Historical Series: Generals As Presidents, Part 4

David B Morris
27 min readJun 20, 2024


How Civil War Generals Were Critical to Presidential Politics Until The End of the 19th Century

Ulysses Grant.

In the lead up the 1864 Presidential election Republicans, certain that Lincoln couldn’t win in November, sought out General Ulysses Grant as an alternate candidate. After several years Grant had become the most successful military general the Union had and many hoped he could lead the Republicans to victory.

But Grant’s reaction was adamant: “They can’t make me do it! They can’t compel me to do it!” he told those who sought him out. When asked if he had told Lincoln as much, Grant said he’d thought it unnecessary because the successful resolution to the War needed Lincoln as much in the White House as it needed him on the battlefield.

Grant had no interest in politics before the war and when asked if he ever voted, he told reporters that he’d voted once in 1856 for Buchanan. Asked why, he said simply: “I knew Fremont.” But after the surrender at Appomattox confirmed Grant’s place as the biggest hero of the Union and after Johnson ascended to the Presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, the Republicans began to push for Grant as their next standard bearer. Radical Republicans had hoped to nominate someone like Salmon Chase or Benjamin Wade but after losses in state elections the following year, the moderates believed they had a winning cause and chose Grant. Grant was nominated unanimously on the first ballot and Schuyler Colfax the Speaker of the House was named as his running mate.

The Republicans were not just counting on Grant’s popularity to win the Presidency. During this period a new phrase entered the political vernacular “to wave the bloody shirt”. Both parties used this to deride the opposition to make emotional calls to avenge the blood of soldiers who died in the civil war. Democrats were more common to use this phrase against Radical Republicans while campaigning in the South, while the Republicans would do the same to urge Northerners to vote for them because Southern Democrats were responsible for causing the war.

The phrase gained the most traction in April 1871 when Congressman and former Union General Benjamin Butler while on the House of Congress, held up the shirt stained with the blood of a carpetbagger who had been whipped by the KKK. The story was apocryphal: while Butler did give a speech that month condemning the Klan, he never waved a shirt. But the legend outlived the facts and both sides would use it for the rest of the century.

The Republicans didn’t use a bloody shirt to win but they did use the War as a prop. Starting with Grant in 1868 with just a single exception every Republican nominee for President would be a soldier, usually a general, who served in the Civil War and all would live in Ohio, then as now, a critical state in winning Presidential elections. They would win the Presidency with five of those candidates, and Grant would be the first, defeating Governor Horatio Seymour of New York. Grant’s victory was the first where blacks could vote under Reconstruction and their votes were critical in the South mostly going Republican. Grant won with 214 electoral votes to Seymour’s 80.

By 1871, a new term had entered the political lexicon: ‘Grantism’. It was not a compliment. Grant’s administration had the reputation of being notoriously corrupt, even though Grant himself was honest. This was not necessarily on Grant: American politics in the 1870s and 1880s was notoriously corrupt as the robber barons and big business began to take a hold in every aspect of politics as every level. But Grant seemed particularly incompetent when it came to choosing who advised him: at the position of Attorney General alone, five men would hold the office due to multiple resignation from scandals. Grant was also perceived as incompetent as leader, and rumors about his drinking in the Oval Office were rampant even by his allies.

As early as 1870 many of the original founders of the party, including Carl Schurz and Charles Sumner were becoming dissatisfied with Grant’s leadership. Many were also becoming weary of Grant’s enforcement of Reconstruction and wanted to tackle issues like Civil Service reform. They were in increasing opposition of ensuring rights for African-Americans and wanted to give amnesty to ex-Confederates.

In May of 1872, they held a convention in Cincinnati with the hope of nominating a Presidential candidate that could win the support of the Democrats and defeat Grant. Schurz had founded the party but was born in Germany and ineligible to run for President.

