Grover Cleveland was elected president in 1884 in one of the dirtiest election campaigns in our history. But the American voters were treated to one of the most exciting campaigns ever.
The Republican Convention met in Chicago on June 3, 1884. The Reverend F.M. Bristol delivered the invocation asking that “the coming political campaign may be conducted with the decency, intelligence, patriotism and dignity of temper which becomes a free and intelligent people.” He didn’t get his wish.
The Republicans nominated James G. Blaine, the most popular Republican of his generation. Blaine had been engaged in questionable practices involving railroads, and had received stock in the notorious Credit Mobilier scandal. Republican liberals and reformers were outraged, and threatened to bolt the party.
The Democrats nominated Governor Grover Cleveland of New York, who was completely acceptable to reformers of both parties. As mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York, Cleveland had gained a reputation for honesty. The New York World said it was supporting Cleveland for four reasons: “1. He is an honest man; 2. He is an honest man; 3. He is an honest man; 4. He is an honest man.” In seconding Cleveland’s nomination, General Edward S. Bragg of Wisconsin, referring to the hostility of corrupt politicians To Cleveland, cried: “We love him for the enemies he has made!”
With the nomination of Cleveland, the Republican reformers decided to support him instead of their party’s nominee, Blaine. The New York Sun dismissed this group as “Mugwumps” (an Algonquin Indian word meaning “chief”). The Indianapolis Sentinel had used the same word in 1872 to describe Independents who thought they were bigger than their party. Republicans said that Mugwumps had their mugs on one side of the fence and their wumps on the other. The Blaine Republicans called them “Assistant Democrats” and said that they “had their hair parted in the middle, banged in front, neither male nor female.” The reformers took the name “Mugwumps” with pride.
A reporter named William H. Hudson, who was assigned to prepare a campaign biography, created Cleveland’s campaign slogan. After reviewing Cleveland’s speeches and papers, he noticed how often Cleveland referred to elected officials as “the people’s servants” who held office as trustees of the public. He came up with the slogan “Public Office is a Public Trust.” When Cleveland saw the slogan, he asked, “Where the deuce did I say that?” Hudson replied that Cleveland had said it many times, but not in so few words. Cleveland agreed he had said it but “better because more fully,” because that is what he believed, and approved the slogan.
Cleveland’s nickname was Grover the Good, because of his reputation for honesty and for vetoing “pork” bills which led to graft and corruption. His reputation was tarnished very suddenly with the publication, on July 21, in the Buffalo Evening Telegraph under the headline “A Terrible Tale: A Dark Chapter in a Public Man’s History.” The subtitle was “The Pitiful Story of Maria Halpin and Governor Cleveland’s Son.”
The article described Cleveland’s relationship with a well-known prostitute, which had resulted in an illegitimate son. Cleveland admitted it was basically true, although with a few embellishments. When his supporters asked how they should handle the problem, Cleveland replied, “Above all, tell the truth.” The Democrats took the line that the real issue was public integrity, not private misdeeds. Meanwhile, Republicans began chanting “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?” (Actually, there were several men who might have been the father, but as all the other were married men, Cleveland accepted the responsibility and provided financial support for the child.)
The Republican candidate, James G. Blaine, had troubles of his own. He had been implicated in the railroad scandals, which had prevented him from getting the nomination in 1876. A man named Mulligan published letters from Blaine from that scandal. In it, Blaine outlined how to handle any inquiry into their dealings, and ended with the famous instructions to “burn this letter.”
Democrats started chanting:
Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine!
The continental liar from the state of Maine,
Burn this letter!
Both sides traded accusations and accused the other of wrongdoing. The campaign came down to a choice between Cleveland who had “great integrity in office but questionable credentials in private life” and Blaine who was “a model husband and father but was delinquent in public office.” The conclusion was that “We should elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so qualified to fill and retire Mr. Blaine to the private life he is so admirably fitted to adorn.”
The election looked like a virtual tie outside of New York. It became obvious that New York, with its 36 electoral votes, would determine the election. Both sides worked hard to carry New York. Blaine appeared to be winning the contest.
On October 29, two things happened to upset Blaine’s plans. That morning, he made an appearance in New York City at a meeting of several hundred pro-Blaine Protestant clergymen. Reverend Samuel D. Burchard delivered a warm welcoming address which ended with the words: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Blaine somehow missed the bigoted phrase, and did nothing to deny or repudiate it when he got up to speak. A reporter assigned by the Democrats to cover the meeting eagerly reported the mistake to the Democratic headquarters. When asked if Blaine “met this remark?” the reporter replied that Blaine had made no reference to it. The Democrats then spread the quote all over New York City and elsewhere. By the time Blaine finally got around to disavowing the remarks, it was too late. He lost thousands of votes among the Irish-American voters in the city.
That night, Blaine attended a lavish fund-raising dinner at Delmonico’s with Jay Gould, John Jacob Astor and other millionaires. Blaine spoke about Republican prosperity even though the country was in a depression at the time. The next day, the New York World had a headline: “THE ROYAL FEAST OF BELSHAZZAR BLAINE AND THE MONEY KINGS” and had a story of the grand feast above a picture of Blaine dining in luxury while a starving man, his ragged wife and child begged for crumbs. It is hard to say which hurt him more, Burchard’s comments or the Belshazzar bash.
Blaine had also made some important enemies. New York’s powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling loathed Blaine. Blaine had once ridiculed Conkling’s “turkey gobbler strut.” When a Republican delegation called on Conkling to ask whether he would campaign for Blaine, he snorted: “Gentleman, you have been misinformed. I have given up criminal law.”
On Election Day, Blaine lost New York by 1,149 votes out of more than a million cast, and as a consequence, went down to defeat nationally. Cleveland’s popular vote victory over Blaine was only about 23,000 out of ten million votes cast. For the first time since before the Civil War, the Democrats had captured the White House. Democrats took the old chant “Ma, Ma Where’s My Pa?” and added the line “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”
Another Democratic victory chant was:
Hurray for Maria! Hurray for the kid!
I voted for Cleveland, and I’m damned glad I did!
Blaine noted ruefully that he had thousands of Irish votes sewed up to the very end and would have won “but for the intolerant and utterly improper remark of Dr. Burchard, which was quoted everywhere to my prejudice and in many places attributed to myself, though it was in the highest degree distasteful and offensive to me.” He also told a friend that he would have carried New York if “the weather had been clear on Election Day and Dr. Burchard had been doing missionary work in Asia Minor or Cochin China.”
Cleveland went on to preside over eight of the most exciting years between the Civil War and the end of the century. He was the only President elected to non-consecutive terms, and the first to marry in the White House. His daughter was the first presidential child born in the White House, and the Baby Ruth candy bar was named after his second child, born in between Cleveland’s two terms.