Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison were as ineffective as Johnson, Grant, Hayes and Arthur. However, a highpoint of this dull era was that a woman ran for president.
President Arthur (1881–1884) was less corrupt than he had been during Hayes’s administration, so the Republicans discarded him once his term ended. Both Republican Party factions thought Arthur wasn’t conservative enough when he supported the Pendleton Act of 1883. The law stated that federal job candidates must take a civil service examination. The Republicans preferred to have federal job appointments remain as rewards for campaign contributors.
The Republicans nominated James G. Blaine from Maine. He had everything a politician needed, “except a reputation for honesty…” Blaine’s major scandal involved the “Mulligan papers.” Officials connected Blaine to letters he may have written to a businessman from Boston. In the “letters,” a southern railroad company agreed to give Blaine money in exchange for federal favors, and one of the letters instructed the reader to “burn it.”
Blaine’s nomination caused many Republicans to switch to the Democratic Party. Writers often call these Republicans Mugwumps – indecisive people, but they already existed as Half Breeds before 1884. Nevertheless, the Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland, a mediocre lawyer and a bachelor from New York. His opponents revealed that Cleveland had fathered a child eight years prior without marrying the mother. According to today’s street language, Cleveland had a “baby’s momma.”
Furthermore, Cleveland was living with a woman, “shacking,” but it’s not clear if the woman was his “baby’s momma” or another woman. During the campaign Republicans taunted Cleveland with the chant: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” Therefore, he probably was living with “the other woman.” To chastise Blaine, the Democrats frequented the streets yelling, “Burn, burn, burn this letter!”
Most historians agree that Belva Ann Lockwood became the first female presidential candidate in 1884. Lockwood was a lawyer who fought for the rights of women, African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants. She ran for The Equal Rights Party on a platform of Native American citizenship and government positions for women. However, the leading women’s rights advocates, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, did not publically support Lockwood.
Although Anthony and Stanton fought for certain rights for women and may not have attempted to impede African American progress, they believed that “White” women were above African Americans. In Volume 2 of the History of Woman Suffrage, they write: “With the black man, we have no new element in government, but with the education and elevation of women, we have a power that is to develop the Saxon race into a higher and nobler life…” Anthony’s and Stanton’s writings indicate they probably favored Cleveland since his party promoted African American inferiority.
After a Republican insulted the Irish people of New York, they deserted their Republican camp to vote for Cleveland. Capturing New York helped Cleveland win the election by a small electoral vote margin of 219 to 182. He also won the popular vote by 4,879,507 to 4,850,293. Lockwood received between 4,000 and 7,000 popular votes, but she didn’t win any electoral votes.
A Democratic President
Cleveland was a laissez-faire advocate, meaning he was against governmental involvement in business matters. Cleveland’s idea of small government manifested itself when he vetoed a bill that would’ve provided seeds to drought-victim farmers in Texas. He felt that people must support the government, but the government will not support the people.
Cleveland was a stubborn, unreasonable and uncompromising man who favored southern politics. One of his first political moves was appointing two former Confederates to his cabinet, which didn’t set well with African Americans. Furthermore, like Hayes and Arthur, he did nothing about the unjust social atmosphere. When Cleveland refused to help Texas farmers feed themselves, African Americans, especially the southern ones, knew he would not assist them.
To say Cleveland was ultra-conservative is understatement. However, he surprised both parties when he created a bill to lower tariffs in 1887. As America developed into an industrial country, every president since Andrew Johnson agreed to keep tariffs high to protect American industrialists from foreign competitors. Therefore, Cleveland’s bill created a political backlash against the Democratic Party.
Nonetheless, the Democrats still nominated Cleveland. The Republicans chose Benjamin Harrison whose grandfather William Henry Harrison had stopped the great Native American leader Tecumseh during the War of 1812. Although Cleveland won the popular vote by 5,537,857 to 5,447,129, Harrison won the election by the slight margin of 233 to 168 electoral votes.
Harrison as President
Harrison was a lackluster, awkward, socially inept character. His administration was out of touch with reality. He addressed no real issues like women’s rights and social injustices. Instead, Harrison raised tariffs to protect the industrialists. However, the lack of competition enabled farming equipment manufacturers to monopolize, but farmers had to sell their products in a competitive market. Consequently, because of Harrison’s tariff policies, farmers made no profits.
- Davis, Angela Y. Women Race & Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1981
- Kennedy, David, Cohen, Lizabeth, Bailey, Thomas, Piehl, Mel. The Brief American Pageant – Sixth Edition. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.