An age more golden than gilded

Posted: Jun 08, 2006 12:01 AM

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.

Had the campaign stayed on this high plane, Cleveland probably would have won easily. But 1884 was to prove another brutal contest. When the German American immigrant leader Carl Schurz came out for Cleveland, he led a number of other influential Republican reformers in support of the burly New Yorker. These reformers were known as “Mugwumps.” The Indian word meant chieftain, but humorists immediately said it meant they had their mugs on one side of the fence and their wumps on the other.

Republican regulars were desperate. It seemed they were saved when a tawdry story leaked out of Cleveland’s hometown of Buffalo, New York. Cleveland had fathered a son out of wedlock. He was also forced to have the boy’s mother committed to an insane asylum. Horrified Democratic leaders pleaded with Cleveland to deny the story. A local Buffalo editor suggested Cleveland name his late law partner, John Folsom, as the child’s real father. Folsom had been intimate with the woman, too. “Is this man crazy,” asked an exasperated Cleveland, “is he fool enough to suppose for a moment . . . that I would permit my dead friend’s memory to suffer for my sake?” Cleveland stoutly refused to do any such thing. He immediately admitted to fathering the child. Memorably, he instructed his campaign aides to “tell the truth.” When Democrats brought him evidence that Mrs. Blaine had been pregnant before the Blaines’ marriage, Cleveland grabbed the papers, ripped them up, and threw them into the fire: “The other side can have the monopoly on all the dirt in this campaign,” he told them.

Republicans were delighted. “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?” went up the chant from coast to coast. Even in England, the humor magazine Puck skewered Cleveland. It cartooned him outside the White House holding his ears as a lady with a crying baby hid her face for shame.

Republicans would soon have cause to join that crying baby, however. The charges of corruption that Blaine thought he had overcome were renewed by Carl Schurz and the Mugwumps. They produced a letter from Blaine in which he addressed the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad issue. Blaine had made a tidy $100,000 for his role in this affair.Devastating to his cause, though, was a note in Blaine’s own handwriting that said: “Burn this letter.” Younger members of the Grand Old Party like delegates Theodore Roosevelt (New York) and Henry Cabot Lodge (Massachusetts) had to hold their noses when they continued to support their party’s nominee. But the Republicans were now the ones holding their ears as Democrats throughout the country took up their own chant:

Blaine, Blaine, You oughtta be ashamed
A continental liar from the State of Maine.

Republican campaign leaders hoped that the candidacy of Ben Butler on the Greenback Party ticket might drain enough votes from Cleveland to elect their somewhat wilted Plumed Knight. Butler had been nicknamed “Spoons” for his supposed eagerness to steal the silver from Southern plantations during the war. Now, Republican leaders secretly paid for Spoons to take a private railway car across the country, campaigning against the “sound money” Democratic candidate.

Republican chances in 1884 were ruined by one of their own most zealous supporters. A Presbyterian minister, Samuel Burchard, gave a speech to a New York Republican gathering. With Blaine seated next to him on the platform, Reverend Burchard sneered at the Mugwumps. Then he lambasted the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion!” Blaine had little chance of carrying any states in the Solid South anyway, but Burchard’s ill-considered attack on alcohol alienated the beer-drinking Germans of the North. His bigoted anti-Catholic slam on “Romanism” offended immigrants nationwide.

Blaine failed to disavow the irreverent reverend’s speech. This intemperate Temperance advocate gave Blaine’s opponents all the ammunition they needed for victory. New York was the key to the election. “Wait till you hear from the slums,” Blaine’s managers said ruefully as they watched the votes in the Empire State. Publisher Joseph Pulitzer, an immigrant from Hungary, provided Cleveland’s strongest appeal when he editorialized in his New York World: “There are four reasons for electing Cleveland: 1. He is an honest man. 2. He is an honest man. 3. He is an honest man. 4. He is an honest man.” Who could deny that? And who could seriously claim that Blaine was not crooked?

The national totals were very close. “Grover the Good” won with 4,874,986 popular votes and 219 electoral votes. Blaine trailed with 4,851,981 popular votes and 182 electoral votes. New York’s 36 electoral votes had done it. Cleveland carried his home state by just 1,149 votes. After twenty-four years in the political wilderness, gleeful Democrats answered that Where’s my Pa? taunt: “Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Cleveland’s election was a monument to freedom. The Civil War had demonstrated what Lincoln said: there could be no appeal “from ballots to bullets.” But in order for America to make good her claims to liberty, there had to be elections that gave the peoples’ ballots a fair chance to “throw the bums out.” By 1884, the Republicans’ Circus Big Tent covered a lot of bums—and not a few clowns.