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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 666

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This is the grave of James Blaine.

Born in 1830 in West Brownsville, Pennsylvania, Blaine grew up fairly well off. Interestingly, his father was Presbyterian and his mother Catholic and they made a deal that the boys would be raised in his faith and the girls in hers. He had a comfortable childhood and went to Washington College (today Washington & Jefferson College) in Washington, Pennsylvania at the tender of age 13. He graduated at the top of his class in 1847.

Blaine thought about going to Yale Law, but instead became a math professor at the Western Military Institute in Georgetown, Kentucky. He married and stayed out there a couple of years before going briefly to his new wife’s family in Augusta, Maine and then to Philadelphia, where Blaine got a job teaching science and literature at a school for the blind. He kept thinking about studying law. But in 1853, his connections in Maine paid off and he got an offer to editor and co-own the Kennebec Journal. Blaine was a staunch Whig, as was his father, and the paper reflected this. It was at this point that Blaine began making his move into politics.

Blaine became an active proponent of the new Republican Party after its founding in 1854. Unlike how the early Republicans are often seen, as abolitionists basically, it was actually heavily divided. Many of the old Whigs were concerned about slavery to some extent, but really only for how it mattered to whites, taking away their chances at free labor and creating a master class of whites that left no room for the midding freeholder to succeed. Blaine was among this more conservative wing and he was not happy with John C. Frémont’ winning the 1856 nomination, preferring the more conservative Supreme Court Justice John McLean. Blaine then ran for the Maine House, winning in 1858 and following that up with three more one-year terms. He then ran for Congress in 1862, winning big on a platform of major federal support for the war effort at a time when that was not real popular.

Blaine was a conservative Republican from the beginning, frequently coming into conflict with the abolitionist wing led by Thaddeus Stevens. However, he was a pretty strong proponent of a tough Reconstruction, placing him pretty close to the Radicals, including in claiming that the South had lost statehood rights and therefore only the northern states should have to ratify the constitutional amendments that came out of the war. He was initially skeptical of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, but voted for it in the end.

Up to this point, Blaine is still a fairly minor figure in the Republican Party. But that would change rapidly during the 1870s. He did so in part by becoming the voice of the hard currency conservatives who hated the greenbacks of the war and wanted to return the nation to a low-inflation, hard-money world, which placed him in opposition to a lot of the abolitionists, plus inflationary politicians such as Benjamin Butler. He won this battle too. This made him a powerhouse and in 1869, Blaine was named Speaker of the House when Schuyler Colfax became vice-president. He was there for three terms, until Democrats won the House in response to the Panic of 1873. He was magnetic and he was effective. And he was corrupt. For those Republicans who did not care about Black rights and were disgusted with Grant, Blaine was on their mind to challenge him for the presidency. He wasn’t that stupid and those guys threw their support behind the ill-fated run of Horace Greeley. But he absolutely was seen as presidential material.

However…Blaine had even fewer scruples than your average Gilded Age hustler politician. He was caught up in the Crédit Mobilier scandal, when Union Pacific execs figured they weren’t making enough money so they set up a shell company to steal money from the railroad and got their politician friends in on the deal, including Colfax, James Garfield, Henry Dawes, Roscoe Conkling, and Blaine. The Speaker almost certainly did take the money, but a crafty operator, he managed to keep out of the investigation that he himself ordered. But Blaine never could keep out of the suspicion of corruption again, particularly given that he was corrupt as all get out.

After he lost the Speaker chair, Blaine turned himself to his goal of becoming president. And he may well have had he kept his hands out of the cookie jar. He was the favorite to replace Grant in 1876 but then word came out that the Union Pacific had paid Blaine $64,000 for some worthless railroad bonds on the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. Democrats smelled blood and launched an investigation. Blaine then secretly acquired the incriminating letters after the House had already discovered their existence and refused to hand them over. Still, he remained the favorite for the nomination because Republicans saw it as a witch hunt and a possible intentional collapse but more likely a small stroke after attending church reinforced that image in Republican papers. But there was enough anti-Blaine sentiment to deny him the nomination, which went to Rutherford B. Hayes.

