Ulysses S. Grant and the 1868 Election
After leading the Union Army to victory against the Confederates in the Civil War and preserving the unity of the nation in the process, Ulysses S. Grant was viewed by a majority of Americans as a perfect candidate for president. With former President Andrew Johnson unwilling to punish the Southern states for their disloyalty, American citizens were ecstatic to have the fierce General of the Union Army as an option for president, convinced he would make the right choices in dealing with the returning states. Although Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency was labeled by many as a failed term, Grant’s positive public image and wealth of celebrity endorsements helped secure him the position of 18th president of the United States of America.
One major group of Americans that Grant appealed to was African Americans, both those that were freed by the war and those that were free before. During the Civil War, Grant’s admiration for African Americans grew as he recognized their reasoning for fighting in the Union Army, “Black soldiers played an increasingly important role in Union victories after 1863. Slaves, in effect, became soldiers and freed not only themselves but all of their people. Grant felt a special obligation to these men who were truly fighting for their own liberation.” Because of his appreciation and recognition of the role of African American soldiers in the Civil War, African American citizens believed Grant would work for new civil rights laws and acts. Grant was not immediately supportive of equal rights, however: “when the war ended Grant had been against enfranchising the freedmen. They would have to be educated first, he argued, before they could vote. The violent reaction to Reconstruction, epitomized by the attacks on peaceful demonstrations to promote black rights, changed his mind.” During Grant’s campaign flocks of African Americans moved to Washington D.C. to be closer to Grant, “Black people were moving into the city [Washington D.C.] in large numbers; they were even moving right next door. They were pressing for places in the city government and on the school board… they were all looking to …Ulysses to do for them what Andrew Johnson had so disappointingly chosen not to do.” Grant’s campaign inspired the new freedmen to search for new jobs and opportunities, with realistic hope in Grant’s protection from racial terror. Ulysses S. Grant’s support from African Americans helped him secure the presidency because of his determination to provide them with equal rights.
Although extremely popular and respected, Ulysses S. Grant was not very enthusiastic about his presidential campaign, and only accepted the republican nomination because he felt it was necessary to protect the nation. John Y. Simon, known for his work editing President Grant’s papers and documents, wrote that “the documentary record sustains the view that Grant did not seek the nomination, did nothing to enhance his candidacy, and accepted the nomination as an obligation.” Simon’s description of Grant’s activity in his campaign is important because Simon is a Civil War scholar and studied Grant in great detail while editing his papers. Afraid of losing all of the progress he had fought for, Grant felt “forced” to run, writing that “I could not back down without, as it seems to me, leaving the contest for power for the next four years between mere trading politicians, the elevation of whom, no matter which party won, would lose to us, largely, the results of the costly war which we have gone through.” One characteristic often used to describe Grant was quiet. George Templeton Strong, a famous diarist during the Civil War, wrote that “Grant’s chance for the White House is worth tenfold than of any other man. This is partly due to the general faith in his honesty and capacity, and partly to his genius for silence.” Grant’s silence helped bolster his image as a wise and thoughtful leader, contemplating action instead of following his emotions blindly. Many citizens “saw in him a settle quality…called the habit of mute persistence.” Mark Twain was particularly impressed by his quiet manner, writing years later that “that countenance of his never betrayed him.” Grant was a sturdy presence that Americans looked up to, keeping America together with Abraham Lincoln. Interestingly, Geoffrey Perret, a famous American historian, wrote that “the excitement he [Grant] generated, even though he usually said nothing, or nothing much, was a beacon of the political movement… the true successor to Lincoln wasn’t the Tennessee Tailor but Grant. The hero who had won the war was the only man of the people – not the politicians – trusted to win the peace.” Perret believed that Grant’s influence could unite the people and restore order to the nation during Reconstruction, comparing him to another respected president, President Lincoln. Similarly, Grant received a major endorsement in an article from the Boston Post, which wrote “Though the war in which he [Grant] has won his renown is now…ended, the future has still much to do in establishing the position which Grant holds in history. To-day he enjoys the confidence of his countrymen to a degree unknown to military leaders during the war… If ultimately successful in the end…he… will find little difficulty, in tracing out a comparison between his character and that of the country’s first great leader.” This comparison to George Washington inspired many Americans, mostly in the northeast, to view Grant as the powerful, courageous leader that would return America to the hopeful, lively, united state it was in following the Revolutionary War. One of my favorite Grant quotes came after the 1868 election, when he tells his wife, Julia Grant, of his victory, “I am afraid I am elected.” This quotation is a perfect example of Grant’s lack of enthusiasm about his election, but also his recognition of the importance of his position: he felt he must restore order to prevent Southern chaos and ensure unity.
