Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

James G. Blaine,
the Plumed Knight of Republicanism

It was a memorable scene that took place in the Republican National Convention of 1876, when Robert G. Ingersoll, an orator of skill and power, rose to present the name of James G. Blaine as a candidate for the Presidency. Referring to Blaine's brilliant attack on those who had accused him of wrongdoing, the orator said:

"Like an armed warrior, like a plumed knight, James G. Blaine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen forehead of the defamers of his country and the maligners of his honor. For the Republican party to desert this gallant leader now is as though an army should desert their general upon the field of battle."

From this speech Blaine became known as the "Plumed Knight," a title of honor that clung to him as long as he lived. At that time he had been in Congress for thirteen years, having entered it in 1863, in the very heat of the Civil War.

Blaine was a Pennsylvanian by birth, though for most of his life he was a citizen of Maine. He was long known as the "Man from Maine," as Henry Clay, the Virginian, with whom he was often compared, was known as the "Man from Kentucky." But Blaine's birthplace was in Washington County, Pennsylvania, where he was born on January 31, 1830, and lived until his days of manhood.

When about eleven years of age young Blaine was sent to the home of his uncle, Thomas Ewing, then Secretary of the Treasury, at Lancaster, Ohio. William T. Sherman, the great general of later times, had lived with Mr. Ewing a few years before. His house was frequented by statesmen and politicians, and during the year or two that the boy stayed there the conversation he heard must have been excellent early training for his future career. He returned home in 1843, and entered Washington College, where he made a good mark as a scholar, always showing up well in his classes.

He preferred logic and mathematics, though history and literature were favorite studies, and his memory was so fine that it is said he could repeat from recollection many of the chapters in "Plutarch's Lives." As another example of his retentive memory, it is said that when anxious to be elected president of the literary society of the college, he made himself familiar with the whole of "Cushing's Manual "in one evening, that he might know the rules of order in acting as president. He early made himself a leader among the college boys, and in debate he stood at their head. The great power which he was afterwards to show as an orator was thus early displayed.

Blaine's first position in life was as a teacher in the Western Military Institute, at Blue Lick Springs, Kentucky. Here he did very well as a young teacher, making himself highly popular with the boys, with whom he was friendly and confidential from the first. He knew the whole of them by name, and knew also in what each of them was weak or strong. He is said to have been at this time a thin, handsome, earnest young man, with the same fascinating manners that remained with him throughout his life.

At this place Blaine met a young lady from Maine, named Harriet Stanwood, whom he soon afterwards married. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1851, when twenty-one years of age, and there obtained a position as teacher of science and literature in the Institution for the Blind at Philadelphia.

For two years he remained there, engaged in teaching the blind, and then, at the solicitation of his wife, who wished to return to her native State, he *left Pennsylvania for Maine. He made Augusta his home, and from teaching turned to oratory and editorship, as fields better fitted to win him a successful career. He became in 1854 part owner of a newspaper, the Kennebec Journal, on which he served as editor, writing in a trenchant style that soon made itself felt. The Journal was one of the organs of the Whig party, and already had considerable influence. Its new editor speedily added to this, and in a few years became a leading spirit in Maine politics.

When the Whig party went to pieces, Blaine took an active part in organizing in Maine the new Republican party. He entered into this with the energy of youth and conviction. His life in Kentucky had made him an enemy of the slave system, and he engaged ardently in the conflict between freedom and slavery, which was now growing intense. His clear discussion of this vital subject added greatly to the influence of his paper and his personal standing in the party.

He had not yet become widely known as a public speaker, but was soon to make his mark. In 1856 the new Republican party held its first national convention at Philadelphia. Blaine, as one of the party leaders in Maine, was sent as a delegate, and on his return reported the proceedings of the convention at a public meeting. It was his first appearance before a large audience, and he began to speak in a timid and hesitating way. But as her warmed up he grew confident and broke out into fervid speech, and before he ended had proved his native power in oratory and won himself a sure place upon the rostrum.

