statesman-like as they were.

As I indicated in my last lecture, America faced severe problems in 1868. The Civil War was over, but the problems the Civil War created hadn’t been solved—certainly by Andrew Johnson or the radical Republicans who had wanted him removed.  What the country needed—clearly—was a man who could succeed where others had failed.  And there seemed to be just such a man available, Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant Presidency

Grant to be sure had some negatives, including a fondness for alcohol.  But when Lincoln had been asked about Grant’s drinking, his reply was simply: find out what the guy’s been drinking, and let all my other generals follow along.  Grant’s generalship had brought the Civil War to a more rapid end than might have otherwise been the case: perhaps he could be successful as president as well.  

In 1868, Grant won a fairly easy victory against his Democrat opponent, Seymour.  But Grant was not as successful as president as one might have hoped. While not corrupt himself, Grant’s friends and associates weren’t entirely above corruption, and unscrupulous businessmen were able to take advantage.  Jim Fisk and Jay Gould, for example, had a plan to corner the gold market and add to their already considerable fortunes by profiting from a run-up in gold prices.  The scheme would only work, though, if the U.S. government held on to its gold reserves.  To make sure that happened, Gould and Fisk gave Grant’s brother-in-law $25,000.

Now the scheme didn’t work, but the fact that someone close to Grant was implicated in the fraud was bad news for Grant’s reputation.  Not only that, the gifts Grant had received from grateful Americans prior to his presidency, appropriate enough for a war hero, didn’t seem so benign in a president.  What were these gift-givers getting in return?

This was a particular problem in view of the fact that the Republican party had been born in idealism just a short time earlier: Republicans were supposed to be the party of ideals, not the party of corruption.  As a result, when Grant received the Republican nomination again in 1872, liberal Republicans bolted and nominated a candidate of their own: New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley.

1872 Campaign and Grant's 2nd Term

Now Greeley and the Democrats had not been friendly.  Greeley had once said that, while not every Democrat was a horse thief, every horse thief was a Democrat.  Nevertheless, the Democrats thought Greeley their best chance, and so they too nominated Greeley!

There was too much money and power at stake for the Republicans to play anything but hardball.  They attacked Greeley with everything they had, accusing him of atheism, communism, advocating “free love,” of vegetarianism—and even of eating brown bread!  There were elements of truth to some of this: Greeley had written much in his newspaper editorials, and it was easy to find ammunition to attack him.  But the out-of-context quotes distorted Greeley's opinions, especially in the area of religion.  Far from being an atheist, Greeley was a man who insisted on the Bible as essential to American democracy. "It is impossible to enslave mentally or socially a Bible-reading people.  the principles of the Bible are the groundwork of human freedom."

Still, Greeley had made himself an easy target.  Although his newspaper had been in many ways the unofficail newspaper of the Republican Party practically from the time of that party's birth, and though Greeley had championed the Northern cause in the Civil War, he was one of the men who helped bail Jefferson Davis!  No doubt Greeley did this out of principle: even our enemies deserve fair treatment by the courts. But how could Greeley possibly respond to a slogan like, "Grant beat Davis, Greeley bailed him"?

The vicious campaign got to Greeley.  He lost his wife, his health, his newspaper, his sanity—and his life.  Before Grant even began his second term, Greeley was dead.

But when one runs a campaign based only on smearing one’s opponent, one has no mandate for much of anything.  Grant’s 2nd term was more of the same: no real progress on any of the issues confronting the country, including (in particular) reconstruction in the South and political corruption everywhere.

1876 Campaign

Nevertheless, in 1876, the Republicans seemed a shoe-in.  They dominated the North, the West, and the Midwest.  In the South, military occupation meant that black votes (sure to be Republican) were guaranteed, while many whites would continue to be disenfranchised.  

Not surprisingly, with victory all but assured, the Republicans began squabbling among themselves over the fruits of expected victory.  “Stalwart” Republicans led by Roscoe Conkling wanted their wing to have control, while “Half-Breed” Republicans led by James G. Blaine wanted control themselves.  There were a few Grant die-hards as well, and sizable number of liberal Republicans who wanted none of the above.  