Maine appointed Blaine to the Senate in 1876. But he was kind of lost there. He didn’t like Hayes, but he also hated Roscoe Conkling who controlled the anti-Hayes faction there. By this time, Blaine had developed some principles around Black rights and opposed Hayes removing troops from the South. It became an irony of the Gilded Age that the most corrupt Republicans tended to be the ones who still supported Black rights and the ones who opposed corruption, all the way up to Theodore Roosevelt, were the most racist. Blaine continued to push his hard-money ways and also began to dabble in foreign policy questions, where he combined high tariff support with a strong dislike of the British.

In 1880, Blaine became the popular choice of those who wanted to deny Grant a third term, as Hayes refused to run again. But again, he could not win a majority and James Garfield was the compromise candidate. But Garfield, knowing he needed to placate his major rivals, named Blaine Secretary of State. He had almost no foreign policy experience except for his Senate dabbling, but at least he took it seriously. He promoted free trade in the Americas to counter British interference and sought to negotiate an end to the horrible War of the Pacific between Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. He was an early imperialist before that was really a thing, pushing for the U.S. to build its own canal through Panama and potentially taking over Hawaii.

Blaine was at Garfield’s side when Charles Guiteau shot the president. Chester Arthur became president and purged all the men close to Garfield from the Cabinet, including Blaine. His tenure at State there lasted less than a year. Despite the loss of Garfield over patronage issues, Blaine despised the principle of civil service reform. He was a man of the political machine, par excellence. But in 1884, he became the Republican candidate for the presidency. Basically, only Blaine could lose for the Republicans in the Gilded Age. The overwhelming evidence of corruption made enough voters go for Cleveland, despite Republicans dropping info about the latter’s illegitimate child, that Blaine lost. But it’s also worth noting–everyone knew he was corrupt but Republicans simply didn’t care. They had no problem with it. When one of Blaine’s supporters said the Democratic platform was “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” with Blaine in the audience and when that went repudiated by the candidate, it was just enough to move the vote to Cleveland. It didn’t help that the very same day as that anti-Catholic speech he didn’t object to, Blaine had dinner at Delmonico’s, the fanciest restaurant in the country, with Jay Gould and other millionaires. The menu itself, consisting of dozens of courses, was used by the Democrats to paint Blaine and the Republicans as out of touch elites, which they surely were. That menu included the Ortolan, the bird that was drowned in Armagnac, roasted, and flambéed and then eaten whole.

Blaine took the role of party elder in the aftermath of his loss. He published his memoirs, which sold well. He took his family for an extended stay in Europe. Blaine supported Benjamin Harrison’s nomination in 1888 and was paid back by a return to State. Mostly, he hung out at Andrew Carnegie’s Scotland castle and it was a telegraph from the steel capitalist announcing Blaine’s support that clinched it for Harrison. Harrison reigned in Blaine’s worst instincts of naming all his friends as subordinates, alienating him, but they mostly agreed on policy questions. Blaine went far to lay the groundwork of American support for the sugar planters to overthrow the monarchy in Hawaii, which happened in 1893. He continued to push for Latin America to tie itself more closely to the U.S., though the Chileans hated him over his interference in the War of the Pacific a decade earlier, which led to the near breaking of relations between the two nations under Harrison.

By 1892, Blaine’s health was getting pretty bad and he stepped down. Still, his supporters wanted him to run for president that year, as no one liked Harrison by that point. He died in Washington in 1893.

James Blaine is buried in Blaine Memorial Park, Augusta, Maine. He was initially buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington and then moved after his home state created what is a nice park for him.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader contributions. Thanks! If you would like this series to visit other losing presidential candidates, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Winfield Scott Hancock is in West Norriton, Pennsylvania and Alton Parker is in Kingston, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

This is the 666th post in this series. I thought about going extra evil for this iconic number, but then I figured the banality of evil that defined Gilded Age politics was good enough and Blaine certainly sums that up.

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