The presidential campaign of 1884 was one of the most memorable
in American history. The Republican nominee, James G. Blaine of
Maine, was nicknamed the "plumed knight," but disgruntled
Republican reformers regarded him as a symbol of corruption. He
"wallowed in spoils like a rhinoceros in an African pool."
These liberal Republicans indicated to Democratic leaders that
they would bolt their own party and support a Democrat, provided
he was a decent and honorable man. Grover Cleveland seemed to
meet these qualifications. He had started his career as sheriff
of Erie County where he personally hanged two murderers to spare
the sensitivities of his subordinates. He had been known as the
"veto" Mayor of Buffalo for rejecting political graft,
and as governor he repudiated Tammany Hall.
Republicans waved the "bloody flag," harshly attacking
Cleveland for avoiding service during the Civil War. He had hired
a substitute to take his place.
Democrats, in turn, claimed that Blaine had sold his influence
in Congress to business interests. They published letters from
a Boston bookkeeper which indicated that Blaine had personally
benefited from helping a railroad keep a land grant. Democrats
chanted: "Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The Continental
Liar from the State of Maine!"
Then a Buffalo newspaper dealt Cleveland a devastating blow.
Under the headline, "A Terrible Tale," the newspaper
revealed that the Democratic candidate had a child out of wedlock.
Even worse, Republicans charged, Cleveland had placed the child
in an orphanage and the mother in an insane asylum, Republicans
wore white ribbons and campaigned under the phrase "home
But these moralistic attacks failed to ignite much public
indignation against Cleveland. Republicans chanted, "Ma,
ma, where's my pa?" Democrats replied: "Gone to the
White House, ha, ha, ha."
Just six days before the election, a group of Protestant clergy
were meeting in New York. The clergymen endorsed Cleveland with
words that would alter the course of the election:
We are Republicans and don't propose to leave our party and
identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents are Rum,
Romanism and Rebellion.
The following Sunday, as Irish Americans filed out of Catholic
Churches, they were handed bills containing the phrase "Rum,
Romanism and Rebellion," attributed to Blaine himself. Blaine's
denials were ineffective and he lost New York by 1,149 votes.
In the election, white Southerners, Irish Americans, and German
American voters turned out in record numbers.
In office, Cleveland pleased conservatives by advocating sound
money and reduction of inflation, curbing party patronage, and
vetoing government pensions. But he alienated business and labor
interests by proposing a lower tariff and was defeated by Republican
Benjamin Harrison in 1888, winning the popular vote but losing
the electoral vote.
In 1892, Cleveland won reelection thanks in part to a third
party movement--the Populists--that siphoned off some of the strength
of the Republican Party, and by a vigorous campaign against the
extravagance of the Republican "Billion Dollar Congress."
But his second term was ruined by the economic depression of
the mid-1890s, the worst economic crisis that the country had
ever seen. Insisting on sound money, he sought to keep the country
on the gold standard and helped convince Congress to enact an
income tax (which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme
Court). In 1896, Cleveland's policies were repudiated by his own
Copyright 2021 Digital History