The party had several strong candidates including Charles Francis Adams and Lyman Trumbull of Illinois. Another candidate was Supreme Court Justice David Davis, but due to newspaper coverage he withdrew in favor of Newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. After six ballots, Greeley received enough support to clinch the nomination.

Horace Greeley.

It was a major miscalculation. The kindest thing one could say about Greeley was that he was a national celebrity. As a publisher he had the reputation of a busybody who had been a gadfly in politicians ears (Lincoln had loathed him) He was personally unctuous, had been known to embrace causes such as vegetarianism that were outside the societal norm and had isolated many of his supporters when he had posted bail for Jefferson Davis when the former President of the Confederacy was being tried for treason. Worst of all, Greeley had spent almost his entire career in journalism attacking everything the Democratic Party stood for, especially in the Northeast.

Despite these qualms the Democratic Party made one of their dumbest decisions when they decided to nominate Greeley and embrace the Liberal Republican platform without even a second thought. Their convention took less than six hours. Many Democrats sat out the election while the Liberal Republican party fused with the Democrats in all states that were in the Union save Louisiana and Texas.

The campaign was a complete disaster from start to finish for the Liberal Republicans. Greely broke precedent by personally going out on the stump to campaign (only Stephen Douglas had done so previously) and while some thought he was eloquent, most thought he sounded like a fool. It didn’t help that Greeley favored protectionism and opposed civil service reform, two of the issues the party had been founded on. Greeley’s argument against corruption sounded tone-deaf considering his own past association with many Republican leaders. And despite Greeley’s long personal record of advocating for civil rights, African-Americans held a distrust of the party because it was associated with the Democrats. Grant’s administration was deeply flawed and easy to campaign against, but with Greeley as his opponent, he was unbeatable.

The result was a disaster both for the Liberal Republicans and Greeley personally. Grant won in a landslide carrying 30 states and 286 electoral votes. Not long after the election Greeley’s wife died, he was institutionalized and he died on November 29th 1872, less than a month after election day.

If anything Grant’s second term was worse than his first. A national depression hit the country in 1873 and a veto of what was a version of a stimulus bill caused the Republicans to lose the house in 1874, giving the Democrats control for the first time since the before the War. The Whiskey Ring did much to hurt his cabinet and his Secretary of Ware was discovered to be guilty of taking kickbacks and was impeached by the Houses. Grants own brother was indicted in a corruption scandal. Despite all of that, Grant considered running for an unprecedented third term, but the scandals were so great he decided against running. That year. After that the favored candidate was James G. Blaine, former Speaker of the House and current Maine Senator. He came in with immense popular support and it managed to slowly build but the controversy surrounded around corruption prevented the convention from moving to him. Over six ballots the opposition would solidify around Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, and on the seventh ballot he won a narrow majority. (We’ll be hearing from Blaine again.)

Hayes had spent his career in law in his youth and has spent time in his legal career defending slaves who had been escaped and been accused under the Fugitive Slave act. A staunch abolitionist, he was a rising star in the newly formed Republican Party but as the South began to secede, he was lukewarm to the idea of civil war restoring the Union, suggesting the two sides were irreconcilable. After the South fired on Fort Sumter, he resolved his doubts and joined a volunteer company becoming part of the 23rd regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

Rutherford B. Hayes

He rose quickly for the ranks and suffered numerous injuries in battle being shot through the left arm while leading his regiment at the Battle of Stone Mountain. After he recovered, he was promoted to the position of Brigadier General. He would se little action until 1864, when his division would be assigned to West Virginia, most famously engaging Confederate Troops in Cloyd’s Mountain and fighting in the Shenandoah Valley for numerous campaigns. His troops won multiple campaigns and Grant would later write of Hayes that ‘his conduct on the field was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than more personal daring.”

While still in uniform, he was nominated for the House of Representatives in the second district of Ohio and was sworn in after the war ended. He would vote for the Fourteen Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. He left Congress in July of 1867 to run for Governor of Ohio and narrowly defeated Allan Thurman. He won reelection in 1869 and helped ratify the Fifteenth Amendment in Ohio. He chose not to run for reelection in 1871 but four years later when the Republican convention nominate him for Governor he accepted, becoming the first person to earn a third term of governor of Ohio.

