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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
The first volleys in America’s “vilest” presidential campaign were fired on July 21, 1884, when a small Buffalo paper exposed a shocking personal scandal involving the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, then governor of New York. Cleveland, big, slow-moving, forthright, “foursquare,” had become a popular image of decency and public honesty; he had been elected on a reform ticket by a 200,000 majority over an entrenched Republican machine, and he was expected to cleanse New York of corruption. It now appeared that in 1871 he had seduced a widow, one Maria Halpin, fathered her child, and refused to marn her. Cleveland did not deny this adventure. When friends asked him how to reply to the scandal, he said. “Tell the truth.”
Rumors grew and spread: that the Governor was a habitual drunkard and libertine; that in Albany he kept “women” convenient to the executive mansion; that he was being secretly treated for a “malignant” disease. … Reminders of his bastard boy were chanted through the streets in great Republican parades:
The nation was shocked. The president of Amherst declared that only voters of debauched moral sentiment could support Cleveland. Ministers throughout the country preached sermons on his sins. The Reverend George Ball of Buffalo proclaimed: The issue is evidently not between the two great parties, but between the brothel and the family, between indecency and decency, between lust and law. between the essence of barbarism and the first principles of civilization, between the degradation of woman and due honor, protection, and love to our mothers, sisters and daughters.
This set the tone of the campaign. Would Victorian America elect an unchaste, “immoral” man President? The answer, after months of vicious “moral” warfare, would turn on such unrelated events as the collapse of an ex-President’s business, the support of Cleveland by a famous Protestant minister who had himself been charged with adultery, and the last-minute emergence of the “Catholic problem.” But most of all, it would depend on the strange character of Cleveland’s brilliant Republican opponent, James G. Blaine, one of America’s master politicians.
Elegant and polished, passionately ambitious, Blaine was a dangerous complex of strengths and weaknesses, of intellectual perception and moral obtuseness. He grasped power easily, but he used it mainly for power’s sake. He was a superb congressional tactician, first as Speaker of the House, then as senator; he was known as “magnetic” the country over for his power to charm and persuade; but he was also called “Slippery Jim” because the most conspicuous end of his subtle manipulation of men and laws had been to protect himself and his party from investigations by the Democrats.
There was much to defend. Authority came too easily lo the Republicans after the Civil War. With the Democrats disorganized and disgraced as the “party of treason.” their southern strongholds in the hands of carpetbaggers, the Republicans’ power was enormous, and they were enormously corrupted. There has been more spectacular malfeasance in Washington, but nothing to match the persistent, hungry stealing that honeycombed Grant’s administration.
The great Panic of 1873 laid bare the corruption, and the angry Democrats roared back to win the House. Blaine found himself in the middle of Republican civil war. Grant’s henchmen, the Stalwarts, led by the formidable Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, frankly held to the spoils system as a means of retaining the party’s power, and bitterly attacked the “rancid, canting self-righteousness” of a rising band of reform-minded Independent Republicans, called—at first scornfully and then popularly—the Mugwumps, who set out to rescue their party and nation from the spoilsmen. Blaine moved restlessly between the Stalwarts and the Independents, identifying himself with neither but choosing a third faction—more responsible than the Stalwarts, more “practical” than the Mugwumps—who were known as the Half-Breeds.
To the Mugwumps, Slippery Jim Blaine was stained with collusion, graft, and perjury. He wanted money too much; he had grown rich too quickly, rich far beyond the potentials of his congressional salary. For financial favors, he had twisted laws and tricked colleagues; he had acted as a salesman of railway securities while, as Speaker of the House, he tenderly shepherded legislation to help the burgeoning new railroads. Most notorious was his involvement with the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. He had made a ruling which enriched this line, and for his efforts he had been given considerable holdings in it.
Something of this leaked out in the spring of 1876, from letters written by Blaine to a railroad executive named Warren Fisher and preserved by James Mulligan, who was Fisher’s bookkeeper. In one of the most damaging of these “Mulligan letters,” Blaine enclosed an alibi for himself, which he wanted Fisher to copy, sign, and return: Blaine endorsed the missive, Burn this letter . Fisher did not burn it, and a rhythmic street chant that would haunt Blaine throughout the 1884 campaign was, “Burn this letter! Burn this letter! Burn, burn, oh burn this letter!”
