Was Grant a Candidate?


Ulysses S. Grant never declared or disavowed a presidential candidacy in 1880. That was the norm for pre-convention campaigns of the era, and was consistent with Grant’s own behavior during his successful 1868 and 1872 presidential campaigns.

In 1875 and 1876, President Grant had warily faced the prospect of a third term as well as opposition to it. The Democratic controlled House of Representatives, with the support of most Republican members, overwhelmingly passed a resolution against a third term in December 1875, as had the Pennsylvania Republican state convention the previous May. These actions foreshadowed deep division within the Grand Old Party over the issue. The president was willing to serve for another term, but he would not struggle for it. The Republicans moved on, nominating Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. About that time, Grant allegedly confided to his friend George W. Childs, “It is very difficult to decline a thing which has never been offered.”

Four years later, it seems clear that Grant’s sense of duty–and his wariness–remained essentially unchanged relative to a third term. But he was also willing to do some things to create options for himself. As described in the first article of this story package, Grant toured Illinois, Arkansas, and Texas on the eve of the Republican state conventions there – activity that signified more than anything else Grant’s willingness to make appearances, albeit at legitimately non-political events such as veterans’ reunions, which could be helpful to the campaign on his behalf.

That he did not declare a candidacy or openly campaign, and that the effort on his behalf fell just short of the nomination, do not diminish the fact that Grant was a viable candidate in 1880, with a significant organization and nationwide support. Nor do these things diminish the fact that this was an unprecedented effort: no president had ever been nominated for a third term, or even had such an extensive effort made by supporters to secure a third nomination.

Grant followed the course of the 1880 campaign on his behalf fairly closely–motivated at least as much by anxiety about the demands of another term as by a desire to attain it. He was willing to serve. Author Kenneth Ackerman points out that while Grant never discussed the race publicly, he privately wanted the nomination, talking freely among friends about the details.

Following is a cursory sampling of contemporary and subsequent opinions about Grant’s sentiments regarding his candidacy in 1880:

Grant aide Adam Badeau wrote in 1887: “It was now only a few weeks before the convention, and Grant manifested as much anxiety as I ever saw him display on his own account: he calculated the chances, he counted the delegates, considered how every movement would affect the result, and was pleased or indignant at the conversion of enemies or the defection of friends, just as any other human being naturally would have been under the same circumstances.”
Among others, recent Grant biographer Geoffrey Perret has discounted Badeau’s claims, writing that “there is not one letter, not one diary entry, not one interview, memo or official document in which Grant expressed even a hint of a desire to run again,” while there are “dozens…in which Grant explicitly said he didn’t want to be President.”
Jean Edward Smith generally agrees, but also points out that “Grant let events take their course…he made no effort to take himself out of the race. Grant made no statement, as he had in 1876, that he would not accept the nomination if it were offered, and he appears to have kept a quiet but eager eye on the proceedings.”
In the view of another recent biographer, Josiah Bunting III, “It is plain that Grant wanted the nomination and sensed both the obstacles to achieving it and the enormous demands a third-term presidency would impose on him…he knew what he quietly sought was not in his best interest. He sought it anyway….”
As Michael Fellman saw it, Grant was “passively open to accepting a draft if it were handed to him without any demeaning expenditure of energy on his part. He would not hustle for the prize he may or may not have wanted.”
Grant himself, as quoted by his son Jesse: “’I dread to think about it…But it must be as the people determine.’” According to Jesse: “When the call came, he offered himself and he served until the need was past. He never sought to advance himself, he sought only for the opportunity to serve…if the burden (of another term as president) was laid upon him he would take it up, but personally he hoped to escape the ordeal.”
Julia Dent Grant has the last word –her account of a conversation with her husband on the matter, at what seems to have been a pivotal moment during the first week of June 1880:

How I entreated him to…appear on the floor at the (1880 Republican) convention…but no! He said he would rather cut off his right hand. I said: ‘Do you not desire success?’ ‘Well, yes, of course,’ he said, ‘since my name is up, I would rather be nominated, but I will do nothing to further that end.’ ‘Oh, Ulys,’ I said, ‘how unwise, what mistaken chivalry. For heaven’s sake, go…I beseech you. He only said, ‘Julia, I am amazed at you.’”


<< Grant and the Campaign for a Third Term >>
A Boom For Grant Contenders Other Hurdles
Grant's Participation The Big Three Battlegrounds Tactics
The National Convention A Third Term for Grant: Point - Counterpoint
The 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago: The Setting
Conkling Nominates Grant Was Grant a Candidate? Q&A with author Ken Ackerman