Thursday, January 21, 2010

By One Vote

I am reading Michael F. Holt's book on the 1876 election, By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876. This is a period I know less about, and Prof. Holt is proving to be a superb guide. He provides an excellent overview of the tangled issues of corruption, high taxes, excessive spending, depression and monetary policy that combined to strangle Reconstruction in the mid-1870s.

In the opening chapters, Prof. Holt sets the stage by reviewing the "political revolt against [President Ulysses] Grant known as the 'Liberal Republican movement,'" reminding us that even pre-War radical Charles Sumner could be counted among its members.

Analyzing the 1872 election returns, Prof. Holt argues that Grant's landslide victory was founded on quicksand. First, "[a]lmost all of the increase in Grant's national [vote] total between 1868 and 1872 . . . came from former slave states, and most of those new Republican votes undoubtedly came from newly enfranchised freedmen." If those votes were lost, the Republican in the next election would no longer be assured a comfortable margin.

Second, and even more important in Prof. Holt's view, was the fact that Grant had benefited from a "marked decline in normal levels of Democratic voter turnout in most states." In 1872, the "Democrats had grudgingly endorsed Horace Greeley, the surprising choice of the Liberal Republican[s]." Democratic voters stayed away from the polls in droves rather than vote for the arch-Whig who had denounced them "as lawless, shiftless, drunken sots" for decades.

At the same time, Greeley's high-profile history hardly made him the idea Liberal Republican candidate when it came to issues such as tariff reduction and civil service reform. His strongest recommendation to them came from his endorsement of the "Liberals' demand for an end to federal intervention in the South, and a restoration of full political rights to those former Confederates still disqualified from holding office."

And yet even this stance proved a double-edged sword, for it left Greeley "vulnerable to vicious lampooning by Thomas Nast, the widely read political cartoonist for Harper's Weekly who had recently played a central role in toppling New York City's hugely corrupt Boss William M. Tweed from power."

Two of Nast's lampoons, both of which are reproduced in Prof. Holt's book, appear in this post. The first, entitled It Is Only a Truce to Regain Power (Playing Possum) depicts Greeley and Sumner (at the far right) "urging a freedman to reach across the bodies of murdered blacks to shake hands with two stock Democratic characters: a southern member of the Ku Klux Klan and an apelike Irish thug of the type who murdered blacks during the New York City draft riots of 1863."

The second, entitled Let Us Clasp Hands over the Bloody Chasm, "mocks Greeley's call for northerners and southerners to forget their sectional animosities," showing him "reaching in vain across the graveyard of Union prisoners at the notorious Andersonville prison camp."

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