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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
Yet eventually the Blaine story was sold to a newspaper by the man who had brought it to Cleveland. It disclosed that Mrs. Blaine had borne her first child hardly three months after the recorded date of their marriage. Blaine’s enemies leaped on the news, even making dramatic use of the pathetic detail that the birth date on the tombstone of the child had been defaced. The Democratic Sentinel, in Indianapolis, where bank failures from a country-wide economic slowdown were roiling tempers, exploited the scandal viciously: There is hardly an intelligent man in the country who has not heard that James G. Blaine betrayed the girl whom he married, and then only married her at the muzzle of a shotgun … if, after despoiling her, he was the craven to refuse her legal redress, giving legitimacy to her child, until a loaded shotgun stimulated his conscience—then there is a blot on his character more foul, if possible, than any of the countless stains on his political record.
Blaine noisily brought suit against the Sentinel , and rushed into print with an elaborate rebuttal. He claimed that there had been two marriage ceremonies. In 1850, he said, he was twenty years old, living in Kentucky, engaged to the woman who would be his wife, when, I was suddenly summoned to Pennsylvania by the death of my father. It being very doubtful if I could return to Kentucky, I was threatened with an indefinite separation from her who possessed my entire devotion. My one wish was to secure her to myself by an indissoluble tie against every possible contingency in life, and, on the soth day of June, 1850, just prior to my departure from Kentucky, we were, in the presence of my trusted and chosen friends, united by what I knew was, in my native state of Pennsylvania, a perfectly legal form of marriage.
A second marriage was performed some six months later, in March, in Pennsylvania, but the date was kept secret “for obvious reasons.” Three months more, and the child was born.
Blaine’s married life had been long and honorable, and he might better have said bluntly, as Cleveland did, “Tell the truth.” Blaine’s many critics saw the evasions in his rebuttal and wrote copiously about them to the newspapers. Why keep the first marriage secret until his wife was six months pregnant? Why the vague details about the first wedding? Who were the witnesses? Why was there no record? Lawyers discussed the laws of Kentucky and Pennsylvania, to Blaine’s disadvantage. The newspapers sporadically kept the story alive, but it never became an important issue, partly because Cleveland spurned it, but mainly because it was lost in the furious clamor over Blaine’s public immorality.
Probably no presidential candidate ever made himself more vulnerable to attack than Blaine. There was little that was positive to say about his long record as Speaker and senator, except for his pretentious patriotism; he had sponsored no significant legislation, and his tenure as Garfield’s Secretary of State had been brief. But on the negative side there was much to say, particularly about his association with profiteers and influence-buying railroad promoters: men disliked him for the friends he made. And none disliked him more than some elements in his own party. His Half-Breeds of course supported him, as did many of the Stalwarts, since for most of the spoilsmen any Republican was better than none—though when Blaine’s old enemy Roscoe Conkling was asked to make a speech defending the “plumed knight,” his bitter refusal became famous: “You know I don’t engage in criminal practice.” A great majority of the Mugwumps, who had been fighting so long for honest Republicanism, could not stomach Blaine. They pledged themselves to the Democrat.
The snarling Republican civil war that followed was even more bitter than that between the two parties. Die-hard Republicans snubbed their Independent friends, and moved their church pews to avoid contact. Leading Mugwump journals had given fair warning: before the nominating convention the New York Times had said it would not support Blaine, and Harper’s Weekly had strongly opposed him; but the acrimony heaped on them, and on other Republican papers that joined the attack, was angry and threatening. Harper’s Weekly lost thousands of dollars in revenue, and its editor, George William Curtis, and Thomas Nast, its crusading cartoonist, were assailed in the die-hard press and dropped by personal friends. They stood firm; Nast the more so because, in the economic depression lowering over the country, his savings were swept away when ex-President Grant’s brokerage firm, as badly mismanaged as Grant’s administration, fell to pieces, bringing ruin to many who had believed in the old war hero, and bewilderment and disillusion to Grant himself (“I don’t see,” he said, “how I can ever trust any human being again”). Inevitably the nation was reminded of the old scandals, and of Blaine’s profiteering.
Now a startling disclosure rocked the campaign. Mulligan released additional Blaine-Fisher letters, and the Plumed Knight was nakedly exposed. The correspondence, widely printed in full for all to see, made it obvious that when Blaine had bared his soul before the House and the country, he had systematically lied and equivocated. But this was not the worst of it. The letters showed Blaine servilely begging, on the basis of his political influence, for a large share of the Little Rock Railroad securities.