Hayes’ opponent in 1876 was Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York who like Hayes had a reputation for honesty. Both men advocated on civil service reform but with the country still recovering from the depression of 1873 and Grant’s miserable Presidency, he felt their was little chance of him winning election.

To summarize what happened on election day of 1876 would require an entire book and indeed volumes have been written on it. I will speak in broad terms. Tilden would win the popular vote by more than a quarter of a million. On election day he had 184 electoral votes, one short of the 185 needed to win. Hayes had 165. 20 electoral votes from three Southern states were in dispute and it might not come as a shock that one was Florida.

The Republican leaders challenged the results, charged the Democrats with fraud and voter suppression of blacks while the Democrats countered that the governments of those states were in the hands of Republicans. Both parties claimed victory in the states of Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina and no one knew who had the authority to decide which slate of electors to seat: the Republican controlled Senate or the Democratic controlled house. (Imagine the battle of 2000 tripled, amplified on crack and you might get a hint as to what this was like, particularly for a country little more than a decade removed from a Civil War.)

Finally in January of 1877, Grant and Congress agreed to submit the matter to a bipartisan Electoral Commission made up of five representatives, five senators and five Supreme Court justices. There were seven Democrats and seven Republicans among the members. The fifteenth member was David Davis, an independent both parties respected. But Davis had cold feet and when he was elected to the Senate, he used this as an excuse to get off the commission. The only remaining justices on the Supreme Court were Republican and they chose Joseph Bradley, believed to be the most independent minded. But when the commission met, they voted on strict party lines and Hayes won all 20 electoral votes.

The Democrats were understandably outraged and attempted a filibuster to prevent Congress from accepting the outcome. Many thought that military action might be need. But eventually both sides negotiated a compromise, the bulk of which was Hayes would withdraw federal troops from the South and accept the election of Democratic governments in the remaining states, in all effects ending Reconstruction. As a result, freedmen were at the mercy of white Democrats who didn’t intend to preserve their rights. Jim Crow began within a few months and for the next seventy-five years the South as a bloc would vote Democratic in every Presidential election that followed and all major office holders in every state being Democratic. (You will not read that in any progressive history of America when it comes to the South.) Hayes also pledged that he wouldn’t run for reelection.

Hayes’ presidency was a mixed bag, aside from the considerable issue of ending Reconstruction (which as I argued in a previous series was an inevitability regardless). He did do his best to preserve laws promoting the rights of southern blacks, defeating Congress’s efforts to curtail federal power to monitor federal elections. Four times the Democrat House tried to pass a bill with a rider to repeal the Enforcement Acts, which were used to suppress the KKK in the South. He would veto the bill with that rider four times before the House gave up. Hayes believed in racial equality but couldn’t accept the South or Congress to go along with it.

He also fought for civil service reform, particularly in New York, a state ripe with corruption particularly in the New York Custom House. He would issue an executive order forbidding federal office holders from being required to make campaign contributions. When the head collector Chester Arthur refused to obey, Hayes demanded his resignation and those of two subordinates which they refused to give. The Senate chair, Roscoe Conkling of New York, refused to accept his replacements. In July of 1878, he fired Arthur and Alonzo Cornell during the Congressional recess and replaced them with recess appointments. Conkling opposed their confirmations but Congress confirmed them. (It was far from the end of Arthur’s political career.) He also made two appointments to the Supreme Court and his first appointment John Harlan would serve for 34 years and is considered one of the best justices in the court’s history.

