The Only Time a Major Party Embraced a Third-Party Candidate for President

Horace Greeley was the choice of the splinter grip named the Liberal Republican Party and that of the Democrats

Concerns about patronage under the Grant Administration inspired Horace Greeley (depicted above Grant's left shoulder) to run for President. Thomas Nast/Harper's Weekly/ WikiCommons

By the time Michele Obama and Bernie Sanders were finished speaking in Philadelphia last night, this year’s Democratic National Convention had already lasted longer than the shortest Democratic National Convention in history.

That lightning confab was held in Baltimore in July 1872. It lasted just six hours, split over two days. Once the general election was decided that fall, party elders might have wished they’d taken more time.

That election was held at an acutely volatile time, just seven years after the Civil War. The rights and roles of African-American citizens were still fiercely contested, in the North as well as in the South. The extent to which the federal government could or would enforce Reconstruction was in question. And when it came to rebuilding the war-battered economy, free traders were at loggerheads with tariff-wielding protectionists.

These wedge issues were splintering both the Republicans and the Democrats, but the GOP had a strong enough center to re-nominate the incumbent president: Ulysses S. Grant.

One of those splinter groups organized as the Liberal Republican Party. It railed against corruption in the Grant administration and contended that U.S. troops should be pulled out of the South because African-Americans now had political and civil rights. Convening in Cincinnati in May 1872, the Liberal Republicans nominated New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley for president. Two months later, the Democrats—smelling opportunity in the Republican’s disarray—adopted Greeley, too, even though he had regularly blistered them in his newspaper over a variety of issues.

No major party had embraced a third-party candidate before. No major party has done so since.

Greeley was already famous for his newspaper’s anti-slavery crusading, and he was becoming famous for some career advice he dispensed to a young correspondent in 1871: “I say to all who are in want of work, Go West!” In 2006, biographer Robert C. Williams wrote that “Greeley’s personality and fame as a fearless editor and reformer, more than his political philosophy, made him a serious candidate. He symbolized virtue over corruption, reform over reaction, reconciliation over revenge, generosity over greed.”

And yet: Greeley had a well-earned reputation as an erratic advocate, and among his contemporaries, he came off as an incorrigible scold. During the Civil War, he and President Abraham Lincoln sparred over the pace, timing and extent of emancipation. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote that Greeley was “a first-class political demagogue, unless it may be charitably suspected that he is smitten with imbecility.” One of Greeley’s supporters thought he was “a sort of inspired idiot, neither a scholar, statesman or gentleman.”

Grant believed he was “a disappointed man at not being estimated by others at the same value he places upon himself.” Even so, Greeley entered the 1872 campaign as the nominee of two parties to Grant’s one. It didn’t matter. Grant remained popular. Thomas Nast sharpened his caricaturist’s pen on Greeley’s foibles. “I have been assailed so bitterly,” said the Democrat/Liberal Republican, “that I hardly knew whether I was running for the presidency or the penitentiary."

On Election Day, Grant took 56 percent of the popular vote, besting Greeley by 12 percentage points.

And then, that November 29, Greeley died, at the age of 61—the only time a candidate died between the popular vote and the balloting in the Electoral College. The 66 electoral votes that had pledged to him were divvied out to five other candidates. But Grant had amassed 286, and so went on to his second term.

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