In their 1876 convention, the Republicans agreed on a compromise candidate: Rutherford B. Hayes.  Hayes had experience as a Union General, but was otherwise undistinguished. “The Great Unknown,” someone labeled him.  “A third-rate nonentity whose only recommendation is that he is obnoxious to no-one,” said another.  So why Hayes?  Well, Hayes came from an important swing state: Ohio.  By nominating Hayes, Ohio was sure to go Republican, and that might make the difference.  “Some or born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” says a line from Shakespeare.  “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some are born in Ohio,” was the clever paraphrase in regard to Hayes.

The Democrats now had a chance: the Republicans had put up a cipher candidate, and the Democrats had an issue as well: political corruption. They took advantage of the situation by nominating Samuel Tilden—famous around the country as the man who put the notorious Boss Tweed in prison.

And Tilden did well.  He won the popular vote: 4,284,020 to 4, 036,572.  And he seemed to have won in the electoral college as well.  Tilden had 184 of the 185 electoral votes needed.  But in three southern states (LA, SC, FLA) the outcome was unclear.  There were two sets of returns from each state, one declaring Tilden the winner, the other Hayes.  Which set of returns would be counted?

Tilden’s supporters promised action if their candidate didn’t win.  “Tilden or blood!” they declared.

But no-one really wanted a resumption of the civil war. A fifteen-man commission was set up to decide—and, in each case, an 8-7 majority gave the votes to Hayes.  Tilden’s supporters were angry, and Democrats in the Senate were going to launch a filibuster to prevent any president from taking office.

Obviously, some sort of compromise seemed to be called for, and, eventually, the two sides settled on the Compromise of 1877.

The Democrats agreed to give up their filibuster attempts, and Hayes would be president.  But the Republicans agreed to withdraw remaining federal troops from the South, to sponsor construction of a 2nd transcontinental railroad through the South (through Texas), and to make sure Democrats were included among those receiving government jobs.  This meant that Reconstruction was over.  Whites resumed their control of southern governments, and, for almost a hundred years, this ensured Democrat control of the South.

Who had actually won the election?  Probably, the actual vote in the disputed states should have given them to Tilden.  On the other hand, white intimidation had kept enough blacks away from the polls to tilt the election toward the Democrats: basically, an election stolen by the Democrats and stolen back by the Republicans.

Hayes Presidency

Hayes turned out to be a president of considerable personal integrity. A family man with eight children, and deeply religious, he held devotions every day in the White House. No alcohol in the White House: his wife was nick-named lemonade Lucy.  Hayes high moral standards dictated in his conduct in office.  He appointed liberal Republicans (including Carl Schurz, the leading proponent of civil service reform) to his cabinet.  He worked to end carpetbagger government in the South, and advocated better treatment of Native Americans and the creation of technical schools to train blacks in skills they might use to earn a better living than they could as share croppers.

But Hayes actually accomplished almost nothing. Opponents of his reforms branded him “Old 9-7” “Old Granny,” and “His Fraudulency.”  Making matters worse, the country was going through a depression Hayes could do nothing about.  This aggravated racial tension, particularly in California.  Chinese coolies, willing to work long hours for little pay, were hated by whites who pushed for anti-coolie legislation.  Hayes veto of this legislation made Californians angry…and the burned the president in effigy. Unsurprisingly, the now-unpopular Hayes decided against seeking a second term.

1880 Campaign

With the Republican nomination up for grabs once again in 1880, Half-Breeds and Stalwarts were again at each other’s throats. After 35 ballots, once again there had to be a compromise candidate: James Garfield, another union general from the great state of…Ohio!

The Democrats chose a union general of their own, Winfield Hancock.  Still, the Republicans based their campaign on insisting that the Democrats were the party of treason and rebellion. The Democrats responded by lambasting Garfield’s alleged corruption.  Supposedly, Garfield had received a $329 bribe the railroads.  The Democrats constantly reminded the electorate, writing “329” all over the place.

Garfield won the election…unfortunately for him.  No sooner had he won the office than he was besieged by office seekers.  Both Stalwarts and Half-Breeds thought they were entitled to their share of the spoils.  In the midst of this, a disappointed office seeker (Charles Guiteau) shot Garfield: “I am a Stallwart, and Arthur is President!”  