By the time of the 1880 Republican convention the party was divided into Stalwarts, which supported political patronage and Half-Breeds their opponents who believed in civil service reform. The Stalwarts focused their efforts on Grant, who was seeking a third term. Conkling was his biggest supporter. The Half Breeds chose James Blaine, who cared less for reform and more about destroying Conkling, his political nemesis. As an alternative some crowed around John Sherman of Ohio, Hayes Treasury Secretary a competent official but a reserved man.

Even in the early days it looked like it would be an ugly battle. When the nominations took place, the reception to Blaine’s was lukewarm and Grant’s faced hisses. Then Ohio stepped forward to have its delegate give the nominating speech for Sherman. The nomination speech was from a candidate who had just been elected to the Senate by the Ohio state assembly. His nominating speech for Sherman would be the first step towards his seeking a higher office.

James Garfield

James Garfield had enlisted in the Army at the start of the Civil War. His victory as Jenny’s Creek earned him a promotion to Brigadier General and he would serve at Shiloh and as chief of Staff for General Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland. He fought bravely at Chickamauga and that led him to being elected to Congress in 1862. Garfield had not wished to leave the Army and had personally visited Lincoln. Lincoln said he had enough generals and needed political support. He served in the House from 1862 to 1878, becoming floor leader in 1875 and serving as a member of the Electoral commission that put Hayes in the White House. He had no association with either faction, and while he supported Blaine prior to the convention, he backed his fellow Ohioan Sherman when he entered the race. Sherman had helped earn him election to the Senate but some thought he was the better choice for the Presidency. His nominating speech for Sherman was more well-received than his candidate was at the convention

379 votes were required to obtain the nomination. Grant received 304 on the first ballot, Blaine 285 and Sherman was a distant third with 93. No one else was remotely close. In what would be the longest battle by the Republicans to come up with a nominees, the figures remained basically the same for 28 ballots. By that point the delegates thought all three men were dug in and the only way to break the deadlock was to come up with a new candidate.

After several ballots Sherman’s count began to increase and he had gotten all the way up to 117 ballots. Then on the thirty fourth ballot, sixteen Wisconsin delegates shifted their votes to Garfield. Garfield was so shocked he challenged the correctness. The chairman ignored. On the next ballot a movement to Garfield began and on the 36th ballot, Blaine realized his chances were slipping and ordered his supporters to endorse Garfield. On the thirty-sixth ballot Garfield received 399 votes, 93 more than Grant to finally win the nomination.

For all intents and purposes Garfield had been drafted by the Republican Party to serve as its nominee for President. He would face as his opponent by the Democrats another Union General, but one who had actively sought the nomination — and had been considered as a viable candidate for as long as Grant had been.

Winfield Scott Hancock was, as you might expect, named by his parents for Winfield Scott when he was born on February 14, 1824. While he attended West Point, he was below average and graduated close to the bottom of his class when he graduated in 1844. He was assigned to the infantry and ended up serving in the Mexican War. Mainly known for his ability to sign up soldiers, he was good at it that his superiors were initially reluctant to send him to the front. They did so in July of 1847, where he made up part of an Army that his namesake led, though there is no indication they met during that period.

Hancock would join a regiment in Puebla and served as a first lieutenant for meritorious service at both Contreras and Churubusco. He was wounded at the latter battle and developed a fever, which would keep him from participating in what would be the final breakthrough at Mexico City.

In peacetime he would serve primarily as a quartermaster and adjutant. He served in the West during the warfare in Kansas and the carnage in the Utah Territory. He was stationed in Southern California in November of 1858 and remained there until the Civil War broke out. He became friendly with many southern officers during this period, but when they left the Confederacy, he stayed with the Union.

He originally served as quartermaster for the Union Army but by September of 1861 he was named Brigadier General. In the Peninsula campaign in 1862, he would lead a critical counterattack in the Battle of Williamsburg. George McClellan telegraphed that “Hancock was superb today” and he would carry that appellation — one of the most generous of all military ones — for the rest of his career.

Winfield Scott Hancock.

