Opinion

Eerie Parallels Between Trump's Campaign and 1872

How Horace Greeley changed course, sensing a chance at the White House

Horace Greeley, the Democratic Party candidate for president in 1872, went down to landslide defeat. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Before Donald Trump overwhelmed the Republican presidential field, the business mogul believed that the nation's economy ran better when Democrats were in control. He spoke favorably of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate in 2007. Changing course on specific issues is not uncommon among White House hopefuls. Abandoning one party upon seeing a chance to win the presidency through the other is less common, but not without precedent.  

Case in point: 1872, when the Democratic Party took onetime abolitionist mouthpiece Horace Greeley for its standard-bearer. In the wake of the Civil War, Democrats were regrouping, regaining control of state and local governments and waxing enthusiastic about their White House prospects. What they got instead was arguably the worst major party presidential candidate in history.  

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Greeley, editor of The New-York Tribune, helped found the Republican Party in the mid-1850s and supported Abraham Lincoln in 1860. During the Civil War, he was critical of Lincoln’s slowness to embrace emancipation. In 1868, he enthusiastically endorsed Ulysses S. Grant for president. That such a man should end up the face of the Democratic Party might have surprised Democrats in 1872, but it could be eerily familiar for conservatives today wondering how their party ended up with a nominee who had previously expressed support for abortion rights, some gun control measures and single-payer health care.  

Greeley’s Democratic candidacy actually began with a splinter group of high-level Republicans unhappy with Grant’s unsteady leadership and corrupt Cabinet. This Liberal Republican group was a loose gathering of strange bedfellows whose opinions ranged from strident support to heated opposition on virtually all issues, notably free trade and enforcement of black civil rights. After six rounds of balloting at their Cincinnati convention that May, Greeley (who hadn’t been expected to carry his own state) won with 482 votes; Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts (a minister to Britain during the war and the son and grandson of U.S. presidents) was a distant second with 187.  

This left the Democrats in an unusual position. It made sense to join forces with the Liberal Republicans and swell their numbers above those of the GOP. But Greeley was a bitter pill, famed for the comment, “All Democrats may not be rascals, but all rascals are Democrats.” He had been against slavery before he had been for it, much as he had been on virtually every side of every major national issue over the years. It was a disheartened group of Democratic delegates that convened in Baltimore for the convention in early July, ratifying the Liberal Republican platform and candidate and fleeing town after only six hours. Looking for a bright spot, the Cincinnati Gazette compared Greeley favorably to Grant when it came to cronyism: “Greeley has but one brother-in-law, no father, and his nephews are all nieces.”  

Quips don’t win campaigns, however; money and organization do. Republican managers hired 300 people to parse every word Greeley had ever published and make hay with the contradictions they found—and they found plenty, as is happening today with Trump. Meanwhile, Greeley threw gasoline on the fire: He reintroduced the idea of peaceful secession and basically declared war on black voters, at one point saying his opposition to slavery “might have been a mistake.”  

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Then, in late October, Greeley dropped out of sight. His wife, who had suffered from tuberculosis for much of her life, died Oct. 30, a week before the election.  

On Nov. 5, the bars closed and the polls opened. Only six states—Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas—swung for Greeley. The nation moved on, but Greeley did not. Political defeat on the heels of his wife’s death proved too much and he died Nov. 29, before the Electoral College met, still the only presidential candidate with that distinction. He would have received 66 electoral votes.  

“He is a liar and the truth is not in him,” James Buchanan’s attorney general once said of Greeley. A few years later, Greeley was the nominee of Buchanan’s party. “In the context of Donald, outrageous is a high bar,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said of Trump, shortly before endorsing him. While there are obviously a great many differences between 1872 and 2016 and between Trump and Greeley, a few similarities reflect the old bromide that if there’s anything reassuring about politics, it’s that nothing ever changes.  

Bicknell is the author of the forthcoming "Justice and Vengeance: Scandal, Honor, and Murder in 1872 Virginia." Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.