In a hotly contested, close presidential election, James Blaine lost the crucial swing state of New York due to three words used days before voters went to the polls.
In the Election of 1884, Republican James Blaine lost the state of New York by 1,149 votes. Winning the state and the thirty-six electoral votes was critical in the close election. Grover Cleveland, however, took New York, the first Democrat to occupy the White House since James Buchanan won election in 1856. Although the 1884 election was one of the vilest in American History, it was the phrase “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” that might have been the final deciding factor.
The Candidates in the Election of 1884
James Blaine, dubbed the “Plumed Knight” and referred to as “Jingo Jim” by virtue of his brief stint as Secretary of State under President Garfield, finally received the prize he had sought since 1876. The Republican Party selected Blaine as their candidate, despite the opposition of moderates or “mugwumps.” The mugwumps would bolt the party in 1884, supporting Grover Cleveland.
Blaine had been involved in the railroad scandals of the preceding years, trying to distance himself from a $64,000 “loan” that was never repaid and appeared suspiciously as a bribe. The Democrats called him “the continental liar from the state of Maine” and even attempted to besmirch his personal morality by pointing to the fact that he had undergone a marriage ceremony twice, the second time within three months of the birth of his first child.
In contrast, the reform governor of New York, Grover Cleveland was known for his integrity and honesty. Shunning Tammany Hall politics and patronage, he was loved, according to Congressman Bragg, speaking at the nominating convention, “for the enemies he had made.”
During the election, it was disclosed that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock. When asked how to respond to the charges, Cleveland replied, “we tell the truth.” Further, Cleveland had financially supported both the mother and the child. Although some decried his moral lapse, most voters – including prominent ministers, defended him. The popular question, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” would shortly be answered: “He’s in the White House, haw, haw, haw.”
Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion Determined the Election of 1884
Days before the election, James Blaine visited the crucial swing state of New York, attending a morning meeting in a New York City hotel. During a speech made by Presbyterian minister Samuel Burchard, the Democratic Party was assailed as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” In many ways, this phrase singled out Irish Catholics, many of whom lived in the large urban centers like New York and Boston. The phrase catered to the stereotype of the drunken Irishman and demeaned the Catholic faith. Most all Irish were Roman Catholic.
The term “Rebellion” was a typical post Civil War Republican ploy of “waving the bloody shirt,” reminding voters that it had been the Democrats who were responsible for the great bloodshed and connecting them to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By 1884, Democrats saw themselves as fully rehabilitated politically. During his term in office, Cleveland would return Confederate battle flags to the South, and action that hurt his reelection in 1888.
Role of the Catholic Church in the Election of 1884
Catholic priests took to the pulpit the weekend before the election and urged church members to vote against the Republicans. When it was all over, Cleveland carried the state. When asked about the loss, James Blaine was reported to have said: “I should have carried New York by 10,000 votes if the weather had been clear and Dr. Burchard had been doing missionary work in Asia Minor or China.” Blaine’s great mistake had been not distancing himself from Burchard’s comments.
- Boller, Paul F. Jr., Presidential Campaigns From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2004)
- Graff, Henry F., Grover Cleveland (Times Books, 2002)
- Jeffers, H. P., An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (Harper Perennial, 2002)
- Smith, Page, The Rise of Industrial America: A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era Vol. 6 (Penguine Books, 1984)