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MarketInsight | The Election of 1872: The dead candidate


The presidential election of 1872 featured two candidates whose names are still familiar to us today. One has his face on the 50 dollar bill, the other is remembered for a phrase he may never have actually uttered. Ulysses S. Grant was running for reelection. He had won the Civil War and was wildly popular in the North. His opponent was Horace Greeley, famous publisher of the “New York Tribune.” He is remembered for the still well-known phrase “Go west, young man and grow up with the country.”

Beating Grant seemed an impossibility to opposing Democrats. Not all of the former rebel states had been allowed to vote four years earlier when Grant had become the youngest president in history and the youngest ever elected at age 46. Not all southern votes would count this election either. Grant would remain the youngest elected president for almost a century, until John F Kennedy was elected in 1960 at the age of 43. 

The Democrats were in disarray. For that reason, Greeley decided not to run as a Democrat, but to create a new party which he called the Liberal Republicans. The Democrats did not bother to nominate a candidate and chose to endorse the Liberal Republican ticket instead. Greeley had been publishing the highly influential “New York Tribune” since 1841. He and his papers were well respected. Grant’s own Secretary of State referred to the paper as the “Gospel of St. Horace.” Greeley’s chief assistant, Henry Raymond, would found the venerable “New York Times” a decade later. Horace is usually best remembered for saying “Go west, young man.” There is no evidence that Greeley ever wrote those words and no evidence that anyone else did either. It is a mystery.

The election took its predictable course, Grant won in a landslide over the Liberal Republicans. Grant, who is not remembered as a particularly good president, carried 31 out of 37 states, including Florida, and received 286 electoral votes. As in 1868, some of the electoral votes from the South were not counted. This time Florida’s votes would count. They had been rejected in 1868.

What happened to Greeley’s electoral votes is the real story. Following the general election, but before the Electoral College met in December, Greeley died. After his defeat, there was a movement to remove Greeley from his position at the Tribune. Horace became ill at the thought and declined rapidly. He remains the only major party candidate to die during an election cycle. 

No one knew exactly what to do with the 66 electoral votes the Liberal Republicans had won. In many ways, it did not matter. Grant was going to win. In the end, those votes were split amongst five men including Grant himself and Greeley’s running mate, Benjamin Brown. The only ones that went to Greeley were three from Georgia, but those were rejected along with the votes of Louisiana and Arkansas.

Four years later the question of southern electoral votes raised its ugly head again, only this time it mattered. Beset by scandal, U.S. Grant decided not to run for a third term. The Democrats nominated N.Y. governor, Samuel Tilden. The Republicans opted for Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes, a former Union general. The election was contentious. Tilden won the popular vote outright with 51 percent and seemingly the electoral vote as well. But the votes of Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida were disputed. Both parties claimed to have won. Allegations of voter fraud were rampant. In South Carolina, an impossible 101 percent of all eligible voters had voted. In the end a compromise was struck in the back rooms of Congress. Rutherford B. Hayes would become president and in return Reconstruction would end, including the removal of all Federal troops from the South. This is known as the Compromise of 1877. 

Scott A. Grant is a local author, historian, columnist, and speaker. He is president of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra Beach. He welcomes your comments or questions at

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