Skip to main content

Letter From The Editor

June 2024
3min read

The United States was in a bit of a mess, as usual. There was trouble with the economy; trouble with the money; trouble on the farms. There were struggles between the races and cries for civil rights. The President was a Republican, and pretty well entrenched, although some of his party were furious with him and his administration. In fact, they were teaming up with the Democrats, and there were more opposition candidates for the coming election than one could keep straight. There was a big Negro convention, too, and an outspoken woman candidate. The son of a famous Massachusetts Presidential family was a quiet but probably willing liberal candidate. His name, of course, was Charles Francis Adams, for this was 1872.

As we write (in March, 1972) the present election campaign has many amusing parallels with that of 1872, as it does in any year when a cacophony of candidates seeks to oppose a strong incumbent. The cast includes the usual full set of regulars, including the rich men, the poor country boys, the ill-disguised dark horses, the hard campaigners, and the men who are letting the nomination seek them (but keeping the path to their doorway brightly lit). We also have, here and there, our oddities. Who can identify, for instance, Linda Jenness, Richard B. Kay, James Boren, and the Reverend Clennon King? (They are the candidates, in the same order, of the Socialist Workers, the “American Party,” the National Association of Professional Bureaucrats, and the Party for God in Politics. Or so it is announced.) The spirit has not, as we write, yet moved the Prohibitionists to pick a candidate or the Vegetarians to cook up a slate either. Dr. Spock is running, for the People’s Party. Harold Stassen is not. There is a Black candidate and a Woman’s candidate, and both of her are Representative Shirley Chisholm.

But now look at 1872. General Grant’s first term had been something less than successful, with corruption rampant. The Crédit Mobilier scandal, a swindle involving the construction of the Union Pacific, had blackened the reputations of certain administration personalities, including Vice President Schuyler Colfax. But he had already been set aside in favor of Henry Wilson, who is known to history as the Natick Cobbler and who started out life, like his modern Vice Presidential counterpart, with another name: Jeremiah Jones Colbath.

Against this ticket there was a fantastic array. The “Straight-out Democratic” candidates, who could not stomach the choice of most of their party, were Charles O’Conor, a Catholic lawyer famed for his great courtroom victories, and the high-principled John Quincy Adams n, son of Charles Francis Adams and descendant of two Presidents. A Negro convention at New Orleans nominated the noted ex-slave Frederick Douglass, and the “Labor Reform Party” chose, of all people, the wealthiest man who had ever until then been put into nomination, Lincoln’s old friend Judge David Davis, who was supposed to be worth three million dollars. He presently declined, and the Labor people tried O’Conor, who also declined. There was a noted prohibitionist, James Black, who became the Temperance Party’s first nominee for the Presidency. Black wrote a book called Is There a Necessity for a Prohibition Party? and there was no doubt about his answer. There were two “Liberal Republican Revenue Reform” party nominees, William Groesbeck of Ohio and his more illustrious running mate, the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

There was no Shirley Chisholm, but there was Victoria Claflin Woodhull. She was a reformer of sorts, a clairvoyant and a veteran of the medicine-show circuit, a divorcée, and what used to be called a “smashing looker.” She and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, became protégées of elderly Commodore Vanderbilt and under his tutelage went into the brokerage business. But what set the country by its ears was the message that Victoria preached in her newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly : Free Love. “Yes,” she wrote, “I am a free-lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may; to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please.” Her candidacy was merely a stunt; she could get on no ballot, and no woman outside Wyoming and Utah could vote. Harper’s Weekly , which was supporting Grant, nevertheless took out after Victoria and ascribed her appearance in America to Satan’s work. No joke was intended.

Harper’s saved most of its fire, however, for the candidate we have saved for last, the surprising choice of a coalition of regular Democrats and “Liberal Republicans” (as they called themselves), the famous editor of the New York Tribune , Horace Greeley. Energetic, inquisitive, a poker into every new creed and fad, Greeley typified much of the best and a little of the worst in the Yankee nation. As an old man he was not increasing in wisdom. When the Democrats combined with the dissatisfied anti-Grant Republicans—an amalgam of old Confederates and their wartime enemies almost as unlikely to their contemporaries as the Hitler-Stalin pact in our time—the cold and diffident Charles Francis Adams, no doubt a better man for the job, was passed over. (This meant, at least, that one candidate for President would not be campaigning against his own son.) One of those who helped engineer the Greeley candidacy was a Missouri politician, Governor B. Gratz Brown, who thus won the second place on the motley ticket. Thomas Nast, in a savage spate of Harper’s cartoons levelled at Greeley, enjoyed attaching Brown’s name as a kind of little tag, an afterthought, at the cherubic old editor’s coattails.

The campaign was bitter, and intolerable to many, with war-time friends and foes of only a few years before suddenly transposed. But there is no suspense about the ending: Grant won a thumping victory, and Greeley carried but six of the thirty-seven states, none of them in the North. Three weeks later, the battered old man died tragically. It is, on reflection, all rather different from 1972, but it does leave the thought in one’s mind that there may be a better way in which to nominate and elect a chief magistrate. After he had observed the quadrennial circuses of this kind for some time, the English historian James Bryce was moved to write a special chapter for his famous book The American Commonwealth and give it the damning title “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.