With Grant and Greeley fairly in the field, the country entered upon a remarkable contest. At the beginning of the picturesque and emotional "log cabin canvass of 1840," Mr. Van Buren, with his keen insight into popular movements, had said, in somewhat mixed metaphor, that it would be "either a farce or a tornado." The present canvass gave promise on different grounds of similar alternatives. General Grant had been tried, and with him the country knew what to expect. Mr. Greeley had not been tried, and tho the best known man in his own field of journalism, he was the least known and most doubted in the field of governmental administration. No other candidate could have presented such an antithesis of strength and of weakness. He was the ablest polemic this country has ever produced. His command of strong, idiomatic, controversial English was unrivaled. His faculty of lucid statement and compact reasoning has never been surpassed. Without the graces of fancy or the arts of rhetoric, he was incomparable in direct, pungent, forceful discussion. A keen observer and an omniverous reader, he had acquired an immense fund of varied knowledge, and he marshaled facts with singular skill and aptness.

In an era remarkable for strong editors in the New York press—embracing Raymond of the Times, the elder Bennett of the Herald, Watson Webb of the Courier-Enquirer, William Cullen Bryant of the Evening Post, with Thurlow Weed and Edwin Crosswell in the rival journals at Albany—Mr. Greeley easily surpassed them all. His mind was original, creative, incessantly active. His industry was as unwearying as his fertility was inexhaustible. Great as was his intellectual power, his chief strength came from the depth and earnestness of his moral convictions. In the long and arduous battle against the aggressions of slavery, he had been sleepless and untiring in rousing and quickening the public conscience. He was keenly alive to the distinctions of right and wrong, and his philanthropy responded to every call of humanity. His sympathies were equally touched by the sufferings of the famine-stricken Irish and by the wrongs of the plundered Indians.

Next to Henry Clay, whose ardent disciple he was, he had done more than any other man to educate his countrymen in the American system of protection to home industry. He had on all occasions zealously defended the rights of labor; he had waged unsparing war on the evils of intemperance; he had made himself an oracle with the American farmers; and his influence was even more potent in the remote prairie homes than within the shadow of Printing-House Square. With his dogmatic earnestness, his extraordinary mental qualities, his moral power, and his quick sympathy with the instincts and impulses of the masses, he was in a peculiar sense the Tribune of the people. In any reckoning of the personal forces of the century, Horace Greeley must be counted among the foremost—intellectually and morally.

When he left the fields of labor in which he had become illustrious, to pass the ordeal of a Presidential candidate, the opposite and weaker sides of his character and career were brought into view. He was headstrong, impulsive, and opinionated. If he had the strength of a giant in battle, he lacked the wisdom of the sage in council. If he was irresistible in his own appropriate sphere of moral and economic discussion, he was uncertain and unstable when he ventured beyond its limits. He was a powerful agitator and a matchless leader of debate, rather than a master of government.

Those who most admired his honesty, courage, and power in the realm of his true greatness, most distrusted his fitness to hold the reins of administration. He had in critical periods evinced a want both of firmness and of sagacity. When the Southern States were on the eve of secession and the temper of the country was on trial, he had, tho with honest intentions, shown signs of irresolution and vacillation. When he was betrayed into the ill-advised and abortive peace negotiations with Southern commissioners at Niagara, he had displayed the lack of tact and penetration which made the people doubt the solidity and coolness of his judgment. His method of dealing with the most intricate problems of finance seemed experimental and rash. The sensitive interests of business shrank from his visionary theories and his dangerous empiricism. His earlier affiliation with novel and doubtful social schemes had laid him open to the reproach of being called a man of isms.

Mr. Greeley had moreover weakened himself by showing a singular thirst for public office. It is strange that one who held a commanding station, and who wielded an unequaled influence, should have been ambitious for the smaller honors of public life. But Mr. Greeley had craved even minor offices, from which he could have derived no distinction, and, in his own phrase, had dissolved the firm of Seward, Weed, and Greeley because, as he conceived, his claims to official promotion were not fairly recognized. This known aspiration added to the reasons which discredited his unnatural alliance with the Democracy.2 His personal characteristics, always marked, were exaggerated and distorted in the portraitures drawn by his adversaries. All adverse considerations were brought to bear with irresistible effect as the canvass proceeded, and his splendid services and undeniable greatness could not weigh in the scale against the political elements and personal disqualifications with which his Presidential candidacy was identified.

The political agitation became general in the country as early as July. Senator Conkling inaugurated the Grant campaign in New York with an elaborate and comprehensive review of the personal and public issues on trial. Senator Sherman and other leading speakers took the field with equal promptness. On the apposite side, Senator Sumner, who had sought in May to challenge and prevent the renomination of General Grant by concentrating in one massive broadside all that could be suggested against him, now appeared in a public letter advising the colored people to vote for Greeley. Mr. Blaine replied in a letter pointing out that Mr. Greeley, in denying the power of the General Government to interpose, had committed himself to a policy which left the colored people without protection.

