Ulysses S. Grant - Election of 1868

Grant's nomination by the Republican party was inevitable; nobody else received serious consideration, and the convention vote was unanimous. For its vice presidential candidate, the convention chose Schuyler Colfax, a glib and unimportant Indiana congressman. Grant's nomination served to protect the Republicans from answering such hard questions as the length they intended to push Reconstruction policy and the extent of their commitment to the freedmen. The platform advocated enfranchising blacks in the former Confederacy, leaving the matter elsewhere to the states. War's end endangered the fragile alliance of men with widely differing economic policies; midwestern farmers and eastern manufacturers disagreed on crucial currency issues, the tariff, and much more. The concluding words in Grant's letter accepting the nomination, "Let us have peace," became a Republican rallying cry, valued all the more for its banality.

Democrats possessed all the strengths and weaknesses of a national party. Vociferous support from persons who had so recently fought to overthrow the government proved a mixed blessing. Even in the North, the record of the party during the Civil War proved embarrassing; the party had split into war and peace factions, with the latter denying that the war could be won and sometimes acting to fulfill the prophecy. Accusations of lack of patriotism suggested to some leaders the wisdom of abandoning all war-related issues and focusing instead on economic policy, but Democrats North and South refused to abandon issues that they believed so important; furthermore, questions of Reconstruction demanded attention.

The Democrats had a plethora of candidates for nomination, none of them outstanding. Johnson deserved consideration because of his stubborn defense of Democratic principles, and Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who had defected from the Democrats over the slavery issue in 1854, announced his return to the party just in time to seek the nomination. George Pendleton of Ohio advocated redeeming bonds issued to finance the Civil War with greenbacks, the fiat currency introduced as a war measure, and this inflationary scheme had enthusiastic support from hard-pressed debtors, especially midwestern farmers. The nomination of Winfield Scott Hancock presented the option of confronting the victor of Appomattox with the hero of Gettysburg and a general whose Reconstruction administration of Louisiana had even pleased Johnson.

As prominent candidates canceled out each other, the convention dragged on for ballot after ballot. Finally the weary delegates settled for Horatio Seymour, the wartime governor of New York, who was presiding over the convention and had dis-avowed any interest in the nomination. Seymour's reluctance to furnish troops during the war and his inept conduct during the draft riots in New York City constituted liabilities that the Democrats hoped to counter by nominating Francis P. Blair, Jr., for vice president. Blair negated his asset of having been a commander under Sherman, which should have given him the needed aura of patriotism to balance Seymour, by inflammatory criticism of Reconstruction governments as barbarous and despotic.

Grant ostentatiously ignored the ensuing campaign. At its peak, Grant, accompanied by Sherman and Sheridan, left for a combination inspection and vacation tour of the West, going as far as Denver. When election returns were telegraphed to Grant's home in Galena, he took remarkably little interest in them.

When the votes were all counted, Grant had defeated Seymour with 214 electoral votes from 26 states to 80 electoral votes from 8 states: New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maryland. Yet the Republican popular majority (3 million to 2.7 million) was only slightly more than 300,000. Assuming that 90 percent of the 500,000 votes cast by blacks went to Grant, Seymour received a majority of the votes cast by whites. Nonetheless, Grant profited by the same electoral arithmetic that gave victory to Lincoln in 1860 with under 40 percent of the popular vote.

Election returns in 1868 demonstrated the strength and resilience of the Democratic party, saddled with a deplorable record during the Civil War and unappealing candidates in 1868. Given the facts that no presidential vote was recorded in Mississippi, Virginia, and Texas; that Republican victories in southern and border states depended on black votes (by no means assured as a permanent feature on the political scene); and that the Democrats could carry some northern states and make the race tight in others, the Democratic party could still be considered the majority party in the United States. If black votes had not elected Grant, they had not hurt him either. Black votes put six states of the former Confederacy in the Republican column, and Republican hopes for the future depended heavily on continued black political participation. Republican leaders knew that Grant's personal popularity had served as a major campaign asset; they might have lost with any other nominee.

Grant believed that he owed his election to the American people—not to the Republican party. As he prepared for inauguration, he kept his own counsel about his inaugural address and cabinet appointments, rebuffing politicians eager to assist. Republican leaders thought they had done him a favor by giving him the presidency; Grant thought they had given him a burdensome office with unstable tenure. Republican leaders thought they had created a politician; Grant thought they had created an administrator.

Grant's success as a general owed much to his unmilitary attitude. Sent to West Point against his will, he had never enjoyed the traditions of military life. He believed that laws of war as generally conceived were meant to be broken under new conditions. In the war's final year, he accompanied the Army of the Potomac without displacing its commander, Major General George G. Meade, and took on the responsibilities of overall command without leading troops into battle. He employed Major General Henry W. Halleck, his predecessor as general in chief, as chief of staff, setting the United States Army on the road to modern military bureaucracy. This un-military general now chose to become an unpolitical president.