Hancock served in many of the most critical battles of the Civil War, fighting and Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. But his finest hour came at Gettysburg where he served as corps commander. After his friend Major General Reynolds was killed early on July 1st, General Meade ordered him to take command of the units on the field. Hancock was not the most senior Union officer present, which demonstrated Meade’s high confidence in him. He would organize defenses on Cemetery Hill on July 1. On July 2, he was positioned on Cemetery Ridge, roughly in the center of the Union line. In what was arguably his boldest decision, he ordered the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment to advance and charge a Confederate brigade four times its size. The cost was brutal — the brigade suffered 87 percent casualties — but it brought time to organize the defensive line and saved the day for the Union. Then Hancock sent another line to the fighting on East Cemetery hill where Jubal Early’s division had gotten to Union Batteries. It flushed them out. On July 3rd, Hancock defended his position on Cemetery Ridge — and bore the brunt of Pickett’s Charge.

As the Confederate military bombarded him, he led his troops on horseback, reviewing and encouraging them. When a subordinate protested saying: “The corps commander ought not to risk his life that way,” he supposedly replied: “There are times when a corps commanders life does not count. Hancock was wounded by a bullet that struck his saddle, causing him to receive a wound in his thigh with wood and a nail. Helped from his horse by his aides, he removed the saddle nail himself. Despite his pain, he refused evacuation to the rear until the battle was resolved.

An inspiration to his troops throughout the battle, he received the thanks of Congress for his ‘gallant, meritorious, and conspicuous share in that great decisive victory.”

The wound caused so much damage that Hancock barely served for much of the rest of the war. That said, he performed well under Grant in both the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Only once during the entire wat did he suffer a significant military defeat, during the siege of St. Petersburg. By any measure Hancock is one of the great Union Generals during the conflict.

His service to the nation was far from over in peacetime. He would supervise the execution of the Lincoln conspirators and in 1866, he would serve in the Middle Military Department. He was one of Johnson’s most trusted administrators in Reconstruction but his sympathy for restoration of white Southerners put him at odds with the Radical Republicans. He refused to let local Republicans force him to use his power to overturn elections and court verdicts, while making it clear that open insurrection would be suppressed. This made Hancock so popular with Democrats that in 1868, he received substantial support for the Presidency. He received substantial support and was actually leading all contenders by the twenty-first ballot but on the next one there was a rush to Horatio Seymour, the governor of New York, and he received the nomination.

Grant’s victory would lead to him being reassigned to the Department of Dakota. During his tenure he would lead an expedition that would help contribute to the creation of Yellowstone as a national park. Grant’s jealousy of Hancock kept him out of the South for the rest of his career.

Hancock’s political ambitions revived in 1876 but he was never a serious contender. However in 1880 Hancock had his name placed in nomination and won on the second ballot.

Compared to the last two elections, 1880 was relatively calm. With Reconstruction over, party membership was based more on ethnic and religious background more than ideology. While the Democrats would try to raise the issue of 1876 as ‘the stolen election’ the Republicans yet again tried waving the bloody shirt, but with the passage of fifteen years and two Union Generals at the head of both major parties, it did little to excite the voters. In truth, there were few practical differences between the two candidates so it came down to which states to carry. Hancock expected to carry the ‘Solid South’ and the North was safe for Republicans. It came down to handful of close states, including New York and Indiana.

The Democrats chose to make it a character debate, arguing that Garfield had been connecting to the Credit Mobilier Scandal. The Republicans were reluctant to criticize the hero of Gettysburg so they charged him as uninformed. The Democrats couldn’t come up with a clear message for their campaign.

The election, like so many between 1876 and the end of the twentieth century, was both extremely close and had an immensely high voter turnout. 78 percent of all eligible voters cast a ballot, one of the highest turnouts in American history. And the final count was incredibly close in the popular vote: out of nine million votes cast, Garfield would defeat Hancock by less than 40,000 votes. The electoral margin was somewhat larger for Garfield but not by much: he received 214 electoral votes to Hancock’s 155. The difference came in New York which had 35 electoral votes. When Garfield carried it by 21,000 votes, it would be enough to get him into the White House. Each candidate carried 19 states but because all of Garfields were in the North it was enough to win.

