Presidential Election of 1868: Ulysses S. Grant vs. Horatio Seymour

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the first presidential election to take place after the U.S. Civil War, which pitted Ulysses S. Grant against Horatio Seymour, in this lesson. When you're finished, take the quiz and see what you've learned.

Background: the Civil War & Reconstruction

Results from the 1868 electoral college results: Blue = Grant, Red = Seymour, Green = Not Eligible to Vote.
1868 Election Results

What happened after the U.S. Civil War seems so straightforward when you only casually read about it. The war had lasted from 1861-1865 and the first presidential election after that was in 1868. Ulysses S. Grant, the general who had saved the Union, easily won the election and became president.

But wait a minute. Thousands of people had died on both sides. Families had been torn apart. Entire communities had been devastated. Union troops would be in the South for years, and a few Confederate soldiers, like Jessie James, would never really stop fighting.

The North might have won the war, but they hadn't really convinced the South to give up slavery, accept the more centralized government of the U.S., or the industrial developments that made slavery less important. The South definitely wasn't ready to just join up with the Union again and elect the general that had beaten them as president.

A picture of Ulysses S. Grant, the Republican candidate.
U.S. Grant picture

Abraham Lincoln had known all this. He and his vice president, Andrew Johnson, had hoped to make bringing the Southern states back into the Union a gentle transition. Lincoln had been willing to allow African Americans to gradually become enfranchised as ex-Confederate leaders remained in power. But Lincoln was dead before he had the chance to try, and Johnson's approach was to wait on enfranchising them. As Johnson blocked Congress' more aggressive approach to Reconstruction, they became so frustrated they even tried to impeach him.

The Issues

The biggest discussion in 1868 was how to stabilize the situation in the South. Lincoln and Johnson, both Republicans, had hoped to reconcile with the South by allowing them to retain their leadership as they slowly introduced rights to African Americans. A gradual integration of Northern philosophy was also a policy that Horatio Seymour, candidate for the Democrats, hoped to follow.

The official campaign poster for Seymour and Blair.
Seymour/Blair Poster

Ulysses S. Grant, the 1868 Republican candidate, had a slightly different tactic. He followed the thinking of the Radical Republicans, who believed that the former rebels should be suppressed. The Radical Republicans also supported the migration of Northerners, or carpetbaggers, who could control the states and help the development of a railroad system and a free labor society. They believed that African Americans in Southern states should immediately be given the right to vote.

Fears & Precautions

The Republicans felt that they had beaten the Southern states and wanted to retain control of the country to make sure the rebels didn't have the chance to secede again, or go back to slavery. To do that they were willing to stretch the truth a lot.

They started with their own candidate, Grant. He had been a long-time alcoholic even before he'd fought in the Civil War. The Republicans ignored all that and refused to listen to any accusations like that. Controlling newspapers in the North and the government in the South, they flooded citizens with news of his war record and how he had single-handedly won the war and saved the Union. He promised peace, too, which is all most people really wanted.

The Republicans were equally dishonest with the Democratic candidate. Seymour had been the governor of New York during the war. He had dutifully sent troops to Gettysburg and maintained order. But the Republicans branded him a traitor. In a campaign poster, he was pictured in front of a group of draft rioters calling them 'My friends!' His father had committed suicide, so his family was accused of having mental diseases, too.

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