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The Great Debates – James Blaine (1830-1893)
James G. Blaine was a politician from Maine who first served in the Maine House of Representatives and then moved to the federal stage, where he became Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, a United States Senator, Secretary of State and Republican nominee for President. Nicknamed “the Magnetic Man,” Blaine was one of the leaders of the Republican Party during the late 19th Century and one of the great debaters.
Early Life and Rise in Politics
Blaine was born in Western Pennsylvania. His father was a Whig party supporter and his great grandfather was Ephraim Blaine, who served as a Commissary-General under General Washington. Blaine’s mother was Irish Catholic and Blaine’s parents brought their daughters up Catholic and their sons, including Blaine, Presbyterian.
Blaine enrolled in Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College) at the age of thirteen, graduating four years later near the top of his class. Blaine considered attending law school but decided to get a job. He was hired at Western Military Institute as a professor of math and ancient languages, and married a teacher, Harriet Stanwood, on June 30, 1850. In 1852, Blaine took a job at the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind (now Overbrook School for the Blind). In 1853, Blaine left teaching to become editor and co-owner of the Kennebec Journal, a strong supporter of the Whigs. Upon that party’s demise, Blaine turned his attention to the newly formed Republican Party.
In 1856, Blaine was elected to the first Republican National Committee. In 1858, Blaine made his first run for an elected position, winning his race for the Maine House of Representatives and winning each of his reelection efforts in 1859, 1860 and 1861, winning a healthy majority of the vote. In 1859, Blaine also became chairman of the Maine Republican state committee. In 1861 and 1862, Blaine was elected Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.
In 1862, Blaine successfully ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives, one of the few Republicans to win in the midterm elections. In the 1860s, those elected in an even year began their actual congressional duties the following December. In his first term, Blaine was relatively quiet. Blaine advocated for the commutation provision contained in the military draft law, and he also made a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would have permitted the government to impost an export tax.
Blaine won reelection in 1864 and that Congress focused primarily on Reconstruction. Blaine took the position that the Fourteenth Amendment required three-fourths of the states that had not seceded, losing the argument to the majority who agreed that it required three-fourths of all states. Blaine did vote in favor of harsh measures on the South but voted against a bill barring Southerners from attending the United States Military Academy. When the House voted on the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, Blaine voted in favor of impeaching the president.
Blaine was a strong advocate for the strength of the dollar, rejecting the efforts to issue additional greenbacks to pay interest on pre-war bonds. In 1869, Blaine was elected Speaker of the House, winning unanimous Republican support. Blaine was elevated to the position in part because of his strong parliamentary skills and President Ulysses S. Grant thought he was a skillful leader. Blaine served six years in the Speaker role. During the 1872 campaign, rumors and accusations were leveled against Blaine that he had received bribes in the Credit Mobilier scandal, charges that were never proven but continued to haunt Blaine.
On February 4, 1875, after much debate and great watering down of its contents, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 passed the House by a vote of 162 to 99. Speaker Blaine worked hard and cooperated with President Grant to get the act through the House.
In December 1875, Blaine proposed a joint resolution, the Blaine Amendment, to address the separation of church and state by prohibiting direct federal government aid to religiously affiliated educational institutions. The bill followed a speech by President Grant at a veterans meeting. The Amendment would have been an amendment to the United States Constitution. Despite Blaine’s efforts, which were successful in the House, by a vote of 180 to 7, the bill failed in the United States Senate by four votes. It never became law at the federal level, but 38 of the 50 state constitutions in the United States contain versions of the Amendment.
Blaine was considered a favorite for the 1876 Republican presidential nomination, but a scandal involving railroad bonds emerged. Blaine denied the accusations and was believed until some letters were discovered. Blaine was able to reclaim the letters, but the damage was done. Although Blaine was nominated at the Republican convention and referred to as “an armed warrior, like a plumed knight,” he lost to Rutherford B. Hayes.
In 1876, Blaine was appointed by Maine Governor Seldon Connor to a vacant Senate seat. Blaine served five years but did not have any significant leadership role. In 1880, Blaine was again nominated at the convention, but lost to Garfield. In 1881, President Garfield nominated Blaine to Secretary of State, which he accepted.
Blaine eventually was the Republican nominee in 1884 but lost to Grover Cleveland.
Blaine had influence during Reconstruction in his role as Speaker of the House and was a leader of the newly formed Republican Party for many years but fell into obscurity not long after his death in 1893. His most lasting contribution might be the Blaine Amendment, which many states adopted, and which laws are now being reviewed as part of the current discussion of school vouchers and impact of the tax reform bill.
Dan Cotter is a partner at Latimer LeVay Fyock LLC and an adjunct professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is in the process of writing a book on the seventeen Chief Justices. He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.
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