Hancock was convinced the Republicans won New York by fraud, but with no evidence and reminded of everything that happened four years earlier, the Democrats chose not to contest the matter.

Hancock took his defeat in stride and attended Garfield’s inauguration. Garfield was shot less than four months into his presidency and die two months later. Many were terrified what his Vice President Chester Arthur would do, but he would support civil service reform, something Garfield had championed. Hancock died in 1886 and was held in high esteem for his personal integrity by both Republicans and Democrats. Even a Republican who didn’t vote for him truly believed if he had been elected President, “much which both parties now recognize of having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past 13 years would have been avoided.” And much of that was due to the Republican candidates, including the one who had served as President in the aftermath of Hancock’s defeat.

In the 1884 election for the first time since 1868, neither ticket put forth a party with a Civil War general at its head. Philip Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman were both sounded out but both declined: Sherman famously responding: “If nominated I will not run. If elected, I will not serve. James G. Blaine was nominated on the fourth ballot and John Logan was nominated as his Vice President. Logan had served as a General during the Civil War, but with little distinction compared to some of his previous competitors. (Besides, no one voted for Vice President.) The Democratic nominee for President was Grover Cleveland, governor of New York. Cleveland had hired a substitute to fight in his place after the Conscription act of 1863 was passed.

Cleveland defeated Blaine by a margin not much larger than Garfield had defeated Hancock by; 50,000 votes out of ten million cast and 219 electoral votes to 182. Again New York made the difference with Cleveland’s narrow margin there electing the first Democratic President since before the Civil War began. While there were many factors blamed for Blaine’s defeat, much of it focused on the corruption that surrounded the Republican nominee to the point that members of his own party defected to vote for Cleveland. Despite that, his narrow loss made him the front runner for the election in 1888, but he denied interest. Many of his supporters divided in March of 1888, he privately wrote that there was one man that he thought could make the best candidate and who he threw his support too.

That man was also a Civil War general originally from Ohio but by the time he was considered Presidential timber he was representing Indiana in the Senate. There were many other reasons to consider Benjamin Harrison president.

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison was not only the grandson of William Henry Harrison but his great-grandfather Benjamin Harrison V had been one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was seven when his grandfather was elected President, but he didn’t attend the inauguration. His father John Scott was a two-term Congressman from Ohio, but his family was not wealthy. He moved with his wife to Indianapolis and began practicing law there and got into Republican politics not long after the party was formed. When Lincoln called for more recruits, Harrison wanted to enlist but didn’t now how to serve his young family. After visiting Governor Morton and finding him distressed at the shortage of men answering the call, he offered to help recruit a regiment, but would decline the offer to command. He would finally be commissioned a colonel in August of 1862, and then left to serve in Kentucky.

For much of the first two years Harrison’s regiment performed reconnaissance duty and guarded railroads in Kentucky and Tennessee. By January of 1864, Harrison was led to the command the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the XX Corp and by May he and his regiment would join Sherman’s Atlanta campaign in the Army of the Cumberland. He commanded the brigade from Resaca to Kennesaw Mountain and all the way to Atlanta. When Sherman’s main force began its March to the sea, his brigade was transferred to the District of Etowah and participated in the Battle of Nashville. During the bitterly cold winter, Harrison would prepare coffee and personally bring it to his freezing men at night. As he led his men into battle, he personally encouraged them with the cry: “Come on boys!” Despite his memorable military accomplishments and the praise he received for them, Harrison nevertheless thought “war was a dirty business that no decent man would find pleasurable” a view that led him to believe that Americans had ‘no commission from God to police the world.”

