- - Wednesday, December 16, 2015


It’s no secret that many Republican Party leaders are upset about the likelihood of the controversial front-runner Donald Trump garnering the presidential nominee in 2016 — so much so that there’s talk of a convention floor fight to stop his momentum. It’s reminiscent of what happened in 1872 when some GOP leaders wanted to do the same thing to President Ulysses S. Grant, a shoo-in for a second-term nomination. No matter that former general’s administration was replete with corruption and cronies in Washington and crises in foreign policy, including an attempt to annex Santo Domingo.

Beginning in 1870, a faction of the party organized the Liberal Republicans — a third party — that would choose and run its own candidate. Mind you, there was a slew of candidates that emerged: two senators (Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Lyman Trumbull of Rhode Island); one governor (Gratz Brown of Missouri); two Supreme Court justices (Chief Justice Salmon Chase and Associate Justice David Davis): two diplomats (Ambassadors Andrew G. Curtin and Charles Francis Adams) and businessman-editor Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune.

Primary elections hadn’t arisen as yet, with candidates working party bosses to secure delegates for their convention in Cincinnati beginning on May 1, 1872. Seven of the eight nominees got votes on the first ballot, with Adams — the son and grandson of Presidents John Quincy Adams and John Adams — getting the most (358). Surprisingly, businessman Greeley was in the running, a distant second (147), followed by Trumbull (110), Brown (95), and Davis (92). Of course, given the historic Adams name, safe money was on Charles Francis.

But the more the delegates thought about another Adams on their ticket, the more he lost support, and votes moved to Greeley, no matter that Adams was one of the most distinguished public servants in the land. He had been elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the state Senate, and the lower house of Congress. As President Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to Great Britain, Adams kept that nation from giving full diplomatic status to the Confederacy: later he was a successful arbitrator settling claims for damage to Union shipping from Confederate ships built in Britain.

The victorious nominee, Greeley, on the other hand, had never held public office in his life except for a four-month stint in the U.S. House to fill a vacancy that was not followed by a re-election bid. Although a rags-to-riches story from a poor New Hampshire farm boy to founder of the nation’s most prestigious newspaper, Greeley was the antithesis of a politician.

Unkempt in appearance, sporting a neck-hair beard, he wore brightly covered full-length coats in any weather. His trousers were tucked into his boots. He always wore a white hat and carried an umbrella. And he shunned alcohol, meat and coffee. He was a fervent believer in phrenology, the pseudoscience that assessed individual character traits and intelligence according to the bumps and shape of one’s head, leading one reporter to conclude that his nomination was a result of “too much brains and not enough whiskey” at the convention.

Not surprisingly, Greeley was ridiculed on the stump and not only failed to make a big dent in Grant’s electoral total but took down the Democrats as well. For two months after the Liberal Republican convention, the Democrats in their confab endorsed Greeley, in spite of the fact that he had for years as editor castigated the party. It was the shortest convention ever held, lasting only a total of six hours over two days. It also sparked dissent, with a Straight-Out Democratic Convention arising to name its own candidate who, by refusing to accept the nomination, caused the faction to wither.

Greeley suffered financial hard times, losing half his readership as well as a hostile takeover of the Tribune. He remarked that he didn’t know from his hostile public reception whether he was running for the presidency or the penitentiary. Tormented over the public degradation, he passed away in late November before the formal electoral college process had been completed.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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