But in 1876, that letter had not yet been exposed, and “Magnetic Jim’s” daring method of smothering many of the others remains one of the great tours de force in the history of Congress. A Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee was prying into Blaine’s affairs; Mulligan was summoned to bring his letters to Washington to testify. The Republican convention was only a few days off, and Blaine, the favorite Half-Breed candidate, needed a clean slate to enter it. The nation was watching. Blaine went privately to see Mulligan, who refused to give up the letters: he would need them in case his own veracity were questioned. Then, Mulligan said later, Blaine hinted at the gift of a political office, and when this failed, he knelt and begged for the correspondence as a mercy to his wife and children; he even threatened suicide. Well, said Mulligan, Blaine could look at the letters. Blaine then seized what Mulligan showed him, and departed.
When the time was ripe, Blaine rose in the House on a point of privilege, and with virtuous indignation held aloft the packet of letters, which he would not let the committee have. Why should he, he asked. Would any gentleman be “willing and ready to have his private correspondence scanned over and be made public?” No! But, Blaine added emotionally, I am not afraid to show them. Thank God Almighty, I am not afraid to show them … There is the very original package. And with some sense of humiliation, with a mortification that I do not pretend to conceal, with a sense of outrage which I think any man in my position would feel, I invite the confidence of the forty-four million of my countrymen while I read those letters ’
From the Republicans, there was wild applause. Blaine went on with his amazing performance. He read the letters out of order, adding his own comment and interpretation to confuse their implications. What of Mulligan’s testimony? Nonsense all, he said. There had been no threat of suicide, no begging. Well, he might have made a “joking reference” to a political office for the man … It was a magnificent, magnetic show, and rapt Republican spectators exonerated him.
At the Republican convention in 1876, Blaine was one of the favorites. Colonel Robert Ingersoll, that grandiloquent orator, placed his name in nomination with an allusion to his great self-defense in the House, and conferred on him an enduring image: “Like an armed warrior, like a plumed knight , James G. Blaine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen foreheads of the defamers of his country and the maligners of his honor …”
But the Mugwumps were not persuaded. To them, as to the Democrats, Blaine stood convicted of “trading upon his high official position for his own advantage,” and he lost the nomination to the impeccable Rutherford B. Hayes.
Now, in 1884, Blaine had finally won his party’s endorsement to run against Cleveland. The voters faced a hard choice: between a state governor who had dallied with a widow and refused to marry her when she became a mother, and a profiteering congressman who had taken “gifts” from business and lied about them, who had urged laws to favor his partners and line his pockets. The choice, as a Mugwump newspaper asserted, was between a private immoralist and a public immoralist.
In the fierce campaign, the usual political issues took second place. The violent passions between the agricultural, free-trade Democrats and the industrial, protectionist Republicans were receding, and the war wounds were healing. But the nation was emotional over the matter of sin; citizens turned out excitedly for mass street parades, and argued heatedly about good and evil.
Both candidates were harassed not only by the vicious attacks of their enemies, but also by the spectacular bumbling of friends trying to help. Cleveland got the worst of it, because the thrusts at him were so personal, so irrelevant to his public record. Politically, he was known as “bone honest,” even “ugly honest,” for his relentless war on civic graft and grafters. To some Democrats, his appointments seemed fair to the point of extravagance. General Edward S. Bragg, in nominating him, said “men loved him for the enemies he made.” The very invulnerability of his public record seemed to intensify the indignation of the moralists at his private peccadillo. As they raked over his sins, they made the months between July and November an agony Cleveland never forgot.
