THE LIBERAL REPUBLICANS

Despite the Grant administration’s effective response to Klan terrorism, the North’s commitment to Reconstruction waned during the 1870s. Many Radicals, including Thaddeus Stevens, who died in 1868, had passed from the scene. Within the Republican Party, their place was taken by politicians less committed to the ideal of equal rights for blacks. Northerners increasingly felt that the South should be able to solve its own problems without constant interference from Washington. The federal government had freed the slaves, made them citizens, and given them the right to vote. Now, blacks should rely on their own resources, not demand further assistance.

In 1872, an influential group of Republicans, alienated by corruption within the Grant administration and believing that the growth of federal power during and after the war needed to be curtailed, formed their own party. They included Republican founders like Lyman Trumbull and prominent editors and journalists such as E. L. Godkin of The Nation. Calling themselves Liberal Republicans, they nominated Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, for president.

The Old Plantation Home, a lithograph from 1872 produced by the prominent firm of Currier and Ives in New York City, illustrates how a nostalgic image of slavery as a time of carefree happiness for African-Americans was being promoted even as Reconstruction took place.

Changes in graphic artist Thomas Nast’s depiction of blacks in Harper’s Weekly mirrored the evolution of Republican sentiment in the North. And Not This Man? August 5, 1865, shows the black soldier as an upstanding citizen deserving of the vote. Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State, March 14, 1874, suggests that Reconstruction legislatures had become travesties of democratic government.

The Liberals’ alienation from the Grant administration initially had little to do with Reconstruction. They claimed that corrupt politicians had come to power in the North by manipulating the votes of immigrants and workingmen, while men of talent and education like themselves had been pushed aside. Democratic criticisms of Reconstruction, however, found a receptive audience among the Liberals. As in the North, they became convinced, the “best men” of the South had been excluded from power while “ignorant” voters controlled politics, producing corruption and misgovernment. Power in the South should be returned to the region’s “natural leaders.” During the campaign of 1872, Greeley repeatedly called on Americans to “clasp hands across the bloody chasm” by putting the Civil War and Reconstruction behind them.

Greeley had spent most of his career, first as a Whig and then as a Republican, denouncing the Democratic Party. But with the Republican split presenting an opportunity to repair their political fortunes, Democratic leaders endorsed Greeley as their candidate. Many rank and file Democrats, unable to bring themselves to vote for Greeley, stayed at home on election day. As a result, Greeley suffered a devastating defeat by Grant, whose margin of more than 700,000 popular votes was the largest in a nineteenth-century presidential contest. But Greeley’s campaign placed on the northern agenda the one issue on which the Liberal reformers and the Democrats could agree—a new policy toward the South.

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