There was a key difference in the situation presented him by the presidency. Grant had spent fifteen years in the army from his entrance into West Point until his resignation in 1854, and during the Civil War he was fully cognizant of those laws of war he disobeyed. He understood the procedural details of conventional military organization and was clear-headed about those he hoped to change. His ability to innovate was based upon a knowledge of the fundamentals of his job, something he lacked when he entered the White House.

Grant's obvious distaste for politics disconcerted the politicians but delighted the public. The long battle between Johnson and Congress had grown wearisome; in this sense, the slogan "Let Us Have Peace" had struck home to the voters. They expected little from the president, and Grant prepared to satisfy them.

The powers of the office had been enormously increased by Lincoln under war conditions. At the start of the conflict, he had not called Congress into session but had immediately issued a call for troops, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and taken other emergency measures that he expected Congress to ratify. When Congress proved an obstacle to Lincoln's concept of the proper conduct of the war, he set policy through the Emancipation Proclamation and his plan for Reconstruction.

Events proved that Johnson could not wield power as Lincoln had. Grant had cooperated with Congress to curb what both regarded as executive usurpation, and he had no intention of fighting the battle over again, this time unnecessarily. If Grant had followed this policy consistently, his White House years would have been an uneventful period of careful administration of existing legislation with few presidential initiatives, but he believed that he was the only person elected by all the people of the nation, putting him in a position different from that of congressmen elected from individual states. He had a responsibility to carry out the popular will, which he believed he could discern. As a quintessential American, he could think nothing else. He would have no quarrel with Congress over policy, but he would fulfill what he interpreted as moral imperatives.

In his inaugural address, Grant clearly expressed his views: "The office has come to me unsought; I commence its duties untrammeled." He pledged that "all laws will be faithfully executed, whether they meet my approval or not," a statement that might have seemed a platitude had it not followed Johnson's exit from the White House. He argued that bonds issued during the war should be paid in gold as a matter of national honor, adding that this upright policy would enable the government to borrow at lower interest rates in the future. Perhaps the only major surprise was a statement calling for reform of Indian policy, a matter otherwise on the periphery of popular concern.

The cabinet appointments, announced after much popular speculation, surprised the country. Grant named Elihu B. Washburne as secretary of state, an appointment intended as a courtesy to an old friend, who was expected to leave the post after a few days to become minister to France. In Paris, Washburne could answer proudly when asked about his previous employment. To succeed him, Grant named Hamilton Fish, former governor of New York, a man whose political career seemed to be behind him. For secretary of the treasury, Grant named Alexander T. Stewart, an enormously wealthy New York City merchant, who was quickly found to be ineligible because of a law passed in the early days of the Republic prohibiting anyone engaged in trade or commerce from holding that office. An embarrassed president asked Congress to change the law, and to add to his embarrassment, Congress declined to do so. George S. Boutwell of Massachusetts, a congressional Radical, was appointed instead.

For secretary of war, Grant named John A. Rawlins, a Galena attorney who had joined his staff early in the war and become a close friend. Grant originally intended to send the tubercular Rawlins to Arizona to recover his health but changed his mind because Rawlins insisted on a major appointment. The nominations of E. Rockwood Hoar of Massachusetts as attorney general and Jacob D. Cox of Ohio as secretary of the interior added men respected for ability and integrity. The choice of John A. J. Creswell of Maryland as postmaster general was also suitable. For secretary of the navy, Grant picked Adolph E. Borie, an elderly and wealthy Philadelphian who had no interest in serving and did so only long enough to save the president embarrassment.

In contrast, Lincoln had appointed to his original cabinet leaders of the Republican party, his chief rivals for the nomination, and had also balanced party factions and geographical regions. Grant risked his political popularity by assuming that choosing able men would suffice.

Republican leaders, mystified by these appointments, too often credited them to ineptitude—certainly a factor—while overlooking their logic. Grant's strong feelings about personal loyalty led to the appointments of Washburne and Rawlins. His choice of Fish, his most successful, reflected his conservatism. Politicians forgot that Johnson made Grant a Republican, not a Radical. During the war, Grant's attitude had been one of sympathy for southerners but not for their rebellion. Only when the South continued to defy the supremacy of the federal government after the war did Grant reluctantly come to support Radical Reconstruction and black suffrage. Grant sought to appoint those most likely to achieve sectional harmony and obedience to law, and so he avoided Radicals. Overlooking prominent Republicans was no accident; the appointment of men whose primary loyalty might shift from the executive to Congress held serious risks, since appointees still had the protection of the Tenure of Office Act, another law Grant unsuccessfully asked Congress to change.

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