The presidential election of 1868 was informed heavily by the politics of Reconstruction over the preceding three years. Following Lincoln’s assassination, Tennessee native Andrew Johnson ascended to the presidency and dealt with a Congress divided by how to resolve issues with the South. The Democratic Party, associated with the South, had little influence outside of the former Confederation but continued to lobby for forgiveness of Civil War crimes. The Republican Party was split into a moderate and a Radical faction, which fought over how far to go with punishing Southern leaders. Johnson attempted to negotiate a middle path but his Republican brethren were in no position to accept compromise. Johnson’s vetoes against Radical Republican legislation were met with overrides and Johnson underwent impeachment procedures in the Senate in May 1868. The impeachment effort failed by one vote, 35-19, but his actions against dissenting voices within his cabinet proved to confirm his undoing.
The Radical Republican efforts to impeach Johnson and discredit anyone who wanted to show sympathy to the South helped draw in a major American figure. General Ulysses S Grant, who had been a successful Union leader and accepted the Southern surrender at Appomattox Court, wanted to help the freed blacks in the South and resolve political issues in the war-torn states. Grant was embroiled within the Johnson impeachment crisis, as Grant was the temporary war secretary in place of Edwin Stanton, who was fired for aiding Johnson’s political foes. Johnson fought with Grant when he abdicated to Stanton the war secretary position, seeing the former general as a coward and a traitor. The subsequent firing of Stanton and the impeachment proceedings indicated the end of the Johnson era and the potential for a Grant presidency.
Ulysses Grant was nominated as the Republican candidate in 1868, replacing the exceedingly unpopular Johnson. The Democrats, reeling from the damage done during the Civil War, nominated Horatio Seymour of New York to run for president. Grant did little campaigning, while Seymour traveled the country trying to reassure the public that the South wanted to fully return to the Union and the Democrats were pledged to total loyalty. This was unsuccessful, as the Grant campaign waved “the bloody shirt,” a euphemism for reminding the voters about what the South, and the Democratic Party, did to the nation. Grant won 53% of the popular vote and 214 of a possible 294 electoral votes. His promise to return the nation to peace was reassuring following such a tumultuous decade.