The election of 1884 was a vicious contest between James G Blaine, a man known for his personal integrity, but suspected of corruption in his public life and Grover Cleveland, a man known to be an honest public servant but with a somewhat scandalous private life. There were serious issues, of course. Tariffs were always a point of contention in nineteenth-century American politics and the country had been in a recession since 1882. Still, it was the contrast between the two candidates that everyone really cared about.
The Republicans met for their national convention in Chicago from June 3-6. President Chester A. Arthur would have liked to run for a full term. He was popular enough, but in the end, he decided not to run for re-election because of concerns about his health. General William T. Sherman was considered to be a potential candidate, but he absolutely refused to run, vowing to refuse to serve if elected. Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln was also approached as a potential presidential or vice-presidential candidate, but he wasn’t interested. In the end, the Republicans nominated James G. Blaine from Maine.
Although James G. Blaine had been born in Pennsylvania on January 31, 1830, his public like was spent in his wife’s home state of Maine. There he had owned a newspaper and become involved in politics, first as a Whig and then a Republican. Blaine had served in Maine’s legislature from 1858-1862, moving on to the U. S. House of Representatives where he served from 1863-1876, becoming the Speaker of the House from 1869-1875. Blaine had served in the Senate from 1876-1881. There, he had opposed President Hayes’s policy of ending Reconstruction in the South. Blaine had been a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1880 but questions about the suspicious circumstances surrounding his sale of bonds to the Union Pacific Railroad derailed his candidacy and James Garfield was nominated instead. President Garfield made Blaine his Secretary of State, but Blaine resigned after Garfield’s assassination. The Republicans went on to nominate John A. Logan from Illinois as his running mate. Logan had been a capable general during the Civil War and had served as Senator from Illinois from 1871-1877 and 1879-1886.
Blaine was popular among the Republicans, and he seemed to have a good chance of winning, but questions about financial improprieties still hounded him, especially after some letters were uncovered to Boston railway attorney Warren Fisher, one of which ended the command to “burn this letter”. The Democrats had a field day, chanting, “Burn this letter” at rallies and “Blaine, Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine.”
For their part, the Democrats met in Chicago from July 8-11. Grover Cleveland from New York was the obvious candidate. Cleveland had served as Sheriff of Erie County from 1871 to 1873, Mayor of Buffalo in 1882 and Governor of New York from 1883 to 1885. Throughout his political career, Grover Cleveland had earned a reputation as an honest and fearless reformer, fighting corruption and willing to take on entrenched interest in the name of a better, more honest government. The New York Party bosses from Tammany Hall hated Cleveland, but that was a recommendation for his reform-minded supporters. Grover Cleveland easily won the Democratic nomination for president, along with Thomas A. Hendricks from Indiana for Vice-President. Hendricks had served in the House of Representatives from 1851-1855, in the Senate from 1863-1969, and as governor of Indiana from 1873-1877. He was known to be an honest man and a strong orator, who had opposed Reconstruction.
Because Cleveland had a public reputation for honesty, as opposed to Blaine’s alleged corruption, several prominent Republicans came out in support of Cleveland. These defectors came to be known as “mugwumps“, a name derived from an Algonquin word for chief. Although the name was given in derision, the Mugwumps adopted it with pride as champions of reform and honest government. Grover Cleveland’s reputation was stained by the revelation that he had fathered a child by Maria Halpin while a lawyer in Buffalo. When this scandal broke, Cleveland took the unusual step of instructing his campaign workers to tell the truth. He admitted to having a relationship with Halpin and while he was certain the child in question was his, he had paid child support as a public duty. This ex[planation may have appeased his own supporters, but the Republicans took to chanting, “Ma, Ma where’s my Pa?” at campaign events.
The Election of 1884 was a close race and either candidate might have won, particularly whoever won the state of New York. The New York native Grover Cleveland might have seemed to be the obvious favorite, but James Blaine was also well-liked in New York, particularly by the Irish Catholics, since his mother had been Catholic and he was known to be anti-British. Then Blaine managed to destroy his chances twice in a single day. On October 29, Blaine made an appearance in New York City at which a speaker, a Presbyterian minister, made a remark about the Democrats being the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion“, alienating thousands of Irish Catholics. If that wasn’t bad enough, Blain attended a fundraiser that evening along with some of the richest men in the country. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong about that, except that the optics, as they say nowadays, of hobnobbing with the rich and famous in the middle of an economic recession didn’t look good.
In the end, Grover Cleveland won a narrow victory. Cleveland won 4,914,482 (48.9%) popular votes to Blaine.s 4,856,905 (48.3%). John St. John got 150,890 votes and Benjamin F. Butler won 134,294 votes. In the Electoral College Cleveland got 219 electoral votes, sweeping the South and winning Indian, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in the North. Blaine had 182 electoral votes winning the West and the rest of the North. Cleveland’s won New York by fewer than 1200 votes, and if not for Black Wednesday, October 29, Blaine would likely have won New York’s 36 electoral votes and won the election. As it was, the Democrats could finally respond to the Republicans’ taunts with, “Gone to the White House ha, ha, ha”.