Harrison would be elected reporter of the Indiana Supreme Court while still in uniform. A skilled attorney, Grant would name him to represent the federal government in a civil suit filed by Lambdin P. Milligan, the figure at the center of the landmark treason case by the Supreme Court. His reputation led him caused his star to rise Indiana politics and he would run for Governor of the state in 1876 and while he lost the race, he built on his prominence in state politics. Eventually he became one of Indiana’s senators in 1880, even though the new President James Garfield had offered him a position in his cabinet. Harrison would advocate for pensions for Civil War veterans and their widows, unsuccessfully supported aid for the education of children of former slaves and opposed the Chinese exclusion act. During Cleveland’s administration his attempts to admit new Western states to the Union were stymied by Democrats who feared those states would elect Republicans to Congress. (Who can imagine? A political party opposing statehood for represented territories for purely political reasons?)

After the legislature deadlocked, Harrison lost his seat in the Senate in 1887. He returned to Indiana but would declare his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President against Grover Cleveland. At the convention in June, Blaine would throw his support to Harrison but the fight was contested.

The leading candidate on the first ballot was John Sherman of Ohio but the vote was divided fairly evenly between many candidates. On the fourth ballot there was a rush to Harrison by the delegates and he would pull into the lead over Sherman by the seventh ballot, receiving the nomination by acclamation on the next one.

The main issue in the campaign against Cleveland was against the protectionist tariff which Cleveland was greatly in favor of and the Republicans opposed. Cleveland claimed that it was unnecessarily high and the taxation was unnecessary and unjust. Republicans claimed the high tariff would protect American industry from foreign competition and guarantee high wages, high profits and economic growth. Harrison’s campaign was essentially a front-porch campaign and more energetic from the Republicans. The GOP also played a dirty trick when a California Republican, under the assumed name Charles Murchison to the British ambassador to the U.S. claimed to be a former Englishman wanting advice on how to vote. The Ambassador said from a British perspective Cleveland was. The Republicans would use this letter as ‘an October surprise’ in order to influence Irish-American voters. This almost certainly cost Cleveland his home state of New York and Indiana and aided by almost certainly fraudulent ballots in both of those states, helped assure Harrison reelection.

More than 78 percent of eligible voters came out in the election of 1888. Cleveland won the popular vote by about 90,000 out of 11 million cast. But in large part because of the circumstances above Harrison received 233 electoral votes to Cleveland’s 168 and took the Presidency. That said Harrison’s victory include 26 of the 44 largest American cities (outside the South) and carried the four largest electoral prizes. In addition to New York, he took Indiana, Pennsylvania and his home state of Ohio. And one can’t discount the fact Cleveland’s win in the popular vote was tainted by the massive disenfranchisement and voter suppression of hundreds of thousands of blacks in the South, who had been voting Republican.

Harrison’s supporters had made so many pledges that many thought they had seats in the cabinet. Much to the bosses dismay he delayed many of the nominations, especially Blaine’s as Secretary of State, because he didn’t want him to have any role in the administration. He nominated only one major party boss to his cabinet and was averse to the idea of federal positions as patronage. This isolated Harrison early from pivotal political operatives and compromised whatever future he might have.

Harrison did his best in his office to pass legislation to protect African-Americans in the South but his movements were soundly rejected by bot parties. Perhaps the most important accomplishment of his Presidency was that during his administration more states were admitted to the Union than any other one: North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming. (I doubt the left knows who Harrison even was, but if they knew this that they would naturally call him the worst President in history based solely on this detail.)

Harrison faced off against Cleveland in 1892, though neither candidate was popular with their party at the time. By this point the Progressive era was beginning to take flight in the west and the rights of finances and labor versus the industrialist mattered far more to the average voter than refighting the Civil War. The bloody shirt was almost non-existent in the campaign that returned Cleveland to the White House in what was practically a landslide. Less then a few months later, the Panic of 1893 began, and would doom Cleveland’s second term before it was properly started.

