The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Blaine, James Gillespie

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BLAINE, James Gillespie, American statesman: b. West Brownsville, Pa., south of Pittsburgh, 31 Jan. 1830; d. Washington, D. C., 27 Jan. 1893. His father was a Presbyterian of Scotch-Irish blood; his mother was a Catholic. He was a lad of quick action and good memory, who excelled in spelling matches and debates. He began the study of law but he never practised. For about two years he was professor in the Western Military Institute at Georgetown, Ky., and there he acquired a taste for political life. We next get a glimpse of him in Philadelphia as a teacher and contributor to the Daily Inquirer of that city. As a youth of 21 he became part owner of the Kenebec Journal, published in Augusta, Me. His work on this journal gained him a vast influence and he quickly made his mark in Maine politics. The governor sent him on a mission to examine the prisons and penitentiaries of other States, with a view to the improvement of those of Maine; and he was a delegate to the Republican convention at Philadelphia which nominated Frémont. His renown as an orator and as a party organizer was now widespread. In 1858 he was elected a member of the Maine Legislature, and soon became speaker of the House. In 1862 he was returned to Congress where his mastery of parliamentary law and his eloquence in debate soon won him distinction. The Civil War was still raging, but fortune was beginning to declare unmistakably for the North. Blaine's name is not conspicuously written in any history of the war, but he was among the foremost in directing the policy and details of Reconstruction. Blaine was a born member of Congress. His vigor, acumen, readiness, and unfailing energy marked him out as a party leader. He was elected speaker of the House of Representatives in 1869 — an office which he held till 1874 — a period of almost unequalled length. On all hands it was admitted that in that difficult position he displayed rare talents and judgment. Since Henry Clay there had been no more successful speaker. His history for 10 years is really the history of Congress. He served on all the principal committees. He spoke often, and always with effect. Never was his ability questioned; unfortunately his integrity was assailed on an occasion which cannot be passed over in any truthful biographical notice of Mr. Blaine. In 1876 an investigation by the Committee of the House of Representatives brought to light certain letters — famous “Mulligan Letters,” written by him in 1869, when he was speaker of the House. We need not set out the text of these much controverted letters, or revive a controversy now forgotten. It is enough to say that they contained expressions open to various interpretations and which demanded explanation. The genuineness of these letters was not disputed, but over their signification all politicians, the press and the general public were greatly divided. It was urged by Mr. Blaine's friends that the matter was absurdly magnified and distorted by those who resented his free, fearless speech. On 5 June 1876 Mr. Blaine read the letters before the House, making explanations of them one by one. He defeated his opponents in the debate immediately following, and to all appearances clearly exonerated himself of all wrong-doing. But the effect throughout the land was immense and even in his own party many influential members lost their faith in him. This was made manifest when his candidacy was put forward at the Convention of 1876, where, though he held the field for several ballots, he was in the end defeated by Rutherford Hayes of Ohio, by only a small majority. Senator Morrill of Maine becoming Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Blaine was chosen senator for the unexpired term, and the following winter for the full term. He opposed the electoral commission on the ground that Congress was conferring powers beyond its own; opposed Hayes' withdrawal of the troops that upheld the carpet-bag governments; opposed the Bland Silver Bill and the adoption of the gold standard alike, believing bimetallism feasible and preferable; advocated ship subsidies, and rigid prohibition of Chinese immigration. In 1880 the attempt at a third term for Grant was defeated by the Blaine forces, who gave him 284 votes on the first ballot; but after six days and 35 ballots, seeing that Blaine could not be nominated, united with the Sherman party to nominate Garfield, by 399 to Grant's 306. Blaine became Secretary of State, and in his short tenure he planned a Pan-American Congress, attempted mediation between victorious Chile and crushed Peru, and attempted to induce England to consent to a modification of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. The assassination of Garfield, and the accession of Arthur, the lieutenant of Blaine's mortal enemy, Roscoe Conkling, made his place untenable and he retired from President Arthur's cabinet in December 1881. Then came what for Mr. Blaine was a period of inactivity and of seclusion in his home at Augusta, varied by writing a book in two large volumes entitled ‘Twenty Years In Congress,’ a work of considerable value, issuing the first volume in 1884, in time to do good work conciliating support for the next election. Again the presidential campaign came round, and this time Blaine was nominated at the Chicago Convention. Into the contest, one of the bitterest in United States history, he threw himself with his usual energy. At the election the Independent Republicans deserted Blaine and voted for Cleveland. Blaine was again doomed to disappointment. He missed that which had been the aspiration of his political life. The chief reasons for his defeat were the hostility of Conkling and his followers, the defection of the Independent Republicans, and the fact that, although Blaine was well disposed toward his Catholic fellow countrymen, he had allowed the Rev. Samuel D. Burchard to style the Democratic party “the party of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” After his defeat he issued the second volume of his work (1886), and the next year a volume entired ‘Political Discussions.’ Again a candidate in 1888, he was obliged to withdraw in favor of Harrison, and was made Secretary of State once more; he resumed his Pan-American policy, made a futile attempt to induce Great Britain to join in preserving the seals from extermination, and favored a reciprocity commercial policy which made many of his old opponents draw toward him. He resigned in 1892, in hope of securing the next Republican nomination, but found it out of the question. He died early the following year, of Bright's disease. In the view of Mr. Blaine's many friends he had no rival or second among his countrymen. They spoke, and no doubt with perfect truth, of his generosity in private life; they scouted all suspicion of his integrity, in their eyes he was “the peerless statesman,” uniting the best qualities of Henry Clay, Webster, Sumner and Henry Wilson. Still, in spite of the warmth and multitude of his friends, he had to endure the distrust — perhaps exaggerated and unjust, but deep-rooted and lasting — of a large number of his countrymen, who persisted in viewing him as the representative of a type of politician with which they would fain forever have done. Abroad his policy was not always thought well of; and his most searching critics, his relentless enemies, were certain members, and not the least honorable or powerful, of the Republican party. Consult the biography by his kinswoman, Gail Hamilton (Norwich 1895); also the biography by Stanwood (Boston 1905); id., ‘History of the Presidency’ (ib., 1898); Conwell, ‘Life and Public Service of James G. Blaine’ (Muskegon 1884); Crawford, ‘James G. Blaine’ (Philadelphia 1893); Peck, Harry Thurston, ‘Twenty Years of the Republic’ (New York 1906-13); id., ‘American Party Leaders’ (ib., 1914); Varigny, ‘Les Etats — Unis’ (Paris 1892).