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The U.S. presidential election of 1868 was the first presidential election to take place after the American Civil War, during the period referred to as "Reconstruction." Three of the former Confederate states—Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia—were not yet restored to the Union and therefore could not vote in the election.
The incumbent president, Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency in 1865 following the assassination of President Lincoln, was unsuccessful in his attempt to receive the Democratic presidential nomination. Instead of Johnson, the Democrats nominated Horatio Seymour, chairman of the convention, after a series of failed ballots with several other candidates vying for nomination. Seymour and the Democratic Party wanted to carry out a Reconstruction policy that would emphasize peaceful reconciliation with the South, a policy similar to that advocated by Abraham Lincoln and President Johnson. Many Democrats sought to undo the progress that African Americans had made after the Civil War, especially on the issue of suffrage. The slogan for the 1868 Democratic National Convention was, "This is a white man's country; Let a white man rule."
The Republican platform supported black suffrage and political rights in the South, but agreed to let Northern states decide for themselves whether to enfranchise blacks. The platform also opposed using greenbacks (paper currency issued by the government during the Civil War) to redeem U.S. bonds, encouraged immigration, endorsed full rights for naturalized citizens, and favored "Radical Reconstruction" as distinct from the more lenient policy of President Johnson.
By 1868, Republicans felt strong enough to drop the Union Party label, but still badly needed to nominate a popular hero for their presidential candidate. The Democratic Party controlled many large Northern states that had a great percentage of the electoral votes. General Ulysses S. Grant announced he was a Republican and was unanimously nominated on the first ballot as the party's standard bearer at the Republican convention in Chicago, Illinois, held on May 20–21, 1868.
The campaign was conducted vigorously. The Republicans were fearful as late as October that they might be beaten. The Democrats were out of favor, and their candidate Seymour had been called a traitor and a troublemaker. Seymour answered none of the charges made against him, but made a few key speeches. Some newspapers exaggerated his faults. As governor, Seymour had sent troops to Gettysburg, but some press tried to portray him as disloyal to the Union. Because several Southern states were not yet reintegrated into the Union, the votes of thousands of southern Democrats would not be counted.
Grant took no part in the campaign and made no promises. A line in his letter of acceptance of the nomination became the Republican campaign theme: "Let us have peace." After four years of civil war, three years of wrangling over Reconstruction, and the attempted impeachment of a president, the nation craved the peace Grant pledged to achieve. The voters were told that if they wanted to reopen the Civil War, they need only elect Horatio Seymour, and some spread stories of bloodshed in the South to prove that Radical Reconstruction was necessary.
Horatio Seymour polled 2,708,744 votes against 3,013,650 for Grant, a fairly close race, but ultimately Grant carried the Electoral College and won the election. Many alleged that had the remaining Southern states taken place in the election, Seymour would have won, but the possible outcome is impossible to know for sure.