The Reverend Mr. Ball of Buffalo, who claimed to speak for a ministerial investigating committee, asserted that the New York governor had “accomplished the seduction” of Mrs. Halpin, the director of the cloak and lace department of a Buffalo store. The report went on to say, that the woman, so far as known, had borne an irreproachable character up to that time; that her employers, with whom she had been about four years, had a high regard for her and considered her a virtuous Christian woman; that Mr. Cleveland had taken her to the Lying-in Hospital during her confinement; that the woman became depressed and threatened his life; that he became apprehensive that she might attempt some injury to him or herself and appealed to the Chief of Police, Colonel John Byrne, to keep her under surveillance; that Mr. Cleveland had her taken by force from her room at Mrs. Baker’s to the Providence Lunatic Asylum … that she was seen there by Doctor Ring, who did not think her insane; that after several days she escaped and no efforts were made to retake her; that she put her case into the hands of Milo A. Whitney, Esq., an attorney, alleging kidnapping and false imprisonment; that she finally gave up the child and received $500 from Mr. Cleveland … that these are matters of common repute in Buffalo, to substantiate which numerous witnesses can be found …
Worse than the specific charges were the spreading innuendos that the Halpin affair was not a momentary aberration. The Reverend Mr. Ball contributed to them with lurid accusations:
Investigations disclose still more proof of debaucheries too horrible to relate and too vile to be readily believed. For many years days devoted to business have been followed by nights of sin. He has lived a bachelor; had no home, avoiding the restraints even of hotel or boarding house life, lodged in rooms on the third floor in a business block, and made those rooms a harem; foraged outside, also, in the city and surrounding villages; a champion libertine, an artful seducer, a foe to virtue, an enemy of the family, a snare to youth and hostile to true womanhood. The Halpin case was not solitary. Women now married and anxious to cover the sins of their youth have been his victims, and are now alarmed lest their relations with him shall be exposed. Some disgraced and broken-hearted victims of his lust now slumber in the grave. Since he has become governor of this great state he has not abated his lecheries. Abundant rumors implicate him at Albany, and well-authenticated facts convict him at Buffalo.
Ball’s attacks could be read in full in such proper newspapers as Lucy Stone’s suffragette Woman’s Journal , which viewed the nomination of Cleveland as a kind of personal affront to all decent women. In a remarkable piece of fairness, however, her Journal published the opposite view of a Mugwump correspondent, Colonel T. Wentworth Higginson, who, though firmly against sin, delicately proposed that unbroken integrity was more important than unbroken chastity. But the editors and their other correspondents insisted repeatedly that sexual sin was a sign of total moral decay.
In the letters and editorials there is often on one hand scorn for a male seducer, and on the other, feminist anger that he might be getting away with a sin prohibited to women. But the manifest argument was always for defense of family and home, women’s special care. Lucy spoke of a solemn Tear that was echoed throughout the nation—the lamentable effect of Cleveland’s example on America’s young men. His candidacy “fills half the newspapers in the United States with apologies for a degrading vice—apologies which every profligate man and fast youth will appropriate to his own justification.”
The worst rumors about Cleveland were unpublishable, even in the most sensational papers, but they spread by pamphlet and whisper: the “whores” in Albany, the “malignant” disease. Some, the Nation complained, were “so improbable and so filthy that they seem to have been hatched by street-walkers and sold to Dr. Ball for a dollar apiece.” Many ministers began to assure their congregations that Cleveland was excluded from all decent houses; even the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, to Cleveland’s dismay, was said to be on the verge of turning against him.
A Mugwump and potential friend, Beecher was uniquely desirable as a supporter, for this great spiritual leader had been through a sensational trial as an adulterer and had still kept the respect of a substantial part of the nation. Cleveland wrote in anguish to Mrs. Beecher that “the contemptible creatures who coin and pass these things appear to think that the affair which I have not denied makes me defenseless against any and all slanders.” There was more he could say, but he wanted to say it 10 Beecher himself. “Cannot I manage to see him anil tell him what f cannot write?” Whatever Cleveland’s unwritable excuses were, Beecher, who had been considering the matter for a long time, made his decision. He came out for the “immoral” Governor, and vigorously attackeil Blaine’s “a-whoring alter votes.”
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.”
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.
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!”
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.”
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.”