The Politics of Personality: Horace Greeley

Portrait of Horace Greeley
Horace Greeley,1811-1872 / By Thomas Nast (1840-1902) / Watercolor on paper, 1872 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

This post originally appeared May 20, 2008

The Liberal Republican Party—a heterogeneous group of reformers and old-line politicians brought together out of disgust for the cronyism and incompetence of Ulysses S. Grant’s Republican administration, assembled at Cincinnati on May 1, 1872, to select its presidential candidate. Chosen after the sixth ballot—to the surprise of many and the amusement of some—was Horace Greeley (1811–1872), editor of the influential New York Tribune, whose weekly edition was read throughout the country. Meeting at Baltimore in July, the Democrats, in the spirit of “Anything to Beat Grant,” moved to endorse Greeley, the man who had been vehemently attacking them for the last forty years.

Confident of his moral superiority, Greeley had long sought political office but had been successful only in filling an expired term in the House of Representatives. Pronounced Greely as he took to the hustings, “The money and office-holding power arrayed against us are fearfully formidable but we ought to win, so I guess we shall.”

Greeley was a man of vigorous opinions, which encompassed antislavery, westward expansion, free homesteading, agricultural improvement, high tariffs, reconciliation between North and South, temperance, vegetarianism, spiritualism, utopian socialism, and virtually every fad that came down the pike. “Uncle Horace” was eccentric, erratic, irascible, impulsive, often foolish, and sometimes “downright wrong-headed.” Dismayed by the nomination, the liberal journal The Nation editorialized that Greeley lacked what Napoleon called “Three o’clock in the morning courage”; he did not fit the image of the brave man “who roused from deep sleep, goes swiftly into the fight with nerves unshaken and every faculty on the alert.”

There was no question but that Greeley lent himself to ridicule. “He lays claim to greatness,” wrote a contemporary observer, “by wandering through the streets with a hat double the size of his head, a coat after the fashion of Jacob’s of old, with one leg of his pantaloons inside and the other outside of his boot.” A durable white coat was his particular trademark.

Early in the campaign, the brilliant cartoonist Thomas Nast satirized Greeley for the British humor magazine Vanity Fair. (The original watercolor drawing seen above came as a gift at the inception of America’s National Portrait Gallery from the National Portrait Gallery in London). Soon Nast, a great admirer of President Grant, became more hard-hitting—showing Greeley as an empty suit flapping in the breeze, as a monkey collecting votes from Tammany Hall, shaking hands with John Wilkes Booth over the grave of Abraham Lincoln, as a Confederate apologist.

Greeley was defeated in a landslide, carrying only six southern and border states. “I was the worst beaten man who ever ran for high office,” he wrote, “and have been assailed so bitterly that I hardly know whether I was running for President or the Penitentiary.” His wife had died six days before the election, and when he returned his beloved Tribune, he found his editorial power usurped by another. Greeley’s mind gave way, and he died insane before the electoral vote was counted.