The election of 1884 was the first to put a Democrat in the White House since the Civil War. That it did, albeit narrowly was a testament to the way even the earliest stages of industrialization had transformed the country, setting it on the road to something far removed from its, rural, agricultural, protestant roots.
The winner of the contest, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, was a reform-minded, anti-corruption Democrat whose successful battles with New York City’s Tammany Hall machine gave him a national platform. In many ways, though, he was an accidental victor, a beneficiary of the discord within the Republican Party that had been festering for some time.
The GOP had not lost the White House since 1860. Beginning with the administration of President Ulysses Grant in 1868, it began to acquire a corrupt aspect that impinged on its credibility with the voters. In 1876 Republican Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden, but thanks to what some termed a “grand bargain,” the votes of enough Southern electors were flipped to the Hayes column to give him the presidency in exchange for his agreeing to pull the Union Army out of the South and end reconstruction.
The circumstances surrounding his elevation to the nation’s highest office led Hayes to pledge he would only serve one term. He was succeeded by James Garfield, another reformer whose views on racial equality were perhaps superior to Lincoln’s. His life was cut short by an assassin, Charles Guiteau, who was deluded enough to believe he would be rewarded for his treachery with a position in government by the so-called regular Republicans or “Stalwarts” whom Garfield had beaten to win the nomination and who were brought back into power by the assentation of one of their own, Vice President Chester A. Arthur to the presidency.
The 1884 GOP nominee, former House Speaker, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State James G. Blaine was considered by some to be a liberal reformer in the mold of several of his predecessors. Others, noting he had been linked to at least two financial scandals involving railroads over the course of his long political career, saw him as a continuation of the corrupt politics of the Stalwarts despite the fact none of the charges against him were ever proven. The latter belief gave rise during the election to a faction known as the “Mugwumps,” a group of prominent Republicans who, claiming to put morality before party threw in with Cleveland. Together they delighted in referring to him as “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine – Continental Liar from the State of Maine.”
None of this particularly relates to the constitutional questions at stake in the election, but it is necessary to understand the national landscape in order to see how the issue of religious tolerance, a core value at the nation’s founding, had the impact on the race it eventually did.
Prior to leaving the speakership, but before entering the Senate, Blaine worked with Grant advocating for a free public education for the nation’s children. This is a matter on which the Constitution is silent; even today many reputable scholars suggest it is a matter best left to the states under the 10th Amendment – but the two men pushed ahead anyway.
Blaine, seeing an opportunity to both make himself more prominent and to help draw attention away from the scandals enveloping the Grant Administration, proposed what has become known as “The Blaine Amendment” – a resolution that supposedly codified the separation of church and state by prohibiting any federal money or other support for schools to go to those “under the control of any religious sect.”
Congress never approved the measure but a number of states adopted similar laws still on the books today, their constitutionality affirmed by the courts. These laws, known in some circles as “Mini Blaine Amendments” are still being challenged – only this time those arguing against them are supporters of the right of parents to send their children to schools of their choosing. The idea of education vouchers is in part an invention to get around the strictures of these state laws.
Whether the separation of church and state argument will continue to hold where public education is concerned is not clear. What is clear is that his support of it more than 100 years ago made Blaine a hero of sorts to Protestants fearful of the changes the influx of largely Catholic immigrants from Europe might bring to America who, as a result, rallied to the Republicans’ side. To those potentially affected adversely by these measures, however, it branded Blaine as anti-Catholic.
All this came to a head late in the campaign when a visible Blaine supporter, a New York Presbyterian minister named Samuel Burchard gave a speech denouncing the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The phrase, which he meant to apply to most all recent immigrants, not just the Irish was meant to create a fear they were all drunkards whose allegiance was to the Pope and were ready to overthrow the United States government in favor of one that took its orders from the Vatican.
Even for 1884, a time when YouTube, Twitter, Facebook did not exist, the slur spread quickly. In the end it probably cost the Republicans New York, which they lost by about 1,000 votes, and sent the already shaky Blaine campaign down to defeat in the Electoral College by a vote of 219 to 182. Cleveland carried 20 states to Blaine’s 18 as the Democrats won 4,914,482 ballots in the popular vote to the Republican’s 4,856,905 – a difference of just 0.6 percent.
The inability of politicians to decide on the meaning of the 1st Amendment’s “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses as well as their ability or inability to enact laws that help immigrants assimilate into the national culture are constitutional questions that were issues in 1884 and are still with us today. There is, however, another element unique to this particular election worth noting as it was a leaping off point for a different constitutional debate that would not be settled for almost a quarter century.
Though the 14th Amendment expanded the franchise by guaranteeing the right of black men to vote, the Constitution and many state laws were still silent on the subject giving the vote to women. Unhappy with the lack of progress they were making on women’s suffrage in 1884 a group of women established the Equal Rights Party. Its main objective: Secure for women the right to vote.
In San Francisco the new party nominated a lawyer named Belva Ann Lockwood – “I cannot vote but I can be voted for” – as its presidential candidate. Marietta Snow, first woman to ever preside over a presidential nominating convention, was chosen as her running mate.
The party had no money. Lockwood reportedly subsidized her campaign activity by giving paid speeches. She won just over 4,000 votes – hardly enough to sway even as close an election as 1884’s turned out to be. Lockwood will be, however, forever remembered as a constitutional pioneer whose efforts help ultimately produce the adoption and ratification in 1920 of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing the right of women to vote.
Peter Roff, a member of Constituting America’s advisory board, is a U.S. News and World Report contributing editor and a commentator appearing on the One America News Network. He lives in Washington. DC.