Letter From The Editor

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Harper’s saved most of its fire, however, for the candidate we have saved for last, the surprising choice of a coalition of regular Democrats and “Liberal Republicans” (as they called themselves), the famous editor of the New York Tribune , Horace Greeley. Energetic, inquisitive, a poker into every new creed and fad, Greeley typified much of the best and a little of the worst in the Yankee nation. As an old man he was not increasing in wisdom. When the Democrats combined with the dissatisfied anti-Grant Republicans—an amalgam of old Confederates and their wartime enemies almost as unlikely to their contemporaries as the Hitler-Stalin pact in our time—the cold and diffident Charles Francis Adams, no doubt a better man for the job, was passed over. (This meant, at least, that one candidate for President would not be campaigning against his own son.) One of those who helped engineer the Greeley candidacy was a Missouri politician, Governor B. Gratz Brown, who thus won the second place on the motley ticket. Thomas Nast, in a savage spate of Harper’s cartoons levelled at Greeley, enjoyed attaching Brown’s name as a kind of little tag, an afterthought, at the cherubic old editor’s coattails.

The campaign was bitter, and intolerable to many, with war-time friends and foes of only a few years before suddenly transposed. But there is no suspense about the ending: Grant won a thumping victory, and Greeley carried but six of the thirty-seven states, none of them in the North. Three weeks later, the battered old man died tragically. It is, on reflection, all rather different from 1972, but it does leave the thought in one’s mind that there may be a better way in which to nominate and elect a chief magistrate. After he had observed the quadrennial circuses of this kind for some time, the English historian James Bryce was moved to write a special chapter for his famous book The American Commonwealth and give it the damning title “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents.”