By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred-seventeen years ago this week, on Oct. 29, 1884, Republican candidate James G. Blaine seemed all but certain to win the presidency. With the election only one week away, he was campaigning in New York City, wooing the vital Irish-Catholic vote. Everything was going his way until a Presbyterian minister, speaking at a pro-Blaine event that evening, denounced the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” When Democratic newspapers ran the phrase as a banner headline the next day, Blaine’s campaign suffered a mortal would from which it could not recover.
In 1884, James G. Blaine was one of the most well-known American politicians. Born in Pennsylvania into a family with roots stretching back to Ulster, he grew up to be a schoolteacher and later a lawyer. In the mid-1850s, he moved to Maine, where his career in law and as a newspaper editor eventually led him into politics. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1863, he rose rapidly to become speaker in 1869, a position he held until 1876.
Blaine sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1876 and again in 1880, but was dogged by charges of corruption. Still, he was a gifted orator and a charismatic personality. By 1884, with the corruption allegations grown stale, there was no denying him. He won the party’s nomination on the fifth ballot.
Opposing Blaine was another man who could trace at least part of his family’s history back to Ireland, Grover Cleveland. As a man with a sterling reputation for good government and reform from his years as mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, Cleveland seemed the perfect choice for the Democrats to run against the tainted Blaine. But he had weaknesses Blaine hoped to exploit. For one, he was a free trader in an era when most workers favored a protective tariff. Irish workers in particular viewed free trade as a pro-British policy. Cleveland’s reform policies as governor had also antagonized Tammany Hall and the word on the street was that the powerful political machine would do little to help him win his home state.
And then there was Cleveland’s personal life. In July 1884, shortly after winning his party’s nomination, Cleveland found himself besieged by the press. A woman had come forward claiming that she had been Cleveland’s mistress in the mid-1870s and that she had given birth to his illegitimate son. To the horror of his handlers, Cleveland came clean and admitted the story was true.
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Suddenly the election was Blaine’s to lose. Republican newspapers made the most of the story and hundreds of clergymen denounced Cleveland as unfit for the office. Republican hecklers dogged him everywhere he went with the damning ditty, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” Democrats resurrected the Blaine corruption allegations and the campaign descended into one of the most vicious in all of American history.
Under these circumstances, Blaine seemed destined to gain thousands of swing votes among the Irish in important states like New York. But he would have to work them, for the overwhelming majority of Irish Americans in the 19th Century voted Democratic. For them the Democratic party represented tolerance in a society rife with anti-Irish and anti-Catholic nativism. It also was the party of compassion and social welfare (official and unofficial) in an era of harsh urban poverty. Conversely, the Irish generally saw Blaine’s Republican party as the party of wealth and bigotry. One misstep and the Irish would either stay home on election day or cast their votes for Cleveland.
Blaine took no chances and campaigned hard in states with large Irish populations, especially New York. Everyone in Gilded Age America knew the importance of winning the Empire State. Carry New York, said the strategists, and the White House would be yours.
And so it was that frontrunner James G. Blaine was in New York City on Oct. 29, just a week before the election. That evening he was to meet a group of clergymen and receive their endorsement as the man more morally qualified than Cleveland to be the next president. But the carefully orchestrated “family values” PR event quickly turned into a disaster. The featured speaker failed to show up, so the assembled clerics turned to Rev. Samuel Burchard, a man widely known for his gift of oratory. Burchard did not disappoint, delivering both a ringing endorsement of Blaine and a spirited attack on Cleveland and the Democrats.
Few in the crowd even noticed his wonderfully alliterative phrase, “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” — probably because they agreed with him. Blaine himself was not moved to say anything to distance himself from the remark. But to a reporter for a pro-Cleveland newspaper, the offensive crack had the “comeback” written all over it. The next morning Democratic newspapers carried the story under screaming headlines. Before long it was a national news story, with some accounts stating that Blaine himself had uttered the words. The next Sunday, just two days before the election, Democrats distributed in front of New York’s Catholic churches hundreds of thousands of handbills decrying Blaine as a nativist.
By then Blaine had denounced Burchard’s intemperate words, but it was too little, too late. Thrown on the defensive, his campaign never recovered. In one of the closest elections in recent memory, Cleveland carried New York by a mere 1,149 votes and the national popular vote by just two tenths of one percent. How many votes Blaine lost due to Burchard’s bigoted remark will never be known, but it was surely enough to cost him the election.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Oct. 24, 1880: The Ladies Land League is founded in New York.
Oct. 25, 1920: Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney dies in a British prison after a 74-day hunger strike during the War of Independence.
Oct. 26, 1931: Eugene O’Neill’s play “Mourning Becomes Electra” opens at Guild Theatre in New York City.
Oct. 24, 1911: FBI chief Clarence M. Kelley is born in Kansas City, Mo.
Oct. 26, 1914: First child star of the silver screen Jackie Coogan is born in Los Angeles.
Oct. 30: 1892: Nationalist and organizer of the Blueshirts Eoin O’Duffy is born in Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.