Monday, June 6, 2016

Does it change? Or does it remain the same?

Today’s presidential election cycle asks us to choose between one candidate characterized by her non-supporters as corrupt and another characterized by his non-supporters as boorish.  Considering the value system that argues for ignoring corruption to vote against boorishness (not meant to introduce a modern day political discussion), I started to wonder what happened during the Old West years. Starting in 1865, the year of the final armed engagement of the Civil War, fought in Texas, and the Harper’s Magazine publication of “Wild Bill” Hickok’s shootout with Davis Tutt in Springfield, MO, and ending with Roosevelt’s presidency in 1909, here is a brief look each election.


Never a politician, only a general, in fact, the antithesis of a politician, he retired in 1854 and rejoined a year after the war broke out, after eight years of struggling financially in civilian life. Marked by his commitment to victory, criticized by his critics for being an aggressive commander, he became Commanding General in March 1864, only two years after rejoining.

Horatio Seymour (D), most prominent Democrat of his day, 18th Governor of New York, was the "White Man's" candidate in a racist-tinged election.  Following this election, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted.  Section 1 guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, color, or prior servitude. Section 2, little regarded, compelled New York State (and, of course, others) to comply.


Grant's easy and decisive re-election came in the face of a split within the party that resulted in a defection of many liberal Republicans to Horace Greeley. Because of its strong desire to defeat Grant, the Democratic Party nominated the Liberal Republicans' Greeley/Brown ticket and adopted their platform. In the process, the Democrats pushed professional politician Tomas A. Hendricks’s reward out to 1885 when he successfully became vice-president. After the popular vote, before the Electoral College cast its votes, Greeley died.

Despite all of Grant’s accomplishments as General and President, his administration tolerated corruption and bribery. He left office very unpopular.  His memoirs and history restored him.


Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden (D) but won a disputed electoral college vote after a Congressional commission awarded him twenty contested electoral votes. Tilden, 25th Governor of New York, worked closely with the New York City business community and led the fight against the corruption of Tammany Hall.  Hayes believed in meritocratic government. His policy toward Western Indians anticipated later assimilationist programs.  Hayes kept his pledge not to run for re-election.  His achievement was to restore popular faith in the presidency.


The only sitting House member to be elected president, Garfield was assassinated after 200 days in office by a person who had wanted, but was not given, a government job by Garfield.

Winfield Scott Hancock, (D), based on his reputation as a war hero at Gettysburg, his status as a Unionist, and his support of states' rights, made a strong candidate who ran a strong campaign and was narrowly defeated.  His noted integrity was a counterpoint to the corruption of the era. In the words of President Rutherford B. Hayes, "... when we make up our estimate of a public man, …, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold."

Chester A. Arthur (R) became 21st President after Garfield was assassinated. He never ran for re-election, haunted by his ouster as the customs collector for the Port of New York City for doing political favors for his party supporters.


The winner of the popular vote three times – 1884, 1888,  and 1892 – Grover Cleveland was one of two Democrats (with Woodrow Wilson) elected president during the era of Republican political domination from 1861 to 1933. The only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, Cleveland won praise for his honesty, self-reliance, integrity, and commitment to the principles of classical liberalism. He fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism and had such prestige that the like-minded wing of the Republican Party, the “Mugwumps,” largely bolted the GOP presidential ticket to support him in the 1884 election.

James G. Blaine, (R), represented Maine as a Representative and Senator and twice served as Secretary of State (the only person to hold the position under three separate presidents), went down to a narrow defeat (largely because of the defection of the Mugwumps over corruption.)


 The grandson of the ninth President, William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote but won the election because he received more electoral votes. Harrison's increased tariffs (taxes) on foreign goods and increased government spending caused him to lose the 1892 presidential election to Cleveland.


Cleveland, the 24th President of the United States, who lost his bid for re-election as the 22d President, won the presidency back.


The last president to have served in the Civil War, enlisting as a private in the Union Army and ending as a brevet major, William McKinley conducted a front-porch campaign advocating "sound money" (the gold standard unless altered by international agreement) and promising that high tariffs would restore prosperity. During his presidency, the U.S. started and quickly won the Spanish-American War in 1898, resulting in the independence of Cuba from Spain. Also, the US took possession of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Later, the Hawaiian Islands were annexed. For the first time in history the United States became a world power.

William Jennings Bryan (D), stood three times in the populist wing as the DemocraticParty's candidate for President (1896, 1900 and 1908). With over 500 speeches in 1896, Bryan invented the national stumping tour in an era when his opponent stayed home. In his three presidential bids, he promoted free silver (1896), anti-imperialism (1900), and trust-busting (1908), calling on Democrats to fight the trusts (big corporations), the big banks, and to embrace anti-elitist ideals of republicanism.


McKinley easily defeated Bryan again in a campaign focused on imperialism, protectionism, and again free silver. He served as 25th President until his assassination six months into his second term.

Coming to office without an election, our 26th President brought to the office a true Western experience, having taken the time to grieve the deaths of his wife and mother by escaping to the wilderness and operating a cattle ranch in the Dakotas before he returned East to run (unsuccessfully) for Mayor of New York City in 1886. National fame for courage gained during the Spanish-American war enabled him to return a war hero and gain election to Governor of New York in 1898. His nomination to the prestigious but powerless position of vice president on the McKinley ticket reflected not further progress in his political career but the reward conferred by a state party leadership that distrusted him.  He campaigned vigorously and helped McKinley win an already certain landslide victory over Bryan.  In September, 1901, at 42, he became the youngest president in the country’s history.  And, by virtue of his Dakota experience, the most Western.


Soldier, explorer, hunter, naturalist, author, blessed with a cowboy image and robust masculinity, our 26th president tried to mobilize the Republican Party towards ideas of Progressivism. During his term, particularly his second, Roosevelt increased the size of the U.S. Navy, started construction of the Panama Canal, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the Russo-Japanese War. He exemplified well the basic Western value of “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

His opponent in 1904, Allen B. Parker (D), capped a career as a judge when he defeated liberal publisher William Randolph Hearst to run for president.  Mounting a disorganized and ineffective campaign, Parker carried only the (then) Democratic solid south.

E-mail Edward Massey with comments, author of 2014 Gold Quill winner, Every Soul Is Free and Amazon ABNA 2009 Quarter-finalist, Telluride Promise.


  1. History is endlessly fascinating, and full of 'are we doing this again' moments. Thank you for researching and sharing these moments. Doris

  2. Politics has always been a nasty business, full of name-calling and propaganda (using part of the truth to create a new "truth")--choosing carefully the facts presented so they tip the scales to the candidate's side. Or running on image only. And winning. It's why I'm no longer in politics. Very frustrating.

  3. Nice review! I don't believe the world is any worse today than it ever was --I just think we're more aware of the foibles and scandal thanks to the media.

  4. A friend of mine wrote me an e-mail after he read the blog, suggesting I read a book on Garfield. He characterized by blog as a review of "the Reconstructionist Presidents." The phrase stunned me. Of course, he was right, but to my narrow point of view, I was writing about our presidents of the Old West. Stunning to be reminded how provincial my focus is.