By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
In the South, the Republican governments made advances in statewide education. They applied state money to rebuild the economic infrastructure that the war had laid waste: bridges, railroads and so forth. They brought some judicial reform and anti-discrimination laws. Taxes went up to cater to these changes—about to the levels of taxes in northern states, but higher than the levels had been in the southern states.
Taxes and Corruption
The higher taxes cost the Republicans a good deal of support among small, white landholders, who, under slavery, had been somewhat cushioned from the tax burden, because there had been taxes on slaves. In the post-emancipation era, a heavier part of the tax burden fell on this class of middling property holders than had been the case before the war.
In addition to high taxes, charges of corruption hurt the Republican governments. While there was corruption, it was not any more than there was in the northern states: Black votes were purchased in the South; immigrant votes were purchased in the North.
There was a good deal of corruption generally, in this part of the 19th century, in the United States. The Democratic political machine in New York City stole money from New York taxpayers on a scale unmatched by any of the Republican regimes in the southern states.
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Martial Law in the South
Throughout the years of Reconstruction, groups such as the Ku Klux Klan carried on widespread terrorism against black and white Republicans. They forced many Republicans to stay away from the polls. Very few Klan members were ever convicted because witnesses were hard to come by. People simply wouldn’t testify against these people in trials.
In 1871, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which gave the president the power to declare martial law in the South to deal with the Klan and other groups that had adopted violent means to intimidate Republicans, and prevent them from going to the polls. The result was a crackdown that, for a time, restored some order to southern elections.
The election of 1872 was probably the most democratic in the South until 1968. Soon afterward, however, the intimidation returned. It was dangerous to be a Republican in much of the South. It was literally a question of running the risk of being beaten or perhaps even killed in some instances, if one wanted to vote.
Corruption in Grant Administration
The election of 1872 witnessed a realignment of the parties. By 1871–1872, rumors of Republican corruption in the South, and empathy for white southerners on the part of many white northerners who believed that enough had been done to bring the nation back together, together with charges of corruption against Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, led to a movement to unseat Grant as the Republican nominee in the North.
Grant himself was not corrupt, but many of those around him were, and that hurt his administration, as corruption among the Republican regimes in the South hurt the image of the Republican Party.
There was a movement in the North to unseat Grant, among a group who called themselves Liberal Republicans. They hoped for a chance to put their own person into the White House, and they met in convention in Cincinnati. They called most prominently for civil service reform.
They said that the Grant administration showed that corruption was endemic. They also called for the withdrawal of all military forces from the South, and for a restoration of what they called local self-government; that is a euphemism for white Democratic rule. Plus, they called for amnesty for all ex-Confederates. There were still a few former Confederates who couldn’t exercise their political rights, and they hoped through this platform to attract support from what they deemed the better elements of the Democratic Party.
Horace Greeley was selected as the Republican nominee. The powerful editor of the New York Tribune, Greeley was a man who had been on virtually every side of every issue in the course of his long career. He had a powerful journalistic voice in the North, and now he was going to be the standard-bearer for the Liberal Republicans.
When the Democrats met in convention, they got on board. They also nominated Greeley, thinking that he stood the only chance to defeat Grant—to ally with the Liberal Republicans and get behind Greeley. Many of the Democrats didn’t like Greeley; as he had been a Republican taken many stands that upset Democrats.
Re-nomination of Grant
The regular Republicans nominated Grant. He very easily secured re-nomination. The election was waged on the issue of sectional reconciliation. The returns showed that most northern Republicans were not yet ready to embrace white southern Democrats as forgiven brothers.
A combination of distrust for the South, very large sums of money spent, Grant’s actions against the Klan, and strong support for Grant from old abolitionists and black voters allowed Ulysses S. Grant to gather about 56 percent of the popular vote.
He carried all of the northern states, and 10 of the 16 southern and border states. Republicans also retained a firm hold on Congress. This, then, seemed to be a rousing success for Grant and the regular Republicans in the election of 1872, but in fact the Republicans very quickly began to lose ground in the years following Grant’s reelection.
Common Questions about the Election of 1872
In 1871, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which gave the president the power to declare martial law in the South to deal with the Klan and other groups that had adopted violent means to intimidate Republicans, and prevent them from going to the polls.
The Liberal Republicans hoped for a chance to put their own person into the White House. They called most prominently for civil service reform. They also called for the withdrawal of all military forces from the South, and for a restoration of what they called local self-government; that is a euphemism for white Democratic rule. Plus, they called for amnesty for all ex-Confederates.
A combination of distrust for the South, very large sums of money spent, Grant’s actions against the Klan, and strong support for Grant from old abolitionists and black voters allowed Grant to gather about 56 percent of the popular vote.