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The Dirtiest Election
Grover Cleveland had seduced a widow; James G. Blaine had peddled influence lied about it. In 1884, voters had to choose between two tarnished champions
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
Unfortunately for Cleveland, the support of Beecher and other well-intentioned friends did him more harm than good. Some friendly Mugwumps only gave wider notice to the rumors by loudly denying that Cleveland was a libertine and a drunkard, or that he had “recently taken part in a drunken debauch in Buffalo.” The Reverend Kinsley Twining, while speaking for those clergymen who supported ihe Governor, only managed to make his sins specific. Twining had investigated the scandals, and conceded that when Cleveland was younger he was guilty of an illicit connection; but … there was no seduction, no adultery, no breach of promise, no obligation of marriage; but there was a culpable irregularity of life, living as he was, a bachelor, for which it was proper and is proper that he should suffer. After the primary offense, which is not to be palliated in the circle for which I write, his conduct was singularly honorable.
There was a bad sound to this, whatever Cleveland’s formal responsibilities; and though Twining went on to refute the spreading charges of “general libertinism and drunkenness,” though he called Cleveland “a man of true and kind heart, frank and open” and assured Independent Republicans that Cleveland’s error was not such as to “placate them toward Illaine,” still he was not easy about the Halpin affair: “It is a fact in the history of their candidate which they cannot forget and which they will have to carry as a burden.”
Beecher, for his part, did Cleveland no good by declaring that he only atoned for a sin that many men shared. Beecher’s flamboyant declaration—that if every New Yorker who had broken the Seventh Commandment voted for Cleveland, he would be elected by a 200,000 majority—was described by the Republican New York Tribune as a call to adulterers to vote Democratic. To be the victim of such support could hardly have been comforting to Cleveland. But the friends who troubled him most were those who tried to find other fathers for the bastard boy. The New York World quoted one such defense: While Cleveland was “sowing his wildoats,” he met this woman … and became intimate with her. She was a widow, and not a good woman by any means. Mr. Cleveland, learning this, began to make inquiries about her, and discovered that two of his friends were intimate with her at the same time as himself. When a child was born, Cleveland, in order to shield his two friends, who were both married men, assumed the responsibility of it.
An outraged writer to the Woman’s Journal retorted that “If such was the real character of the woman” then Cleveland’s act showed him to be a “low dirty fellow.”
The Governor’s best defenders were those hardheaded friends who simply conceded his past and argued that it was unimportant compared with Blaine’s dishonesty in office. The Nation said frankly that his “sin” would disqualify him “if his opponent be free from this stain, and as good a man in all other ways.” But the sins of Blaine, the magazine claimed, were intolerable in a statesman, while, in philandering, Cleveland had only followed in the footsteps of other great and lusty politicians. A witty Mugwump summed up this philosophy: “We should elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office he is so admirably qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private life he is so eminently fitted to adorn.”
But an irony developed here. While no grounds were found for seriously accusing Cleveland of dishonesty, a strange story about Blaine’s private life turned up, and was offered to Cleveland as campaign fodder. Though BIaine had himself been instrumental in spreading the Buffalo scandal, Cleveland had shunned retaliation on a personal level. To the surprise of his secretary, Daniel Lamont, and his friend William Hudson, the Governor asked to talk to the talebearer of the Blaine gossip. As Hudson told it, Cleveland took the man’s documentary proofs, paid him “for his expenses, the time he … lost, and his good will in the matter,” and sent him away. Next, Cleveland put the documents on his desk, and brought out others he had received earlier. Then, drawing a waste basket to him, the Governor began to tear them into small bits, to the unbounded astonishment of Lamont and myself. When he had finished that lot he took up the proofs brought that morning and destroyed them in the same manner. No words were spoken by anyone until the Governor called a porter and directed him to burn in the fireplace the scraps of paper, standing over him to watch the process. When all were consumed he came back to where Lamont and I were standing, and said to Lamont: “The other side can have a monopoly of all the dirt in this campaign.”