The September elections had ordinarily given the earliest indication in presidential campaigns; but circumstances conspired this year to make the North Carolina election, which was held on the 1st of August, the preliminary test of popular feeling. The earliest returns from North Carolina , coming from the eastern part of the State, were favorable to the partizans of Mr. Greeley. They claimed a decided victory, and were highly elated. The returns from the western and mountain counties, which were not all received for several days, reversed the first reports, and established a Republican success.

This change produced a reaction, and set the tide in the opposite direction. From this hour the popular current was clearly with the Republicans. The September elections in Vermont and Maine resulted in more than the average Republican majorities, and demonstrated that Mr. Greeley's candidacy had not broken the lines of the party. Early in that month a body of Democrats, who declined to accept Mr. Greeley, and who called themselves "Straightouts," held a convention at Louisville, and nominated Charles O'Connor for President and John Quincy Adams for Vice-President. The ticket received a small number of votes in many States, but did not become an important factor in the national struggle.

In anticipation of the October elections Mr. Greeley made an extended tour through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, addressing great masses of people every day and many times a day during a period of two weeks. His speeches, while chiefly devoted to his view of the duty and policy of pacification, discust many questions and many phases of the chief question. They were varied, forcible, and well considered. They presented his case with an ability which could not be exceeded, and they added to the general estimate of his intellectual faculties and resources. He called out a larger proportion of those who intended to vote against him than any candidate had ever before succeeded in doing. His name had been honored for so many years in every Republican household, that the desire to see and hear him was universal, and secured to him the majesty of numbers at every meeting. So great indeed was the general demonstration of interest, that a degree of uneasiness was created at Republican headquarters as to the ultimate effect of his tour.

The State contests had been strongly organized on both sides at the decisive points. In New York the Democrats nominated Francis Kernan for Governor—a man of spotless character and great popularity. The Republicans selected General John A. Dix as the rival candidate, on the earnest suggestion of Thurlow Weed, whose sagacity in regard to the strength of political leaders was rarely at fault. General Dix was in his seventy-fifth year, but was fresh and vigorous both in body and mind. In Indiana the leading Democrat, Thomas A. Hendricks, accepted the gubernatorial nomination and the leadership of his party against General Thomas M. Browne, a popular Republican and a strong man on the stump. Pennsylvania was the scene of a peculiarly bitter and angry conflict. General Hartranft, the Republican candidate for Governor, had been Auditor-General of the State, and his administration of the office was bitterly assailed. The old factional differences in the State now entered into the antagonism, and he was strenuously fought by an element of his own party under the inspiration of Colonel Forney, who, while professedly supporting Grant, threw all the force of the Philadelphia Press into the warfare against Hartranft.

This violent opposition encouraged the partizans of Mr. Greeley with the hope that they might secure the prestige of victory over the Republicans in Pennsylvania, whose October verdicts had always proved an unerring index to presidential elections. But they were doomed to disappointment. The people saw that the charges against General Hartranft were not only unfounded but malicious, and he was chosen Governor by more than 35,000 majority. Ohio gave a Republican majority on the same day of more than 14,000; and tho Mr. Hendricks carried Indiana by 1,148, this narrow margin for the strongest Democrat in the State was accepted as confirming the sure indications in the other States.

The defeat of Mr. Greeley and the reelection of General Grant were now, in the popular belief, assured. The result was the most decisive, in the popular vote, of any presidential election since the unopposed choice of Monroe in 1820; and on the electoral vote the only contests so one-sided were in the election of Pierce in 1852, and the second election of Lincoln in 1864, when the States in rebellion did not participate. The majorities were unprecedented. General Grant carried Pennsylvania by 137,548, New York by 53,455, Illinois by 57,006, Iowa by 60,370, Massachusetts by 74,212, Michigan by 60,100, Ohio by 37,501, and Indiana by 22,515. Several of the Southern States presented figures of similar proportion. . . .

The political disaster to Mr. Greeley was followed by a startling and melancholy conclusion. He was called during the last days of the canvass to the bedside of his dying wife, whom he buried before the day of election. Despite this sorrow and despite the defeat, which, in separating him from his old associates, was more than an ordinary political reverse, he promptly returned with unshaken resolve and intrepid spirit to the editorship of the Tribune—the true sphere of his influence, the field of his real conquests. But the strain through which he had passed, following years of incessant care and labor, had broken his vigorous constitution. His physical strength was completely underminded, his superb intellectual powers gave way. Before the expiration of the month which witnessed his crushing defeat he had gone to his rest. The controversies which had so recently divided the country were hushed in the presence of death; and all the people, remembering only his noble impulses, his great work for humanity, his broad impress upon the age, united in honoring and mourning one of the most remarkable men in American history.

1 From Blaine's "Twenty Years of Congress." By permission of Mrs. Walter Damrosch and James G. Blaine, Jr., owners of the copyright. Copyright, 1884.
Return to text.

2 Greeley was the candidate of the newly-formed Liberal Republican party and was endorsed by the Democrats.
Return to text.

Table of Contents
Return to Main Page
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman