The Dirtiest Election

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In one early note, pleading for his share in the railroad, the House Speaker urged, “I do not feel that I shall prove a dead-head in this enterprise if I once embark on it. I see various channels in which I know I can be useful.” An offer is made to him, and he fawns on Fisher: “Your liberal mode of dealing with me … had not passed without my full appreciation.” He sends Fisher a copy of the Congressional Record showing how serviceable to the railroad one of his House rulings has been. Next Blaine suggests how useful he can be to Fisher and his friends if they want to take advantage of National Bank expansion and start a bank in Little Rock. “It will be to some extent a matter of favoritism as to who gets the banks … and it will be in my power to ‘cast an anchor to windward’ in your behalf if you desire it …”

In 1876, with congressional investigation—and the presidential nomination—imminent, Blaine grows full of urgency and anxiety, “Certain papers and persons are trying to throw mud at me to injure my candidacy before the Cincinnati convention …” he writes Fisher. “I want you to send me a letter such as the enclosed draft … Regard this letter as strictly confidential. Do not show it to anyone.” And then the immortal ending: “Kind regards to Mrs. Fisher. Burn this letter.” There follows, for Fisher to copy, an “unsolicited” testimonial addressed to Blaine about Blaine’s lily-white innocence in the business: “The transaction was perfectly open, and there was no more secrecy in regard to it than if you had been buying flour or sugar … your action in the whole matter was as open and fair as day.”

Faced with the printed correspondence, which Blaine could not deny was his, the die-hard Republicans carefully avoided discussing the details, and argued that Blaine had only been engaged in a normal commercial transaction; any businessman might have done the same. The exchange between Senator George Hoar, of Massachusetts, a Blaine partisan, and Carl Schurz, the great Mugwump, was representative. “The purity of the American home,” said Hoar, “without which there can be no purity or health anywhere, is safer with those who are trying to extirpate Mormonism than with those in whose eyes Grover Cleveland is the standard of personal excellence.” Schurz asked why Blaine, in 1876, had not opened all his records and the correspondence to the full view of investigators. Hoar’s answer was lame: The circumstances were dangerous, party feeling was high, Blaine felt “inexpressibly outraged and indignant” at having his correspondence examined by a hostile, Democratic congressional committee. George Washington himself would have been indignant, Hoar suggested.

Schurz was sure no “Mulligan letters” would have been found in Washington’s correspondence, but he enjoyed imagining what such a letter might have been like:

Headquarters of the Continental Army T. W. Fisher, Esq., Army Contractor

My dear Mr. Fisher: Your offer to admit me to participation in your beef contract is very generous. Accept my thanks. But I want more. You spoke of your friend Caldwell, who has a flour contract, as willing to dispose of a share of his interest to me. I wish he would make the proposition definite. Tell him that I feel I shall not prove a deadhead in the enterprise. I see various channels in which I know I can be useful.

Sincerely your friend, George Washington

A loud band of Democrats and anti-Blaine Republicans was less subtle than Schurz. In print, in posters, and in street songs they continuously reminded the Plumed Knight of the servile phrases of his correspondence. They discovered fresh evidence of other profiteering in railroads. Blaine was handled with particular roughness in New York. As the campaign wore on, it became clear that New York’s thirty-six electoral votes would decide the election; and there the intensity of feeling about Cleveland’s morality, the concentration in the state of leading Mugwump spokesmen, plus the angry press rivalries, turned the campaign into a political circus.

Nast led the cartoonists in savagely lampooning Blaine. His cartooned Blaine had a coarse face reminiscent of Boss Tweed’s—and indeed, Nast would bring back the ghost of the old Democratic boss and confront the two, to underline the resemblance. Blaine was usually shown with a top hat, bearing three white plumes that grew steadily the worse for wear; then a perspiring, evasive Blaine substituted for the plumes a feather clearly labeled “white,” and became “the knight of the white feather.” Blaine’s famous letters were remembered: Slippery Jim was seen dictating his alibi to Fisher, and Jay Gould, the monster tycoon, assures him, “I see many channels in which you could be useful, my dear knight.” Gould was known as the great dispenser of “soap”—money used to buy votes—and Nast carefully kept alive his association with Blaine. The humor magazines made great sport of Slippery Jim. In massive two-page color cartoons in Puck he was eternally a sad-faced, hapless circus clown tattooed with the legends of his scandals—hence the parade cry “Jim! Jim! Tat-tooed Jim!”