[Edited fairly thoroughly,
POLITICS AND THE PRESIDENCY
GRANT, GREELEY, STALWARTS, HALF-BREEDS, JAMES G. BLAINE, ROSCOE
CONKLING, HAYES, TILDEN, COMPROMISE OF 1877, GARFIELD, ARTHUR,
MUGWUMPS, PENDLETON ACT, CLEVELAND
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
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
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.
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
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"?
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.
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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?”
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
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.