The Republican nominee for President in 1896 had volunteered to serve in the Civil War at the age of eighteen. William McKinley would serve under then Major Rutherford Hayes and end up fighting across the war. McKinley would fight in Antietam, where his service would earn him a commission as second lieutenant. He would fight in the Shenandoah Valley and would be promoted to captain after the battle of Kernstown. He had a horse shot out from under him at Berryville and would personally rally the troops and turn the tide at the Battle of Cedar Creek. Not long after the 21 year old McKinley voted for Lincoln for President. When the war ended he was promoted to major, but he declined to take a peace time army and returned to his home state of Ohio.

In Ohio he helped make speeches for his friend Hayes when he ran for governor the first time and in 1869 ran for the office of prosecuting attorney in Stark County, an office that had bene historically held by Democrats. He won his first elected office that year.

William McKinley.

Slowly McKinley began his assent in national politics. He would be elected to Congress in 1877 and would serve in the House of Representatives on and off for the next fifteen years, frequently being gerrymandered or redistricted out of office by the Democrats when they controlled the legislature. (The nerve of politicians! Using such underhanded methods!) By 1886, he was considered one of the leaders in the Ohio Republican party. During that time he made the acquaintance of Mark Hanna who spent the rest of his life as his biggest booster. By 1892, he was out but he quickly began to run for governor and won election in 1891. He would be reelected by the largest percentage of any Ohio governor since the Civil war. By the start of 1895, he was one of the frontrunners for the Republican nomination for President, and thanks to the work of Hanna, he won it easily.

But despite the fact that McKinley was a hero of the Civil War from Ohio, the bloody shirt was almost a non-issue in the 1896 Presidential campaign. The major issue from the start of the 1896 Presidential campaign until election day was bimetallism. McKinley was on the side of gold, the young William Jennings Bryan proudly on the side of silver. McKinley’s campaign was far better financed and he spent it entire on a front porch campaign. While Bryan would stump the entire country, McKinley chose to give prepared speech from his front porch.

While there was discussion of financial issues and the working man against the rich, the issues of either the Civil war or civil rights was non-existent. Earlier in 1896, Plessy V. Ferguson had basically made the law of the land what almost Americans had been taking for granted since Reconstruction ended. White America considered its obligation to the African-American over and done with. The Progressive Era that was well under way would bring about many new rights to untold millions and entrust them in the hands of the working man. But they would almost entirely center on White America, and both political parties were more than willing to let that be the case.

McKinley would win election over William Jennings Bryan in a thrilling race in 1896 and then defeat him by a more resounding margin in 1900. One of the major factors that many attributed to the energy of the campaign was the replacement of McKinley’s original running mate, Garrett Hobart, who died in 1899.

During much of this era, a rising star in the Republican Party had been making his assent in New York politics. While he had been lukewarm to McKinley — saying “The man had the backbone of a chocolate éclair” — he wanted to move up in politics. He would be named assistant secretary of the Navy. He very quickly began to supersede his authority not only over his superior but McKinley himself and eventually would begin maneuvers that led overtime to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Not content with that the young Theodore Roosevelt resigned to form a cavalry regiment that he would call the Rough Riders. And leading that regiment, he entered legend with his charge up San Juan Hill. After the war ended, he would become Governor of New York in landslide and many were certain he would be President in 1904.

In an effort to nullify him as a factor in Presidential politics, Tom Platt and other political bosses took note of the popularity of Roosevelt to force McKinley to take him as Vice President. When TR took the job, the bosses were gleeful but Hanna was horrified. “Don’t you fools know there’s only one life between that damned cowboy and the White House!” he told them and told McKinley his job was to live the next four years.

When McKinley was elected TR seemed to know it was the end of his political life and told as much to reporters on election night, saying he would ‘take the veil’ as Vice President. An anarchist named Leon Czolgosz had other plans for McKinley — and history.

In the final part of this series I will deal with the two generals of World War II who played vastly different roles in presidential politics in the aftermath of the war.



David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.