In 1884 a new set of ideologies emerged that so divided the electorate that the Democrats won their first presidential race in six consecutive elections, the longest losing streak in American history. What ideologies were they? They were the very ones that would soon change the landscape of America forever.
The Republicans were tempted to give Chester A. Arthur the nomination again, but he was suffering from a serious kidney ailment which kept him from mounting a vigorous campaign. Instead they ended up nominating former Speaker of the House James Blaine, of the state of Maine.
Running on a strong “clean government” message, New York Gov. Grover Cleveland received the Democratic nomination. Cleveland had a record of cleaning up corruption, particularly the influence of Tammany Hall, the longstanding patronage machine of the Democrats in New York.
Cleveland was assisted in selling his image because the Republican nominee was discovered to have been engaged a pattern of corruption. In one instance, a number of letters were made public which showed that the former Speaker had received over $1 million in today’s dollars for helping secure a federal land grant. Though the letters were old ones and had kept Blaine from getting the GOP nomination in two prior conventions, Cleveland was able to mount a successful campaign based upon a relentless attack on Blaine for having sold his influence in Congress.
Blaine found his likely electorate divided. This was due in part to ideological divisions which resulted in a number of other parties being formed around such issues as prohibition, the right of women to vote, opposition to The Masons, opposition to monopolies and, of course, the revolt within his own party by the “Mugwumps” who actually worked to help elect Cleveland.
But Cleveland was not without scandal of his own. Near the end of the campaign it was revealed that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. The story was that the child had been given his name, sent to an orphanage and the child’s mother sent to an asylum. Cleveland survived by pointing out that his paternity had never been established but that he had nevertheless provided financial support for the child.
The outcome looked as though it was likely to be close. And then, right at the very end, a pastor gave a speech to a group of assembled Republicans with Blaine in attendance, at which the preacher criticized the Mugwumps for breaking with the party in support of the Democrat. However, the speech went too far. The pastor’s criticism painted the Mugwumps as being the offspring of those who favored “rum, Romanism and rebellion.”
Someone caught the reference to Romanism (perhaps the first “Macaca” moment), and soon the reference to Catholicism spread like wildfire through the Catholics in New York City and in the end cost Blaine the election by a narrow margin.
The election of 1884 not only ended the Democrats long losing streak, but resulted in a broken Republican party, the rise of power among prohibitionists, an increasing call for women’s suffrage and the injection of highly charged claims of corruption, immorality and breach of the public trust into political contests.
With the addition of religious polarization to the mix the landscape of political contests in America was changed far beyond what the founders thought of the process in the last election of the first century since George Washington’s unassailable character made him the Father of our Country.
Next up, how the election of 1888 placed before the American people many of the same issues being discussed today: taxes, special interests and government pensions. The difference, however, is how the two major parties aligned themselves then, compared to now.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.