Arthur Presidency

This seemed to be bad news for the country.  Arthur was indeed a Stalwart, a product of Roscoe Conkling’s corrupt political machine.  The nation needed a man of ability, not a spoilsman.  

But Arthur surprised everyone—especially his friends among the Stalwarts.  Once in office, Arthur rose above machine politics—an example of what’s often called “Presidential magic”—the responsibilities of office turning a man into a much better president than one might expect.  Stalwart office seekers were out of luck.  Arthur said, “For the vice-presidency, I was indebted to Mr. Conkling, but for the presidency of the United States, my debt is to the almighty.”

Arthur ended up fighting political corruption, signing a major civil service reform bill, the Pendleton Act.  This act (1883) provided that there would be no “assessments” of office holders: they wouldn’t be forced to pay the party responsible for putting them in power.  Further, certain classified jobs would be filled through competitive civil service exams rather than assigned through the spoils system.  10% of the around 140,000 Federal jobs were no classified—a good start!

Arthur’s newly-discovered integrity cost him any chance he might have for the 1884 Republican nomination.  Neither the Conkling nor the Blaine wings or the party were happy.

Blaine especially wanted a man he could trust as president, and so he pushed for giving the Republican nomination to—himself!   One text says of Blain he had every qualification a presidential candidate needs except a reputation for honesty.  Meanwhile, the Democrats put a a candidate whose reputation for honesty was unexcelled—Stephen Grover Cleveland.

1884 Campaign

The Democrats exploited the issue of Blaine’s corruption.  A Boston businessman had written letters while apparently revealed Blaine’s complicity in a corrupt deal that profited the railroads.  These, the so-called Mulligan letters, fell into the hands of Blaine’s opponents.  One of the letters ended with the line, “Burn this letter.”  Even those who couldn’t follow the details of the corruption schemes could understand that: if the letters were supposed to be burned, obviously something nefarious was going on.

Many Republicans, unhappy with their own party’s corruption, bolted to Cleveland.  These disgruntled Republicans ended up nick-named Mugwumps—and there were enough of them to seemingly guarantee Cleveland’s election.

But desperate Republicans managed to dig up some dirt on Cleveland.  The bachelor Cleveland had apparently been helping a woman who had born an illegitimate child—obviously, his opponents said, Cleveland’s child.

Both sides chanted slogans highlighting the ethical flaws of the other.  Democrats chanted, “Burn, burn, burn this letter.”  Republicans chanted, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”  To which Democrats responded, “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”

What killed the Republicans was a Blaine supported who denounced the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”  Insulted Catholics (especially in New York) responded by voting for Cleveland.  Cleveland ended up winning the popular vote 4,879,507 to 4,850,293.  More importantly, he won the electoral vote as well.

Cleveland's firt term

Cleveland addressed some important issues as president.  He continued civil service reform, although 2/3 of government jobs were still non-classified, i.e., not available to use as “spoils.”  

A more important issue was the tariff.  During the Civil War, the federal government had used a huge tariff on imported goods to raise the money needed to fight the war.  After the war was over, the high tariff remained in place, supported by businessmen who profited from the resulting lack of foreign competition.  But the government was ending up with greater and greater surpluses.  What to do?

The GAR vets had a simple solution: give them money to us.  Republican politicians, by and large, were willing to go along.  But the veteran’s pension system was filled with fraud and corruption. Cleveland vetoed many pension bills, despite the threat to his popularity.

Cleveland’s idea was that the tariff should be reduced: it wasn’t needed.  He was warned that opposing the tariff would cost him re-election. “What’s the use of being elected or re-elected,”  asked Cleveland, “If you don’t stand for something?”

1888 Campaign

Cleveland did pay a price for his integrity in the 1888 election.  Big business raised $3,000,000 to defeat him and to ensure the election of his Republican opponent Benjamin Harrison (grandson of President William Henry Harrison).  The Republicans used the money to buy votes—at up to $20.00 a piece!  There were many that took advantage of this could deal more than once, becoming “repeaters,” people who cast more than one ballot.  “Vote early, and vote often.”  

Cleveland still managed to win the popular vote, but the Republicans had spent their money in just the right places and Harrison won the electoral vote 233-168.  Big business had gotten rid of Cleveland—at least for the moment.