With 59 elections in US history, some are bound to be more forgotten than others. One election absent from popular consciousness, the election of 1884, was one of the most vitriolic and unique of its era. The two candidates were James Blaine, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives and governor of Maine, and Grover Cleveland, the Democratic New York governor. From the beginning, Blaine’s candidacy caused controversy among members of his party. Past accusations of bribery during his time as Speaker of the House had permanently sullied his reputation. Cleveland, on the other hand, had a largely positive reputation going into the election, being well respected for taking on corrupt political machines such as Tammany Hall during his governorship. Although Cleveland initially appeared to have an edge in public support, no one could have predicted the bitter controversies that would come to define the election.
This election was unusual in that policies did not take up the forefront of the two campaigns. The two candidates surprisingly agreed on many hot-button issues of the day such as the gold standard, putting the focus instead on the nominees’ character. Accusations of corruption resurfaced during Blaine’s campaign; one of the most damaging being his involvement with the Pacific Union Railroad. Years earlier, a clerk named James Mulligan had a series of letters showing the alleged transaction between the railroad and Blaine in which he had been bribed. Even worse for Blaine was the fact that the letter ended with the phrase, “kindly burn this letter,” further affirming his guilt. This affair was brought up constantly against Blaine as proof of his corruption. Cleveland was also unable to make it through the election with his image unscathed. His clean reputation was quickly dashed by rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate child and had made payments to the mother to ensure no one found out. The two men had found themselves in two very different types of scandals that would set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
Both parties used the scandals of Blaine and Cleveland as ammunition against one another. “Burn this letter” became a common anti-Blaine slogan, with Republicans responding in turn with “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” Out of both candidates, Blaine ended up worse off politically for his scandal. His perceived untrustworthiness led a faction of Republican voters to abandon the party. These voters became known as “Mugwumps” and their support of Cleveland would prove critical in the outcome of the election. Surprisingly, Cleveland was able to recuperate his image with a bold strategy: telling the truth. Instead of denying the stories being spread about him, the New York governor admitted he had been financially supporting the child but was unsure whether or not it was his.
While Cleveland won back public support, James Blaine continued to dig his own grave. Less than a week before election day, a pastor supporting Blaine made a speech declaring the Democratic party to be representative of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” with Romanism referring to the fact that Roman Catholic voters commonly voted with the Democratic party. Blaine was present when this speech occurred and did not denounce the comment made. This largely turned the Catholic population of New York, a swing state he desperately needed to win, against him. In the end, Cleveland achieved a narrow victory with a 0.5 percent lead in the popular vote. The deciding factor for the election proved to be New York, which Blaine lost by a mere thousand votes. While the election of 1884 was perhaps not one of the most impactful elections, it certainly was one of the most fascinating.
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