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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
Rum, Romanism, and rebellion! … Blaine did not hear; but a Democrat did. It was, in fact, a scout from Cleveland headquarters, which was only a short distance away. Cleveland’s good friend William Hudson was at headquarters that night, and he graphically described the scene later: … we heard some one come up the stairs in great haste. In a moment Colonel John Tracey, the head of the newspaper bureau, plunged into the room so much out of breath by reason of his haste and excitement that he could not speak—could only point to pages of paper he had. Gorman [Democratic senator from Maryland] took the papers from his hand, and on reading the words pointed out straightened up with a start and earnestly read the context. The words pointed out were “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion I …”
“Surely,” said Gorman sternly, “Blaine met this remark?”
“That is the astounding thing,” said Tracey excitedly. “He made no reference to the words. I have confirmed that fact…”
Finally Senator Gorman spoke, his voice cracking like the snap of a whip:
“This sentence must be in every daily newspaper in the country tomorrow, no matter how, no matter what it costs. Organize for that immediately, Colonel Tracey, and it must be kept alive for the rest of the campaign…”
The next day Blaine became conscious of the terrible mistake, and tried desperately to disassociate himself from Burchard’s notorious alliteration—but it was too late. Gorman hammered it at the Irish and at other Catholic groups, especially in their New York and New England strongholds. They turned angry.
On the next Tuesday, November 4, all Blaine’s enemies rose against him—the Democrats, the Mugwumps, the independent citizens shocked by his profligacy in office, the disillusioned Irish and other Catholics. Still, the current ran strong against Cleveland, the honest, private profligate: when the votes were in, the Democrats won New York by a bare 1,149 votes out of more than 1,100,000 cast—and New York, as prophesied, made the difference in the election. Over the nation, with some ten million votes cast, Cleveland defeated Blaine by less than 63,000. Public and private morality had run almost a dead heat.
Relieved Democrats, in their victory celebrations, could chant forgivingly: “Hurray for Maria! Hurray for the kid! I voted for Cleveland, and I’m damned glad I did!”
It wasn’t so easy for Cleveland. He would carry the wounds of this campaign; and even after he went into the White House, even after he married in 1886, gossip would follow him. He had come into politics almost unwillingly thus far, and he wrote to his friend Wilson Bissell, “I look upon the four years next to come as a dreadful self-inflicted penance for the good of my country. I can see no pleasure in it and no satisfaction, only a hope that I may be of service to my people.” He asks when he can safely visit Buffalo, the home town that had believed the scandal thrown at him and given its vote to Blaine, and then he concludes sadly, “Elected President of the United States, I feel I have no home at my home .”
Said his campaign companion and good friend Lamont, “Cleveland was never the same man after that awful campaign of ’84. I think he was bigger and broader. But—he was never the same man.”