James Gillespie Blaine (1830-1893) was the nearest thing to a political idol in a politically uninspiring era, serving in Congress from 1863 to 1881. As secretary of state, he laid the basis for American imperialism.
Of Scotch-Irish descent, James G. Blaine was born in West Brownsville, Pa., on Jan. 31, 1830. His father was a locally prominent officeholder, so Blaine was exposed to political talk—mostly a fierce Whig partisanship—from an early age. Though he was not really the genius that his followers later claimed him to be, Blaine graduated from Washington College in western Pennsylvania at the age of 13 and, soon after, taught at Western Military Institute, Georgetown, Ky. Blaine later maintained that he quit this position because of a growing distaste for Southern society, but this seems a politically convenient hindsight. In fact, Blaine wanted to study law, and a teaching position at an institute for the blind in Philadelphia provided him the opportunity to do so.
In 1850 Blaine married Harriet Stanwood of Augusta, Maine, and through her made connections which, 4 years later, took him further east in a curious example, for that time, of reverse migration. In Maine he became editor of a weekly newspaper and, a short time after, manager of the Portland Advertiser, the largest and most influential Whig newspaper in the state. Blaine soon took the paper into the Republican party; he was in fact one of the first Republicans in the state and was a delegate to the first Republican national convention in 1856. In 1858 he was elected to the state legislature and in 1859 was elected chairman of the Republican State Committee, a post he held until 1881, helping to make Maine one of the most solidly Republican states in the nation.
Blaine served as Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives during 1861 and 1862. He was then elected to Congress, where he also served as Speaker from 1869 to 1875. In 1876 he was elected to the Senate from the state of Maine and was also a prominent candidate for his party's nomination as president. This rise in politics was due to his party regularity, in which he never faltered, his driving ambition (he virtually nominated himself as head of the House Republicans upon the death of Thaddeus Stevens), and his high dignity. Blaine was a man of great personal charm who, while he had few intimate friends, claimed a wide circle of devotees willing to stand by and support him to the end. He had few interests outside of politics, but he had numerous gifts that stood him well in the highly personalized political world of the "gilded age." His wit was as sharp in the smoking room as in the Capitol chambers, and he had an incredible memory for names and faces. One contemporary recalled standing with Blaine when a carriage stopped to greet them. "There is a man on that front seat whom I have not seen for twenty-seven years," Blaine said, "and I have got just two minutes and a half to remember his name." He did. Blaine was also known as a man who presided fairly over acrimonious debates in the touchy Reconstruction congresses, thus earning respect from many Democrats as well as from his partisans.
"Mulligan Letters" and Other Suspicions
Blaine hoped to be president in 1876 and was nominated as "the plumed Knight" by Robert Ingersoll in one of the most eloquent nominating speeches in the history of American conventions. But the Republicans were sensitive in that year to charges of political corruption, and Blaine's enemies in the party revived an affair which cast a shadow over his entire career. It had happened in 1869, when as Speaker of the House, Blaine had used his influence to preserve a land grant which the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad had been in danger of losing and, shortly thereafter, had acted as a sales agent for the railroad's bonds, pocketing a generous commission on sales to his Maine friends. The transaction had been recorded in a number of letters which Blaine had managed to secure but which were known to political enemies, who charged him with corruption. In an eloquent and emotional speech before Congress, Blaine quoted selectively from these "Mulligan letters," pleading that he was guilty of no wrongdoing and that he had actually lost money in the affair.
Most Republicans were convinced, but the incident soured the reform wing of the Republican party, which opposed Blaine throughout his career, and the affair provided regularly resuscitated campaign material for the Democrats. In fact, in an age of pervasive political corruption, Blaine's actions had been unexceptional for a man in his position; congressmen and other political leaders regularly received "favors" for services rendered or influence they could exert. But Blaine was more than an ordinary congressman, and he was ambitious to be a great deal more. His connections with the Little Rock Railroad proved to be even more costly than he realized at the time.
Blaine always lived better than his visible means of support seemed to sanction. He had made some money investing in Pennsylvania coal properties in the 1850s but was never an extremely wealthy man. He steadfastly refused to discuss his financial affairs, however, insisting that they were strictly personal.
But the reform wing and the "stalwart" wing of the party, which was dedicated to blatant spoilsmanship, were strong enough in 1876 and 1880 to keep him from the presidential nomination. Finally, in 1884, the stalwarts were discredited and the reform wing was unable to resist Blaine's nomination. Unfortunately, it was not a Republican year and Blaine was narrowly defeated by the Democrat, Grover Cleveland.
Secretary of State
In 1889 Blaine was named secretary of state by President Benjamin Harrison. He had already served briefly in that post under James Garfield. He was a dynamic foreign minister. He pushed an aggressive attitude toward Great Britain and laid the basis for the Pan-Americanism and United States economic penetration of Latin America that would come to fruition later, under his admirer Elihu Root, during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Blaine resigned from Harrison's Cabinet 3 days before the Republican convention in 1892, possibly in hopes of again receiving the party's nomination, but in vain. He was taken ill soon thereafter and, though a lifelong hypochondriac, neglected himself in his final illness. He died at the age of 62 on Jan. 27, 1893.
Further Reading on James Gillespie Blaine
The most comprehensive biography of Blaine is David Saville Muzzey, James G. Blaine: A Political Idol of Other Days (1934). All the standard accounts of the era's politics take note of him. A fair sampling of different points of view would include Matthew Josephson, The Politicos, 1865-1896 (1938); John A. Garraty, The New Commonwealth, 1877-1890 (1968); and H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley (1969).
Additional Biography Sources
Tutorow, Norman E., James Gillespie Blaine and the presidency: a documentary study and source book, New York: P. Lang, 1989.