Ulysses S. Grant’s greatest campaign technique utilized in the 1868 election was celebrity endorsements. Similar to Quintus Tullius Cicero’s advice to his brother Marcus about endorsements some 2000 years ago, where he writes that “one thing that can greatly help…is the backing of the nobility… you must diligently cultivate relationships with these men of privilege,” Grant was able to gain supporters through major endorsements by major political figures, who were seen as celebrities during the 1800’s. One of the most influential endorsements gained by Grant came from Richard Taylor, a former Confederate General and son of President Zachary Taylor, “President Grant was assured by all about him that he was the delight of the Radicals, greatest captain of the age, and savior of the nation’s life.” Taylor’s assessment of Grant is important because it illustrates the strength of Grant’s image to not only Northerners he had fought for, but also Southerners that he had fought against. Grant’s image as a war hero earned him the support of most Americans and added respect. Augustus Garland, a senator in both the U.S. and the Confederate States as well as the 11th governor of Arkansas and the Attorney General of the U.S. under Grover Cleveland, believed that Grant could “rescue us from destruction, and lay broad, deep, and permanent, the foundation for our own well being.” Garland’s endorsement is significant because his long history in the political world led to a large group of supporters following Grant, giving him additional votes and political allies. Another endorsement came from Ohio Congressman John A. Bingham, known as a framer for the Fourteenth Amendment and as a prosecutor in the impeachment trials of Andrew Johnson, who said that Grant “had never rested nor wearied in his pledge to secure to every citizen of the Republic, white and black, the full enjoyment of the rights guaranteed to him by the late amendments to the Constitution.” Bingham’s endorsement was important because of his popularity through his role in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, who was strongly disliked by most citizens because of his unwillingness to punish Southerners following the Civil War, and his unwillingness to provide equal rights to the freedmen. Not all endorsements came from well known politicians, however. In fact, one of the most famous quotes from Grant supporters came from a former cavalry man after one of Grant’s speeches in Central Park, “He is the Country’s best hope in Peace, as he has been in War!” This saying became popular, especially with former soldiers, and was important because it illustrated the strong, positive feelings American citizens felt toward Grant. Overall, endorsements proved to be Grant’s strongest campaign strategy, especially because he didn’t put almost any effort into travelling around or campaigning for himself.
While Grant benefitted greatly from endorsements, the thing that made his most attractive to the American Citizens was his personality. Grant’s quiet, contemplative nature connected him to the people. Grant’s image as a war hero reassured the citizens of his leadership skills and heightened their respect, but his everyman personality made him appear as normal and likeable. Americans needed someone they could trust to lead them through Reconstruction, not just any politician, and they knew it: “A majority of American voters in 1868 wanted someone above politics who would restore order. Grant was that man.” Even though Grant was extremely popular with the public, he only narrowly beat Democrat Horatio Seymour, with 52.7 percent of the vote. Seymour campaigned more for himself, which helped him against Grant, but was not enough to fight Grant’s public image, getting only 47.3 percent of the vote.
Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax on a campaign poster. Showing the emphasis on Grant’s war hero image by labeling him as “Gen.” and using his initials coincidentally to connect him to the U.S.
Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax on their campaign poster.
Ulysses S. Grant over the Republic Platform.
The Atlanta Constitution. “South Carolina.” December 14, 1871
The Atlanta Constitution. “South Under Radical Rule.” July 26, 1870.
Bunting, Josiah, III. Ulysses S. Grant. New York, NY: Times Books, 2004.
McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981.
Perret, Geoffrey. Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier and President. New York: Random House, 1997.
Waugh, Joan. U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Whitson, James R. “1868.” President Elect. Accessed October 8, 2012. http://presidentelect.org/.html.