The Democratic Party was in turmoil. Its candidates were not winning, and many of its ideas had fallen out of favor. It was a long way from the days of the Party’s founding: Andrew Jackson and his disciple, Martin Van Buren, held power for the twelve years spanning 1829 to 1841 and—into the 1840s and 1850s—James Polk, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan continued to lead the Party into the White House albeit against candidates from the newly-formed and then soon-to-be-disbanded Whig Party. Then, following the emergence of the Republican Party—an emergence which culminated in its candidate, Abraham Lincoln, prevailing in the elections of 1860 and 1864—Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s Vice President and then successor as President, oversaw a one-term presidency which came to an end in 1869. Johnson, partly because he was serving between two titans of the century (Lincoln and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant), was always going to struggle to earn admiration but, unlike Lincoln and Grant, Johnson was technically a Democrat, and perhaps because he was so thoroughly shamed for his actions as President, the Party would scarcely recognize him as a member. Whether a result of Johnson’s malfeasance or not, following Johnson’s presidency came an era of Republican dominance: Republican Grant won two consecutive terms, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes secured a succeeding term, Republican James Garfield then was victorious, and following his assassination, Republican Chester Arthur served out the remainder of that term. That brought the parties and the country to 1884. As the election of 1884 approached, it had been decades since a strong, effective Democrat—a Democrat who embodied the Party’s principles and would be a standard bearer for the Party, unlike the postbellum Democratic President, Johnson, or the last antebellum one, Buchanan—held office, and for Democrats to win this election, it would take someone special; someone who would be transformative even if only in a way that was possible at the time. As fortune would have it, it could not be a wartime presidency or a presidency that birthed fundamental change in American government, but that was because the circumstances of the era did not call for such a President; it could, however, be a presidency that tackled one of the biggest issues of the time: corruption.
As the sitting President, Chester Arthur had expected that the Republican Party would invariably select him as the Party’s nominee, but, during a time when conventions and nominees were fraught with uncertainty, Arthur found himself blindsided when his party nominated James Blaine. Blaine, a “master of the minutiae of American politics” with a stained reputation following his “eager involvement in the railroad scandals of the 1860s and 1870s,” was a choice emblematic of the era: despite his involvement in corrupt politics, he was a professional politician and would certainly advance the Party’s agenda.[i] And this wasn’t a case of a party selecting a nominee for lack of rising stars: the convention had in attendance Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, and William McKinley, but that next generation of leaders would only ascend when the Civil War-era Republicans had aged out of politics.[ii] Rather, this was a case of a party—already in the ascendancy—attempting to lock out its competitor.
To that end, Republicans certainly hoped that the Democratic nominee would be Stephen Field. Being a Supreme Court Justice was secondary to his hope of becoming President, but that dream had not been realized because of his reputation: many viewed him as nothing more than a “corrupt tool of the railroads” as many of his rulings had the effect of “weakening the distinctions between corporate persons and natural persons.”[iii] These court opinions drew the ire of the anti-monopolists, and Field returned that hatred by calling his detractors “agrarian and communistic.”[iv] It would not be Field’s time. The nomination would go to Grover Cleveland, then the Governor of New York but previously the Mayor of Buffalo and Assistant District Attorney. Sporting a mustache, which he would keep for the rest of his life, Cleveland was known as a man of honesty and integrity. When he was Governor and a bill came to his desk that would have violated a contract the State had entered into with an elevated railway company but would have reduced fare from ten cents to five cents, he vetoed the bill because he “must be as jealous of the State’s honor as careful of the taxpayers’ money.”[v] His father was a Presbyterian minister, his grandfather had been a watchmaker, and Cleveland was no stranger to hard work himself; when he moved to Buffalo with his mother after his father died, Cleveland worked several jobs while studying law and gained admission to the bar within two years.[vi] But, as often occurs, the rhetoric in the election of 1884 would extend beyond the merits and the political issues: it came up that Cleveland had either fathered a child out of wedlock (or had “accepted that he very likely might have”) and brought on taunts of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” on the campaign trail.[vii] Cleveland still had his honesty and dignity though. And the Democrats, taking the temperature of voters, knew that Blaine’s dealings with the railroads could be a much more powerful theme than Cleveland’s private life. Mark Twain did not disagree: as to Cleveland’s flaw, he noted, “To see grown men, apparently in their right mind, seriously arguing against a bachelor’s fitness for President because he has had private intercourse with a consenting widow!”[viii]
