This blog marks the beginning of a new series I want to do called Biggest Losers. I’ve done a lot of articles on Presidents and the Presidency, but I’ve found in reading the history of presidential elections that the losing candidates often have much more interesting stories than the 43 guys who actually made it to the White House. Thus, in this series I’m going to be showcasing some of those unsuccessful candidates and telling their stories, which by virtue of them having lost usually are not as well-known.
Our first Biggest Loser is Horace Greeley, who is certainly one of the most unusual of the unsuccessful seekers of the Oval Office, and whose loss entails some of the most unique circumstances in American electoral history. Although he went down as a loser, Greeley succeeded in quite a lot during his life. He was born dirt-poor in New Hampshire in 1811 and became an apprentice to a printer in Vermont when he was only 15. In the Early Republic, becoming a printer and publisher was one road to considerable financial success. After several failures with various newspapers that failed to find an audience, Greeley hit big with the New York Tribune which he began publishing in 1841. Over the next 30 years Greeley built the paper into not only a financial success, but an influential organ of public policy on the national stage.
Horace Greeley and friends (he’s the shrimpy guy in the front row, third from left) built the New York Tribune into a political powerhouse in the mid-19th century.
Politically, Greeley was a reformer. He supported the Whig Party until it finally went under, and then in the 1850s helped found a new political party, the Republicans, dedicated to stopping the expansion of slavery. He was generally a supporter of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War though he never shied from criticizing the administration and other Republicans when he thought they were wrong. He hated government corruption and constantly railed about it in the Tribune. As such, after the war was over he was a natural magnet for people, including Republicans, disillusioned with the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, whose administration was to corrupt politicians what a liquor store is to an alcoholic.
This is where the story of Greeley’s Presidential ambitions begins. In 1870 a Senator from Missouri named Carl Schurz, a fellow reformer and battler of corruption–and who was a Republican–became disgusted with Grant’s incompetence which allowed so much graft in the federal government. Two years later as Grant prepared to run for re-election, unwilling to bolt to the Democrats, who were still tainted by having supported slavery during the Civil War, Schurz formed a new party called the Liberal Republicans. Schurz couldn’t run for President himself because he was born in Germany. The Liberal Republican Party convention in Baltimore haggled over a couple of potential candidates including Charles Francis Adams, son of President John Quincy Adams, but Greeley’s name was also placed in contention. After five inconclusive ballots Greeley edged out Adams and his other rivals. Greeley was not entirely enthused. Although a reformer he considered himself a Republican, not a Liberal Republican (whatever that was), but he didn’t refuse the Liberal party’s nomination. The Liberal Republicans were technically a third party, and no third party candidate had ever won the White House.
There is little evidence to believe that, despite his disastrous performance as U.S. President, Ulysses S. Grant worried very much about Horace Greeley.
Then something very unusual happened. When the Democrats met at their own convention in July 1872, their delegates, burning with a desire to unseat Grant, realized that there was no clear leader in their own party. Many party leaders also realized that trying to re-fight the Civil War was a losing strategy–they had to move past slavery and Reconstruction issues and embrace the new reality of American politics. So, they did a daring thing: they endorsed Horace Greeley and his running mate, Governor Benjamin Brown of Missouri, as their own candidates, even though both were actually Republicans! To communicate how unusual this was, imagine if, in 2008 after Barack Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination for President, the Republican Party had nominated Hillary Clinton to run against him. Essentially, in 1872 the Democrats were so desperate to send Grant to the unemployment office that they were willing to throw their support behind a ticket that wasn’t even in their party.
Once nominated, Greeley, always an iconoclast (and a self-promoter), decided to take to the stump and run an actual campaign for President. This just wasn’t done in 1872. Previously in American history, Presidential candidates tried to pretend they weren’t really that interested in the job, and instead let surrogates, sycophants and lackeys run around the country making speeches and drumming up support on their behalf. Greeley broke that mold. He went out and made stump speeches promising an end to corruption and calling for sectional reconciliation to heal the wounds of the Civil War. He was in favor of voting rights for African-Americans and an end of land grants to railroads. All in all, Greeley was something of a populist.
He was also a terrible campaigner, and very unlucky. Despite his prowess on the editorial pages Greeley couldn’t give a good speech to save his life. Furthermore, his running mate, Governor Brown, was an alcoholic and frequently showed up to campaign events completely sauced. Grant, for his part, sat back comfortably in the White House, smoked cigars and let the newspapers play up memories of all the battles he’d won during the Civil War. Grant’s Republicans also had an immense war chest contributed by railroad barons and financiers, some of whom had made their millions in dubious ways. At some point Greeley may have believed he would be elected, but by the late fall it was obvious to everybody that Grant was going to make a grease stain out of him at the ballot box.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast–who helped build the modern image of Santa Claus–successfully painted Greeley as a flip-flopper with political cartoons such as this one.
That is exactly what happened. When the nation voted on November 5, 1872, Grant blew Greeley into orbit with 286 electoral votes to 66, carrying 31 states including Greeley’s home state of New York. (Ouch). The severity of Greeley’s loss was just one more tragedy he suffered that autumn. His wife Mary had been sick all summer and her condition grew worse through the fall. Greeley quit campaigning in mid-October to be at her bedside. Just six days before the election she died. How’s that for a bad month? Your wife dies after a long illness, and oh, by the way, you’ve just been brutally humiliated in front of the entire United States. Greeley couldn’t take it. After briefly returning to the Tribune office he found himself ill and unable to sleep. His doctor recommended he check into an asylum.
It is often reported that Greeley was so humiliated by his epic defeat that he went insane. I’m not entirely certain this is true; people may jump to conclusions because of that word “asylum,” which in the 19th century did not necessarily mean insane asylum, but more of a hospital. Clearly Greeley was depressed and broken, but my guess is it had more to do with the death of his wife than the electoral drubbing administered by General Grant. On November 29, 1872, Greeley died. The electoral votes for the election had not yet been counted, thus providing another first in American history: what do you do when a major party candidate dies before the electoral process is finished?
The answer was perhaps less than ideal: the electors distributed their votes that would have been for Greeley among other surviving Democratic candidates. It didn’t really matter, because there was no dispute that Grant should get 286, far more than he needed to win. Indeed, despite being what some regard as the most incompetent President ever to sit in the Oval Office (at least until George W. Bush came along), Grant essentially pressed cruise control and glided to re-election without breaking a sweat. The fact that his opponent was now pushing up daisies in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery was unfortunate, but that’s how the cookie crumbles.
Many defeated political candidates become authors, pundits, or diplomats after their losses. Horace Greeley became worm food.
Horace Greeley was a talented man, a successful newspaper editor and an honest politician with his heart in the right place. But he was the wrong candidate in the wrong party at the wrong time. Since no other Presidential candidate in U.S. history has ever died as at least an indirect result of losing, you can see why Mr. G. is worthy, in more ways than one, of the title Biggest Loser.