“Greeley’s Thermometer”

October 26, 1872

Charles S. Reinhart

“Greeley’s Thermometer”

Presidential Election 1872; State Elections;

Greeley, Horace;

Indiana; Maine; North Carolina; Ohio; Pennsylvania; Vermont;

No caption.

In this bottom-to-top cartoon, Horace Greeley, the Liberal Republican and Democratic presidential nominee and maverick editor of the New York Tribune, looks up from his newspaper in concern after reading the results of the state elections in North Carolina.  As news from other states is reported, his reaction becomes increasingly distraught until he collapses.  In the final scene above, the heat from Republican victories propels his hot-air balloon out the top of the thermometer, and the Liberal Republican candidate freefalls to the ground.

During most of the nineteenth century the date of presidential elections did not coincide with state and Congressional elections.  In 1848, Congress passed a law requiring presidential elections to be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  Some states followed suit, but most state elections continued to occur at various times of the year, usually in the late summer or early fall, so were often collectively called "October states."  

The outcome of those state elections, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania and Indiana, were considered to be good indicators of how the presidential election would turn out.  To such places, the parties brought their most effective speakers, papered the states with campaign literature, and funneled in massive amounts of money.  By the mid-1880s, accusations of corruption and other factors led most "October states" to give up their separate contests and align themselves with the presidential election date.  Only a few states, such as Maine, continued the tradition after 1885.

In 1872, there were still several important "October states."  The first test was in North Carolina on August 1.  Republicans took no chances, sending Cabinet members and students from Howard University (Washington, D.C.) to campaign throughout the state.  To make sure that Republicans, particularly blacks (who voted overwhelmingly Republican at the time), were not prevented from voting, federal officials arrested over 1000 people under the authority of the Reconstruction Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871.  

Both sides likely committed fraud in the North Carolina election, and the results were mixed:  Republicans elected their executive ticket, while Democrats captured control of the legislature (and were, therefore, able to send a Democratic senator to Congress).  In September, though, Maine and Vermont went firmly in the Republican column.  The featured cartoon expresses the gradually worsening situation for the Liberal Republicans and Democrats as the national election approached.  In an attempt to rectify the situation, Greeley broke with tradition for presidential candidates and took to the stump personally.  

In colonial days and the early years of the republic, gentlemen were asked by other community leaders to "stand" for public office, and the candidate's commonly acknowledged character and experience were essentially expected to speak for themselves.  As American politics democratized in the early-nineteenth century, candidates began "running" for office through speaking tours and other forms of electioneering.  That was true at every level of government except for the presidency, where the dominant attitude of the public and especially the press remained opposed to open and active campaigning.  The presidency was too dignified for the office to be sullied by overt ambition.

That taboo slowly eroded over the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  In 1836 and 1840, William Henry Harrison became the first presidential candidate to go on a campaign tour, although he delivered patriotic orations, not policy or partisan statements.  In 1844, Henry Clay took a "business" trip before his nomination, but stayed near home afterward, engaging in a letter-writing campaign.  In 1852, Winfield Scott used the letter-writing tactic like Clay and patriotic speechifying like Harrison.  In 1860, Stephen Douglas toured the Northeast, delivering speeches that were initially non-partisan, but gradually contained bolder statements on the issues.  In the fall, he courageously undertook a campaign tour through the South, futilely urging the region not to secede upon Lincoln's election.  

In 1868, Horatio Seymour gave the same political speech in a fall tour of the North.  In the 1880s and 1890s, Republican held "front porch" campaigns in which trainloads of supporters were shipped to the candidate's home to hear him speak a few words.  In 1896, William Jennings Bryan became the first candidate to spend the entire campaign addressing the issues through public speeches.  In 1916, Woodrow Wilson was the first sitting president to hit the campaign trail.

However, the Republican incumbent in 1872, Ulysses S. Grant, opted for the traditional silence of a sitting president, while challenger Greeley took to the hustings.  On September 19-29, Greeley embarked on a grueling campaign tour through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, delivering up to 22 speeches per day for a total of nearly 200.  Although some detractors were impressed, other judged the effort to be counterproductive, with Greeley saying the wrong things to the wrong audiences.  His vice-presidential running mate, Gratz Brown, made matters worse by speaking at Yale while drunk, fainting before a rally in New York City, and generally making misstatements.  

In the November election, Grant easily defeated Greeley, 286-66 in the Electoral College, and 56%-44% in the popular vote.  Exhausted by the campaign and saddened by the death of his wife in October, Greeley died a few weeks after the election.  (Technically, the Electoral College votes were scattered among other Democrats.)

For more information, visit HarpWeek’s Presidential Elections Website.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Greeley’s Thermometer”
April 19, 2024

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