Bill Bennett

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released last week. The book can be purchased here.

The election of 1884 produced another raucous contest. Many Republicans hoped to draft another Civil War hero, General William Tecumseh Sherman. He had recently retired from active service. But Sherman “stonewalled” them with this memorable refusal: “If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve.” So the Republicans chose as their standard bearer James Gillespie Blaine, of Maine. Blaine had been speaker of the House, U.S. senator, and secretary of state. A brilliant speaker, Blaine had a dedicated following among Republican Party moderates. Leader of the “Half-Breed” faction of Republicans that produced Hayes and Garfield, Blaine supported a measure of civil service reform and sought reconciliation with the South. Twice before, he had failed to win his party’s presidential nomination. Once he was sidetracked when accused of prostituting the speaker’s office in a railroad deal. He had been cleared on a party-line vote. Now, the way seemed clear for the man his followers called “the Plumed Knight” to win the presidency.

The Democratic candidate was Governor Grover Cleveland of New York. Cleveland was a large bear of a man, a bachelor with a drooping walrus mustache. He had not served in the Civil War. Neither had Blaine served, so the “Bloody Shirt” issue was taken off the table. Unlike Blaine, Cleveland had a reputation for fighting for reform, even if that meant crossing his own party’s leaders. In Cleveland’s case, battling the bosses of Tammany Hall made him a national figure. “We love him for the enemies he made,” said Cleveland’s admirers. Cleveland advocated lower tariffs against the Republicans’ “protectionism,” but agreed with them on the need for “sound money.” By that, he meant the currency had to be backed by gold.

Bill Bennett

Bill Bennett is the author of Our Country's Founders .

Be the first to read Bill Bennett's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.