Election Day, November, 1884
By Walt Whitman, 1819 – 1892
If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.
The United States presidential election of 1884 was the 25th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 4, 1884. It saw the first election of a Democrat as President of the United States since the election of 1856. The campaign was marred by exceptional political acrimony and personal invective.
New York Governor Grover Cleveland narrowly defeated Republican former United States Senator James G. Blaine of Maine to break the longest losing streak for any major party in American political history: six consecutive presidential elections.
The issue of personal character marked was paramount in the 1884 campaign. Blaine had been prevented from getting the Republican presidential nomination during the previous two elections because of the stigma of the “Mulligan letters”: in 1876, a Boston bookkeeper named James Mulligan had located some letters showing that Blaine had sold his influence in Congress to various businesses. One such letter ended with the phrase “burn this letter”, from which a popular chant of the Democrats arose – “Burn, burn, burn this letter!” In just one deal, he had received $110,150 (over $1.5 million in 2010 dollars) from the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad for securing a federal land grant, among other things. Democrats and anti-Blaine Republicans made unrestrained attacks on his integrity as a result. Their slogan was “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine.” Cleveland, on the other hand, was known as “Grover the Good” for his personal integrity; in the space of the three previous years he had become successively the mayor of Buffalo, New York, and then the governor of the state of New York, cleaning up large amounts of Tammany Hall’s graft.
Commentator Jeff Jacoby notes that, “Not since George Washington had a candidate for president been so renowned for his rectitude.” In July the Republicans found a refutation buried in Cleveland’s past. Aided by sermons from an opportunistic preacher named George H. Ball, they charged that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child while he was a lawyer in Buffalo. When confronted with the scandal, Cleveland’s immediately instructed his supporters to “Above all, tell the truth.” Cleveland admitted to paying child support in 1874 to Maria Crofts Halpin, the woman who claimed he fathered her child, named Oscar Folsom Cleveland. Halpin was involved with several men at the time, including Cleveland’s friend and law partner, Oscar Folsom, for whom the child was named. Cleveland did not know which man was the father; he assumed responsibility because he was the only bachelor among them. Shortly before election day, The Republican media published an affidavit from Halpin in which she stated that until she met Cleveland her “life was pure and spotless”, and “there is not, and never was, a doubt as to the paternity of our child, and the attempt of Grover Cleveland, or his friends, to couple the name of Oscar Folsom, or any one else, with that boy, for that purpose is simply infamous and false.” Republican cartoonists across the land had a field day.
Cleveland’s campaign decided that candor was the best approach to this scandal: it admitted that Cleveland had formed an “illicit connection” with the mother and that a child had been born and given the Cleveland surname. They also noted that there was no proof that Cleveland was the father, and claimed that, by assuming responsibility and finding a home for the child, he was merely doing his duty. Finally, they showed that the mother had not been forced into an asylum; her whereabouts were unknown. Blaine’s supporters condemned Cleveland in the strongest of terms, singing “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?” (After Cleveland’s victory, Cleveland supporters would respond to the taunt with: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.”) However, the Cleveland campaign’s damage control worked well enough and the race remained a tossup through Election Day. The greatest threat to the Republicans came from reformers called “Mugwumps” who were angrier at Blaine’s public corruption than at Cleveland’s private affairs.
In the final week of the campaign, the Blaine campaign suffered a catastrophe. At a Republican meeting attended by Blaine, a group of New York preachers castigated the Mugwumps. Their spokesman, Reverend Dr. Samuel Burchard, made this fatal statement: “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 did not notice Burchard’s anti-Catholic slur, nor did the assembled newspaper reporters, but a Democratic operative did, and Cleveland’s campaign managers made sure that it was widely publicized. The statement energized the Irish and Catholic vote in New York City heavily against Blaine, costing him New York state and the election by the narrowest of margins. New York decided the election, awarding Governor Cleveland the state’s 36 electors by a margin of just 1,047 votes out of 1,171,312 cast.
The Election of 1884 is one of the most fascinating to me. The other is the election of 1912 when a Democrat won again for the first time since Cleveland’s second term, which by the way was nonconsecutive the only such candidate to do so in history. The 1912 election was a rare four-way contest. Incumbent President William Howard Taft was renominated by the Republican Party with the support of its conservative wing. After former President Theodore Roosevelt failed to receive the Republican nomination, he called his own convention and created the Progressive Party (nicknamed the “Bull Moose Party”). It nominated Roosevelt and ran candidates for other offices in major states. Democrat Woodrow Wilson was finally nominated on the 46th ballot of a contentious convention, thanks to the support of William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate who still had a large and loyal following in 1912. Eugene V. Debs, running for a fourth time, was the nominee of the Socialist Party of America.
Wilson won the election, gaining a large majority in the Electoral College and winning 42% of the popular vote, while Roosevelt won 27%, Taft 23% and Debs 6%. Wilson became the only elected president from the Democratic Party between 1892 and 1932, and the second of only two Democrats to be elected president between 1860 and 1932. This was the last election in which a candidate who was not a Republican or Democrat came second in either the popular vote or the Electoral College, and the first election in which all 48 states of the contiguous United States participated.