The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats didn’t run a presidential candidate 150 years ago. It backfired.

A portrait of Horace Greeley in 1872, the year he ran for president on the Liberal Republican ticket. (Library of Congress)
6 min

In the 1872 presidential election, the Democrats didn’t have the strongest hand to play. They hadn’t won the White House since 1856, and they were trying to unseat a popular Republican president, Ulysses S. Grant, the winning commanding general of the Civil War.

So they decided not to run a candidate at all.

Instead, the Democratic Party endorsed newspaper editor Horace Greeley, the nominee of a new third party, the Liberal Republicans, hoping to peel off enough GOP support to defeat Grant. But the move turned into a colossal failure for both the Democrats and Greeley, as Grant easily sailed to a second term 150 years ago this fall.

At first blush, Greeley seemed like an unusual choice for the Democratic Party, which had resisted Republican efforts to abolish slavery before the war and opposed extending civil and political rights to newly freed African Americans after it. As editor and founder of the New York Tribune, Greeley had been one of the nation’s most prominent opponents of slavery.

On the eve of the Civil War, for example, he had unfavorably compared the United States to Russia after Czar Alexander II had freed the serfs. “The whole world and all succeeding ages will applaud the Emperor Alexander for the abolition of Slavery in Russia,” he wrote. “But what does the world think, what will future generations think, of the attempt to make Slavery perpetual in America?”

Greeley publicly sparred with President Abraham Lincoln for not moving fast enough to free enslaved Americans, including in an exchange of open letters in August 1862. (Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation a few months later.)

Greeley would alienate some of his former abolitionist allies, however. He favored amnesty for former Confederates, and in 1867 he was one of 20 men to chip in to post bail for Jefferson Davis, the former Confederate president. Speaking at the New York Union League Club, he derisively dismissed his critics.

In 1868, the fate of Jefferson Davis’s neck swung on Andrew Johnson’s impeachment

“I arraign you as narrow-minded blockheads, who would like to be useful to a great and good cause, but don’t know how,” Greeley said. “Your attempt to base a great, enduring party on the hate and wrath necessarily engendered by a bloody civil war, is as though you should plant a colony on an iceberg which had somehow drifted into a tropical ocean.”

In 1871, Greeley went on a speaking tour of Texas and other Southern states to test the waters for a presidential run as a Republican. He championed national reconciliation and universal amnesty for Confederate veterans, but he also condemned the new Ku Klux Klan as an “execrable” group, according to Robert C. Williams’s 2006 biography, “Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom.”

Greeley soon found a home in the Liberal Republican Party, a splinter group of Republicans who called out corruption in the Grant administration and advocated for pulling U.S. troops out of the South, arguing that Black citizens now had political and civil rights. The party nominated Greeley, who according to Williams had “broad national appeal,” for president at its convention in Cincinnati in May 1872.

Two months later, the Democrats met in Baltimore and made the calculation that their best bet in knocking off Grant was to back the Liberal Republican Party ticket of Greeley and his running mate, Missouri Gov. Benjamin G. Brown. It remains the only time a major party has endorsed a third-party candidate for president.

Some newspaper coverage saw the alliance as a cynical ploy.

“No sane person doubts but that the election of Horace Greeley would substantially give the Southern Democracy control of the Government,” wrote the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser under the headline “The Southern Democrats' Accomplice.” (“Democracy” was sometimes used as a stand-in for the Democratic Party at the time.)

“With many expressions of extreme disgust, with some weak and vain attempts to like the dose, the Democracy have swallowed Greeley, Brown and the Cincinnati platform,” the New York Times reported. “From first to last this affair has been the ghastliest of political shows.”

The Democratic convention lasted just six hours, spread out over two days. Greeley wasn’t in Baltimore for it but accepted the nomination.

“All his life, Greeley had thundered against the Democrats for their corrupt ways,” wrote Williams, the Greeley biographer. “… In retrospect, Greeley came off as an opportunist, rather than the man of principle he had claimed to be.”

The 1872 election, just the second presidential race since the end of the Civil War, came at a time when the country was still wrestling with Reconstruction and stitching the nation back together.

The Democrats’ decision to back a third-party candidate wasn’t the campaign’s only oddity. It also featured a female candidate, Victoria Woodhull, even though women couldn’t vote yet. Woodhull ran as the Equal Rights Party nominee, and a Harper's Weekly cartoon depicted her as “Mrs. Satan” for championing free love.

A woman who ran for president in 1872 was compared to Satan and locked up

The last Democrat to become president, Andrew Johnson, backed Greeley. (Johnson had actually run with Lincoln on the National Union Party ticket in 1864 and became president after Lincoln’s assassination; he was later impeached and came within a vote of being removed from office by the Senate.) During Johnson’s time as president, he had clashed with Grant, then the general-in-chief, over Reconstruction policy.

“As one important step toward constitutional reform, let us remove Grant from the Capitol of the United States, where he is mildewing and blighting all that comes in contact with him,” Johnson said. “If Mr. Greeley comes up with what he has promised we will support him. We will stand by him in every good that he seeks to further. I believe him to be an honest man, and above a bribe.”

Greeley campaigned vigorously, delivering up to 22 speeches a day over a late-September swing through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Republicans attacked him as a Southern sympathizer. Political cartoons mocked him mercilessly, including one which depicted Greeley as a mouse emerging from a pile of mud called “Liberal Mountain.”

“I have been assailed so bitterly that I hardly knew whether I was running for the presidency or the penitentiary,” Greeley said.

Grant wound up winning reelection with 56 percent of the popular vote and 31 of 37 states.

On Nov. 29, after the election but before the electoral college met, Greeley died. His electoral votes were split among other candidates, including his running mate.

Of course, the election was hardly democratic. Even if Reconstruction had enabled many more Black Americans to vote, women were still disenfranchised — but not for lack of trying. Susan B. Anthony was convicted of voting in the 1872 election and fined $100. She vowed to “never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.”

In August 2020, President Donald Trump pardoned the prominent suffragist. “She was never pardoned,” Trump said, speaking to female leaders at a White House event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. “What took so long?”