The Dirtiest Election

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe first volleys in America’s “vilest” presidential campaign were fired on July 21, 1884, when a small Buffalo paper exposed a shocking personal scandal involving the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, then governor of New York. Cleveland, big, slow-moving, forthright, “foursquare,” had become a popular image of decency and public honesty; he had been elected on a reform ticket by a 200,000 majority over an entrenched Republican machine, and he was expected to cleanse New York of corruption. It now appeared that in 1871 he had seduced a widow, one Maria Halpin, fathered her child, and refused to marn her. Cleveland did not deny this adventure. When friends asked him how to reply to the scandal, he said. “Tell the truth.”

Rumors grew and spread: that the Governor was a habitual drunkard and libertine; that in Albany he kept “women” convenient to the executive mansion; that he was being secretly treated for a “malignant” disease. … Reminders of his bastard boy were chanted through the streets in great Republican parades:

Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House—Ha! Ha! Ha!

The nation was shocked. The president of Amherst declared that only voters of debauched moral sentiment could support Cleveland. Ministers throughout the country preached sermons on his sins. The Reverend George Ball of Buffalo proclaimed: The issue is evidently not between the two great parties, but between the brothel and the family, between indecency and decency, between lust and law. between the essence of barbarism and the first principles of civilization, between the degradation of woman and due honor, protection, and love to our mothers, sisters and daughters.

This set the tone of the campaign. Would Victorian America elect an unchaste, “immoral” man President? The answer, after months of vicious “moral” warfare, would turn on such unrelated events as the collapse of an ex-President’s business, the support of Cleveland by a famous Protestant minister who had himself been charged with adultery, and the last-minute emergence of the “Catholic problem.” But most of all, it would depend on the strange character of Cleveland’s brilliant Republican opponent, James G. Blaine, one of America’s master politicians.

Elegant and polished, passionately ambitious, Blaine was a dangerous complex of strengths and weaknesses, of intellectual perception and moral obtuseness. He grasped power easily, but he used it mainly for power’s sake. He was a superb congressional tactician, first as Speaker of the House, then as senator; he was known as “magnetic” the country over for his power to charm and persuade; but he was also called “Slippery Jim” because the most conspicuous end of his subtle manipulation of men and laws had been to protect himself and his party from investigations by the Democrats.

There was much to defend. Authority came too easily lo the Republicans after the Civil War. With the Democrats disorganized and disgraced as the “party of treason.” their southern strongholds in the hands of carpetbaggers, the Republicans’ power was enormous, and they were enormously corrupted. There has been more spectacular malfeasance in Washington, but nothing to match the persistent, hungry stealing that honeycombed Grant’s administration.

The great Panic of 1873 laid bare the corruption, and the angry Democrats roared back to win the House. Blaine found himself in the middle of Republican civil war. Grant’s henchmen, the Stalwarts, led by the formidable Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, frankly held to the spoils system as a means of retaining the party’s power, and bitterly attacked the “rancid, canting self-righteousness” of a rising band of reform-minded Independent Republicans, called—at first scornfully and then popularly—the Mugwumps, who set out to rescue their party and nation from the spoilsmen. Blaine moved restlessly between the Stalwarts and the Independents, identifying himself with neither but choosing a third faction—more responsible than the Stalwarts, more “practical” than the Mugwumps—who were known as the Half-Breeds.


To the Mugwumps, Slippery Jim Blaine was stained with collusion, graft, and perjury. He wanted money too much; he had grown rich too quickly, rich far beyond the potentials of his congressional salary. For financial favors, he had twisted laws and tricked colleagues; he had acted as a salesman of railway securities while, as Speaker of the House, he tenderly shepherded legislation to help the burgeoning new railroads. Most notorious was his involvement with the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. He had made a ruling which enriched this line, and for his efforts he had been given considerable holdings in it.