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The Shriek Heard Round The World
When does a single gaffe sink a campaign?
April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
Intelligent, shrewd, talented, and urbane, Blaine was an early leader of the Republican party and served as speaker of the House, senator, and Secretary of State during his long career. He was also a polarizing figure, regarded as morally suspect by many voters, even within his own party, for his involvement in a series of stock scandals.
After finally securing the Republican nomination on his third attempt, in 1884, Blaine found himself running neck and neck in a close, vicious race with Grover Cleveland. Stumping furiously through New York, a crucial state in the race, he arrived hoarse and nearly spent in New York City on the evening of October 28. The following morning he received a delegation of several hundred Republican clergymen, come to pledge their fealty. These included Pastor Samuel D. Burchard of the Murray Hill Presbyterian Church, who would enter one of the great alliterative phrases of all time into the American political lexicon.
“We are Republicans,” declared Burchard, “and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”
This was an obvious slur upon the loyalty of Irish-American immigrants and their sometimes ambivalent support for the Union cause in the Civil War, and it should have rung political alarm bells for an old campaigner like James G. Blaine. At the time there were no fewer than 275,000 Irish-born Americans in New York City alone, and Blaine was hoping to capture many of their votes, thanks to the fact that his own mother had been an Irish Catholic.
Yet Blaine merely thanked the assembled ministers and passed up any opportunity to refute the slight, something most chroniclers of the incident attribute to his having been either distracted during Burchard’s remarks or exhausted by having given more than 400 campaign talks in six weeks.
The Democrats were listening, though. Apparently grasping the innate danger of ever assembling several hundred politically minded clerics in the same room, they had had a stenographer on hand. By the next day handbills containing the damning remarks were going out around the country, and “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion!” had become a Democratic rallying cry.
Blaine disavowed Burchard’s remarks two days later, but it was too late. The election proved to be one of the closest in American history, with Cleveland winning by less than 25,000 votes, out of some 10 million cast. In the electoral college, the deciding state was …New York, which went for Cleveland by a grand total of 1,149 votes, a race so close that it was days before the count was finally certified.
We should resist the tendency of the American media to superimpose a narrative on every event they cover.
Nearly all historians of the election have attributed the loss in good part to “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” So did Blaine, who after the election lamented the fact that “the Lord sent upon us an ass in the shape of a preacher.” Clearly, Burchard’s gaffe had sunk his candidate. Or had it? Closer examination of the record casts considerable doubt upon Blaine’s assertion —and his credibility.
For one thing, Burchard’s remark was not even original. Eight years earlier, after the tumultuous 1876 election, the Republican House minority leader, James Garfield, had lamented “the combined power of rebellion, Catholicism, and whisky.” In the post-Civil War “bloody shirt” era of American politics, such aspersions—and much, much worse—were quite common, and they did not prevent Garfield from carrying New York State and being elected President in 1880.
Nor was Blaine really justified in blaming poor Burchard —or, for that matter, God. For all that he was supposedly distracted during Burchard’s remarks, Blaine’s answering speech to his adoring reverends included the following passage: “You can no more separate a party from its history than you can separate a man from his character, and when the great make-up of public opinion is ready it takes into account the origin, the progress, the measures, the character of the party and the character of its public men,” words that sound very much like a thinly coded rehash of just what Burchard was saying. Could it be that Blaine was not guilty so much of silence as of trying to be all things to all people?
There were many other possible factors in his defeat. The Prohibition and Greenback parties, playing a role Ralph Nader performed in a later era, took a combined 3.24 percent of the popular vote nationally, with the majority of that total probably coming from the Republican side. And October 29 had been a bad day all around for Blaine. That same evening he attended a sumptuous banquet at New York’s Delmonico restaurant, in the company of a host of leading bankers, robber barons, and Wall Street connivers. The festivities were not widely appreciated in a city still recovering from a recession. They were savagely satirized in a New York World cartoon the next day as the “Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings”—a reference to the book of Daniel, complete with the handwriting on the wall: “Mené, Mené, Tekel, Upharsin” (“God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it…Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting …,” as Daniel interpreted it in the Bible.)