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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
It was in the street parades that the enthusiasm and anger of both sides found their most spectacular outlet. Costumes cost from 50 cents to $150; aud came in all colors and designs: all-out Blaine enthusiasts even marched in knightly suits of armor. The Tribune noted approvingly the high tone of Blaine parades in New York: “There were no newly-arrived immigrants in line, as was the case in the Cleveland parade.” Broadway was jammed, and “omnibuses threading their way slowly through the mass of human beings, were almost lifted from the ground.” The Republicans occasionally lightened their march with such calls as “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” but their chief campaign cry, chanted for hours, was “ Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! ” often with the rhyme, “The white plumed knight from the state of Maine!”
The Democrats hooted back: “Blaine! Blaine! Jay Gould Blaine! The Continental Liar from the state of Maine!”
The Democrats had the best of it, because they had more ammunition. Banners and pantomimes mocked Blaine’s letters, most effectively of all in a great Cleveland citizens’ march up Broadway the last week of the campaign. Fired-up partisans walked for three hours “in the muddy street,” some 30,000 of them—the “Greatest Parade in New York’s History,” the partisan Times reported. Broadway was waiting for them. Number 618 was “decorated with a great canvas picture that stretched across the entire front of the building, representing Mr. Fisher hesitating before a lighted candle with Mr. Blaine’s fatal letter.”
The campaign was hard on Blaine. In October, a New York Herald correspondent described his “harried and drawn face, blanched to a degree of pallor that was startling.” But as he swung back from a western speaking tour at the end of the month, weary and harassed by the chanted reminders of his follies, he had yet the assurance that he was winning. The South and some northern states would go for Cleveland; but there was enough die-hard Republican strength in the North, enough Republican “soap” to outweigh Democratic “soap,” enough reaction to the “immoralities” of Cleveland, to put Blaine in. The public profligate was proving more acceptable than the private one. All Blaine had to make sure of was New York; and the Republicans openly, and some Democrats privately, were giving him the state.
Nevertheless, he engaged in two ambitious moves to nail down New York’s votes. One was a banquet in his honor at Delmonico’s, with Jay Gould hovering in the background. The object was to introduce Blaine to the assembled commercial wealth of New York, to present him as the “businessman’s candidate,” and to get financial support for the final drive of the campaign. It was a great sybaritic dinner with the best food and drink, and Blaine ornamented it with a speech on Republican prosperity and the dangers of Democratic meddling; but the meal left a bad taste. Blaine was unhappy at the poor return in contributions-Gould’s rich friends could not be stampeded into generosity by fear of Cleveland-and Blaine’s enemies were furious at the conspicuous extravagance of the affair in a time of depressed national economy. The World found a descriptive phrase that stuck: “Belshazzar’s Feast.”
Bad as the banquet was for Blaine, his other involvement on that fateful October week was even worse. As a result of a single remark, he was caught in the Catholic controversy almost before he knew what was happening. To be either too strongly pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic was dangerous then, with the influx of new Irish voters. Cleveland had been accused of being anti-Irish and anti-Catholic (as well as pro-Mormon—Utah’s polygamy being a live issue, as Senator Hoar’s attack indicates). By walking carefully between Catholic and anti-Catholic abysses, Blaine had reached the campaign’s last week uncommitted religiously, despite the fact that his mother and sisters were Catholics. On that October 29, it seemed a good and harmless idea for him to meet with a large delegation of friendly ministers, to emphasize his “moral” acceptability as opposed to that of the philanderer Cleveland. Blaine needed an easy, undemanding meeting; he was very tired now. Hence a then-prominent religious orator, a certain Dr. Tiffany, was simply to deliver an elegant congratulation on Blame’s assured election.
Then a little thing went wrong. Some of the ministers objected, with considerable feeling, to Tiffany’s being singled out for the main speech. Why Tiffany? The matter was settled in what seemed a harmless way: Samuel D. Burchard, the oldest parson present, would speak first. Dr. Burchard was known to be an anti-Catholic, but certainly he would not use this meeting to speak out his feelings; after all, Blaine, on his way to New York, had visited the convent in Indiana where his sister was Mother Superior.
Weary Blaine, trying to think out what he would say, did not quite listen to Burchard. He might better have listened. Buried in the parson’s assurances that these friends would never desert him was one of the immortal phrases of American campaign history: “We are Republicans and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism and rebellion.”