Arguing over a bachelor’s fitness for office aside, Republicans were concerned about the chances of winning the election. Even though many in the South had a fondness for the party’s ideals, the party could not protect the right to vote; particularly for black Southerners.[ix] Republicans could afford to lose the South, even overwhelmingly, but margins in the North were slim and could make the difference. Republicans’ “endorsement of the anti-Chinese legislation” brought “California and Nevada” to favor the party, but the election would come down to “New Jersey, Connecticut, Indiana, and New York” and, of those, New York carried the most weight.[x] The parties “waged what was the last of the full-fledged national ‘hurrah’ campaigns, which were less about issues than stimulating party, ethnic, sectional, and religious loyalties and ensuring turnout.”[xi] And turnout would indeed be high: 77.5%. But if winning New York was the hinge for electoral success, then a tactician would have the advantage. Cleveland had one proven tactic: his supporter, Edwin Godkin of the New York Post, harked back to the election of 1872. Recognizing that a career in or near politics, such as Blaine’s and Horace Greeley’s (which culminated in running for President in the election of 1872), requires going on the record for issues many times, Godkin gathered a list of “contradictory statements” issued by Blaine and printed them “in adjoining columns” of his newspaper.[xii] In the election of 1872, many readers could see that Greeley—running against Grant—had postured himself all over the place over the years; when he lost the election, many were still left wondering what the man believed in. Cleveland and his allies hoped they could do the same to Blaine.
And Blaine would end up helping his adversary. When Blaine attended a “dinner with his millionaire backers” at Delmonico’s in Lower Manhattan, it became the talk of the campaign as it was a who’s who of magnates and the “reigning figures of American finance and corporate capitalism”: “Gould, Carnegie, John Jacob Astor, Chauncey Depew, H.M. Flagler, D.O. Mills, Cyrus Field.”[xiii] When the menu for the dinner got leaked to the press, the extravagance only further demonstrated the yawning wealth gap between his friends and the average American. Even Roscoe Conkling, the former United States Senator and Representative, “refused to campaign for Blaine, saying that although he was a lawyer, he did not ‘engage in criminal practice.’”[xiv]
In the end, Cleveland edged out Blaine in New York—and thus narrowly won the election. Anything, or nothing, could have made the difference in putting him across the finish line, but no matter: Cleveland’s win put Democrats back in the White House. Many Republicans were crestfallen. Certain party members had at least identified the tragic violence and voter suppression unfolding in the South even if Blaine did not run on those tragedies for fear of alienating voters he thought he could convert.[xv] Some in the media found Cleveland to be unprepared for the office of the President, including Horace White of the New York Evening Post who found Cleveland’s “grasp of national issues extremely defective” and another journalist who found Cleveland “curiously ignorant of federal questions and politics.”[xvi] But the electorate, perhaps with the help of Mugwump Republicans—those Republicans who were opposed to political corruption and thus found Blaine reprehensible—had chosen Cleveland, and his administration would begin implementing his policies of “economy, honesty, efficiency, the gold standard, and tariff reduction.”[xvii] He had brought those virtues to his mayoral and gubernatorial stints, and he had won those elections with support from Republicans as well—before the coining of the term Mugwump. Cleveland would bring honesty and transparency to the federal government at a time when those principles were scarce, but he had promised to protect “the freedmen in their rights”; neither Cleveland nor Democrats would honor that promise in the remainder of the century.[xviii] The gravity of that failure would change as subsequent generations pulled apart the facts and documents of the Cleveland era, sometimes letting their contemporary values unfairly color their understanding of the time and its people. Perhaps proximity makes the difference: when Cleveland died, in 1908, Harper’s Weekly proudly proclaimed that Cleveland remained America’s third best President.
[i] See Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 469.
[ii] See id.
[iii] Id. at 470.
[v] Harper’s Weekly, July 4, 1908, Vol. LII, No. 2689, p. 8.
[vii] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 471.
[viii] Id. (citing W.D. Howells to W.C. Howells, Nov. 9, 1884, in Howells, Selected Letters, 3: 107-08, 113).
[ix] See Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 471.
[x] Id. at 472.
[xiii] Id. at 473.
[xiv] Id. at 474.
[xv] See id.
[xvi] Id. at 474-75.
[xvii] Id. at 475.