If Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden are nominated and elected president, they will be the oldest incoming presidents in history. On January 20, 2021, Sanders will be 79 and Biden will be 78. They will also stand as the oldest nominees of either the Republican or Democratic Party, breaking Bob Dole’s record age of 73 in his 1996 run. However, neither will stand as the oldest candidate a significant political party ever ran. For this, we must go back to the 1870s.
During the Civil War, the United States government issued greenbacks not backed by hard currency through the Legal Tender Act. This fulfilled two purposes: first, as a necessity to pay for the war, and second, to bring the country to a unified national currency. However, after the war, Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch sought a quick return to the gold standard and a rift developed between supporters of McCulloch and advocates for the continued distribution of greenbacks. This was an issue that split the most prominent Radical Republicans: Senators Charles Sumner and Zachariah Chandler wanted the gold standard while Senator Benjamin F. Wade and Representative Thaddeus Stevens stood for greenbacks. In 1874, the gold advocates won control of the direction of the Republican Party when President Ulysses S. Grant vetoed the Inflation Bill, which would have increased greenbacks in distribution by $100 million. The following year, Congress passed the Specie Resumption Act, which returned the nation to the gold standard. The trouble for farmers was that it had been easier for debtors to pay through greenbacks and through silver than gold, while gold was favorable to creditors and not easily available for farmers in the west. A significant group of farmers thus grew discontented and sought an alternative to the Republicans. The Democratic Party might have been an option had it not still had issues in the North over its Civil War politics and not itself had major divisions over currency. This was the context in which the Greenback Party formed to keep dispensing greenbacks into the economy as well as the entry into national politics of one of its top champions, Peter Cooper.
Cooper was an 85-year old businessman and inventor whose achievements included the design and construction of the first steam-powered train in the United States, Tom Thumb, in 1830 and the invention of powdered gelatin. He also participated in the supervision of the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. Despite his age, Cooper was quite active and wrote against the gold standard and stood for a credit-based paper currency. Both his son, Edward, and his son-in-law, Abram Hewitt, served as Mayor of New York City. Although all involved in the Greenback Party were aware that he stood no chance of winning, in 1876, they nominated him for president as an alternative for farmers. The Greenback Party itself lasted some more years and even elected people to Congress from areas that would not elect members of the major opposing party, but as a potential left-wing alternative to the two-party system it had some major limitations. First, its appeal was limited to farmers. Second, although its membership trended left, currency was the only issue its members could be guaranteed to be unified. Had Cooper won in 1876, he may have lived through his first term, as he died in 1883 at the age of 92.