Huston: The Blaine Campaign

December 1, 2016

by Tom Charles Huston

History may not repeat, but it forewarns.

James G. Blaine was the preeminent Republican of his time. Speaker of the House of Representatives, United States Senator, Secretary of State during the brief presidency of James Garfield and unsuccessful candidate for the White House in 1884, Blaine was known by his friends as “the Plumed Knight” and by his enemies as the “Continental Liar from the State of Maine.”

Blaine was an early favorite for a second presidential nomination in 1888 but in the spring of that year he sailed for Europe, casting doubt on his intentions. In a series of public comments often cryptic and hesitant he disclaimed interest in a second run while not ruling out the possibility of a positive response to a draft. As the convening of the Chicago convention approached, he expressed support for the nomination of former Indiana Senator Benjamin Harrison, who was subsequently nominated and elected.

Harrison resolved early on to offer Blaine the position of Secretary of State, although for tactical reasons he kept his intention to himself while he pondered filling the other places in the Cabinet. On Jan. 17, 1889, he tendered the nomination to Blaine in a brief formal note accompanied by a “private and confidential” letter in which the president-elect set forth his foreign policy priorities, his expectations for the State Department and his desire to maintain harmony in the Republican Party and thereby safeguard its electoral prospects. He held the firm view that “continuance of Republican control for a series of presidential terms is essential to the right settlement of some very grave questions.” In pursuit of this harmony, he assured Blaine that the president would do his part: “Each member of my official family will have my full confidence and I shall expect his in return.”

By the winter of 1892 the party bosses in New York and Pennsylvania (Tom Platt and Matt Quay) in collusion with the chairman of the Republican National Committee and with the not-so-covert support of the wife of the Secretary of State were plotting to deny Harrison a second nomination. Their preferred replacement was Secretary Blaine, who was recovering from a serious illness and who seemed congenitally unable to say no to his wife or his friends. For his part, the president was inclined to retire at the end of his term, in no small measure as a consequence of the serious (and ultimately fatal) illness of his wife.

In February, Blaine issued a statement that he was not a candidate for the presidency but which conspicuously failed to endorse the president for a second term. Harrison was offended but said nothing and refused to permit his friends to organize support for his renomination. By early June, with the national convention looming, the Blaine people were hard at work rounding up delegates, Ohio party boss Mark Hanna was plotting to exploit a divided convention to nominate William McKinley, and President Harrison was doing nothing to advance his political interests.

Three days prior to the opening of the national convention in Minneapolis Blaine submitted his resignation as Secretary of State and announced his availability for the nomination. Harrison responded by advising his friends that while he might voluntarily withdraw from the field, no Harrison had ever been driven from it. With his approval, the president’s friends went to work not merely in Minneapolis but across the country where Republican loyalists by the thousands wired their delegates at the convention to support the president against the challenge of the faithless Blaine and the duplicitous McKinley.

The president was renominated on the first ballot stunning the party bosses and vindicating his administration. Blaine was humiliated, as he deserved to be.

Tom Charles Huston, A.B., J.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and an Indianapolis developer, is a former associate counsel to the president of the United States.



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