Republicans entered the presidential election year of 1868 aware of the lessons taught them by the outcome of the elections of 1866 and 1867. Basically, emphasizing wartime sentiments bolstered the party’s chances, while emphasizing the party’s commitment to black rights chipped away at the party’s base in the North, where not all that many Republicans had to defect in closely-contested states in order for Democrats to secure a triumph. Moreover, in the last presidential election, the enormity of Lincoln’s triumph in the electoral college obscured the fact that 45% of the northern electorate preferred George B. McClellan and the Democratic party in the wake of a series of important Union victories in the three months prior to election day. One could treat the election of 1864 as demonstrating Republican maximum strength in the North. With the war over, that strength might well decline … unless you could convince enough voters that the war wasn’t really over, that the fruits of Union victory might be sacrificed should the Democrats (supported by the votes of former Confederates) gain office.
At the same time, 1868 would see the first presidential election where African Americans voted in large numbers in the wake of the establishment of new state governments under the Reconstruction Acts (as well as Tennessee’s decision to allow blacks to vote). In some states, a solid black vote would be enough to carry a state for the Republicans, although one of those states, Mississippi, would not be able to participate in the fall contest (along with Virginia and Texas, Mississippi had not completed the process outlined under the Reconstruction Acts). In other states, Republicans would have to appeal to at least some white voters. They would also have to face the fact that white supremacist terrorism would dampen party prospects, especially as the incumbent president, Andrew Johnson, had no intention of intervening to protect blacks.
The greatest beneficiary of the election results in 1867 was the reluctant presidential candidacy of Ulysses S. Grant. Seen as a moderate Republican, Grant’s popularity exceeded that of the Republican party, and in fact Democrats has put out feelers inquiring about his interest in heading their ticket. Grant’s break with Andrew Johnson proved the final blow to those hopes; at the same time, Johnson’s hope that Grant would come off second-best in his confrontation with the president proved mistaken, as Republicans now saw him, for better and for worse, as one of them. For his part, Grant now accepted the notion that his candidacy was essential to Republican prospects that fall, and he worried that the turmoil over Reconstruction would continue if either party elected one of its leaders president.
The only thing that remained in the way of moderate Republican preferences was the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Although Grant himself favored Johnson’s conviction, many moderate Republicans were not so sure that ousting Johnson and replacing him with radical Benjamin F. Wade was a good idea. Besides, Wade’s positions on fiscal issues and the tariff threatened to divide Republicans who disagreed on both counts. Better for Johnson to survive than for Wade to jeopardize Republican chances that fall. Besides, a Grant triumph would secure the presidency through the accepted process.
Nominating Grant was easy enough; the general assisted his own campaign with his acceptance letter, which contained the phrase “Let us have peace.” It seemed an ideal slogan, in large part because it contained many meanings. It promised peace between North and South, an end to partisan bickering, and an end to the Reconstruction process once the White House was in Republican hands. Democrats played into this when they nominated Horatio Seymour, who had once addressed draft rioters as “my friends,” and Frank P. Blair, Jr., who had already declared that the first thing a Democratic president should do would be to teat down Reconstruction, ensuring years of bickering and the threat of renewed hostilities. Grant promised peace; Seymour and Blair threatened conflict.
At the same time Republicans dealt with black suffrage in a way that struck many observers (then and now) as hypocritical. The platform embraced black suffrage for the South but reminded voters that in the North it would be to each state to decide what it planned to do, as suffrage was a state prerogative. That straddle illustrated what Republicans had learned about the political inexpediency of pushing for black suffrage in the North (although Republicans finally enjoyed success in one state, Iowa; even there Grant ran ahead of the black suffrage referendum). Get Grant elected, they argued, and then we’ll see what needs to be done. In the meantime they waved the bloody shirt (much as white southerners also waved a dfferent bloody shirt), making the election a referendum on the outcome of the war.
Grant’s November triumph seemed a foregone conclusion, but much could be learned by an examination of the returns. Although Grant won easily in the electoral college vote, his popular majority was made possible through the votes of black Americans. More whites voted for Seymour than voted for Grant. However, even had the electorate eligible to vote in 1860 voted in 1868 (meaning no large black voter from the South), Grant would have prevailed in the electoral college, following in Lincoln’s 1860 footsteps of winning in the North. Moreover, Grant outpolled Republican candidates, suggesting the degree to which his personal popularity had helped secure him election. Republicans saw the choice before them: they could continue to build a national bisectional party, which would depend on protecting blacks’ right to vote, aware that such activity might hurt the party in the North, or they could simply concentrate on the North and cast off the South. Finally, they wrestled with the problem of securing black suffrage in the face of a record of defeats on the issue in the North. Their solution proved ingenious.