The Dirtiest Election

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Something of this leaked out in the spring of 1876, from letters written by Blaine to a railroad executive named Warren Fisher and preserved by James Mulligan, who was Fisher’s bookkeeper. In one of the most damaging of these “Mulligan letters,” Blaine enclosed an alibi for himself, which he wanted Fisher to copy, sign, and return: Blaine endorsed the missive, Burn this letter . Fisher did not burn it, and a rhythmic street chant that would haunt Blaine throughout the 1884 campaign was, “Burn this letter! Burn this letter! Burn, burn, oh burn this letter!”

But in 1876, that letter had not yet been exposed, and “Magnetic Jim’s” daring method of smothering many of the others remains one of the great tours de force in the history of Congress. A Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee was prying into Blaine’s affairs; Mulligan was summoned to bring his letters to Washington to testify. The Republican convention was only a few days off, and Blaine, the favorite Half-Breed candidate, needed a clean slate to enter it. The nation was watching. Blaine went privately to see Mulligan, who refused to give up the letters: he would need them in case his own veracity were questioned. Then, Mulligan said later, Blaine hinted at the gift of a political office, and when this failed, he knelt and begged for the correspondence as a mercy to his wife and children; he even threatened suicide. Well, said Mulligan, Blaine could look at the letters. Blaine then seized what Mulligan showed him, and departed.

When the time was ripe, Blaine rose in the House on a point of privilege, and with virtuous indignation held aloft the packet of letters, which he would not let the committee have. Why should he, he asked. Would any gentleman be “willing and ready to have his private correspondence scanned over and be made public?” No! But, Blaine added emotionally, I am not afraid to show them. Thank God Almighty, I am not afraid to show them … There is the very original package. And with some sense of humiliation, with a mortification that I do not pretend to conceal, with a sense of outrage which I think any man in my position would feel, I invite the confidence of the forty-four million of my countrymen while I read those letters ’

From the Republicans, there was wild applause. Blaine went on with his amazing performance. He read the letters out of order, adding his own comment and interpretation to confuse their implications. What of Mulligan’s testimony? Nonsense all, he said. There had been no threat of suicide, no begging. Well, he might have made a “joking reference” to a political office for the man … It was a magnificent, magnetic show, and rapt Republican spectators exonerated him.

At the Republican convention in 1876, Blaine was one of the favorites. Colonel Robert Ingersoll, that grandiloquent orator, placed his name in nomination with an allusion to his great self-defense in the House, and conferred on him an enduring image: “Like an armed warrior, like a plumed knight , James G. Blaine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen foreheads of the defamers of his country and the maligners of his honor …”

But the Mugwumps were not persuaded. To them, as to the Democrats, Blaine stood convicted of “trading upon his high official position for his own advantage,” and he lost the nomination to the impeccable Rutherford B. Hayes.

Now, in 1884, Blaine had finally won his party’s endorsement to run against Cleveland. The voters faced a hard choice: between a state governor who had dallied with a widow and refused to marry her when she became a mother, and a profiteering congressman who had taken “gifts” from business and lied about them, who had urged laws to favor his partners and line his pockets. The choice, as a Mugwump newspaper asserted, was between a private immoralist and a public immoralist.

In the fierce campaign, the usual political issues took second place. The violent passions between the agricultural, free-trade Democrats and the industrial, protectionist Republicans were receding, and the war wounds were healing. But the nation was emotional over the matter of sin; citizens turned out excitedly for mass street parades, and argued heatedly about good and evil.

Both candidates were harassed not only by the vicious attacks of their enemies, but also by the spectacular bumbling of friends trying to help. Cleveland got the worst of it, because the thrusts at him were so personal, so irrelevant to his public record. Politically, he was known as “bone honest,” even “ugly honest,” for his relentless war on civic graft and grafters. To some Democrats, his appointments seemed fair to the point of extravagance. General Edward S. Bragg, in nominating him, said “men loved him for the enemies he made.” The very invulnerability of his public record seemed to intensify the indignation of the moralists at his private peccadillo. As they raked over his sins, they made the months between July and November an agony Cleveland never forgot.