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The Election of 1884 Previous Next
Digital History ID 3117


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 protection."

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 party.

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