He began the real work of his life, that in which he was to become eminent, in 1858, as a member of the legislature of Maine. Here he soon distinguished himself as a hard worker and fine speaker, and during two of his three years there served as Speaker of the House, doing so in an impartial and dignified manner that won him great popularity in the State.

The second national convention of the Republican party, that memorable Chicago meeting which nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency, was held in 1860, and as before Mr. Blaine attended it as a delegate. On his return he plunged ardently into the campaign for Lincoln's election, speaking with such warm eloquence that he was called for on all sides. "Send us Blaine!" was the appeal of every committee that wanted a speaker. He had changed his place of residence to Portland and became editor of the Portland Advertiser.

Blaine was growing too important to be buried in a State legislature, and in 1862 he was elected to Congress, in which he was to remain during much of his later life. A believer in Lincoln, and his earnest supporter, he became a confidential friend and adviser of the great War President, worked vigorously for his re-election in 1864, and was a sincere mourner of him after his terrible death.

He continued a member of the House during the stormy reconstruction period following the Civil War, and was one of the most prominent among those in opposition to President Johnson. An expert in political matters and management, and a ready and fearless debater, he worked his way steadily to positions on important committees, and became a prominent factor in all the important legislation of the time. Brilliant and impulsive, with a wonderful memory of persons, facts, and faces, he was rapidly surging to the head, and when Thaddeus Stevens died took his place as the Republican leader of the House. In 1869, after Schuyler Colfax, the Speaker, was made Vice-President, Blaine was chosen Speaker, and highly distinguished himself in this capacity by his thorough knowledge of parliamentary rules, his firmness, quickness, and impressive manner in the chair.

He was looked upon as one of the great speakers of the House, always courteous and fair and especially rapid in the discharge of his duties. It was one of the sights of the times for visitors to see the rapidity and accuracy with which Speaker Blaine counted a standing House for the ayes and noes. He continued in this post for three terms, but in 1875 the Democrats gained a majority in the House for the first time after 1860, and his career as Speaker came to an end.

During the period of his Speakership the long dominance of the Republican party had brought many men of doubtful integrity to the front, and various scandals were developed within Grant's second term. This was the period of the "Credit Mobilier," the "Whisky Ring," and other frauds, and in the investigation that followed there was hardly a man in Congress who was not accused of being in some way implicated in these shady transactions. Blaine was too prominent to escape. Several charges were brought against him, the severest being that he had been bribed with a gift of Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad bonds. All these charges he disproved in an indignant speech on the floor of the House, in which he showed that he had bought and paid for the bonds and had lost $20,000 by the transaction. After showing the falsity of the charge against him, he exclaimed:

"Having now noticed the two charges that have been so extensively circulated, I shall refrain from calling the attention of the House to any others that may be invented. To quote the language of another, ` I do not propose to make my public life a perpetual and uncomfortable flea-hunt, in the vain effort to run down stories which have no basis in truth, which are usually anonymous, and whose total refutation brings no punishment to those who have been guilty of originating them."

This was the speech to which Ingersoll referred when he spoke of Blaine as a "plumed knight "in the Republican National Convention of 1876. But the charges hurt him before the convention, and Hayes was nominated by 384 votes, Blaine receiving 351, On every ballot but the last he had received the highest number of votes, though not a majority of all the candidates. In the same year Blaine was appointed by the Governor of Maine to the United States Senate to fill a vacancy, and in the subsequent meeting of the legislature was unanimously elected. While this was a great compliment, the Senate was not well suited to his energetic and vehement type of oratory, yet he continued to debate party questions urgently and to perform diligent committee work.

When the nominating convention of 1880 came round Blaine was again a leading candidate, but General Grant and John Sherman were also strongly sustained, and a deadlock ensued which was only broken by the selection of a "dark horse "candidate in General Garfield, who was nominated in spite of his earnest protests. On taking his seat, the new President at once called upon Blaine to fill the chief place in his Cabinet as Secretary of State.

It was a position for which he was well fitted, but the assassin's bullet that struck down the President made his term in this office very brief. While the lamented Garfield lay slowly dying, Blaine performed all the duties of his office. When the sad drama closed at the grave of Garfield in Cleveland, Blaine was much the worse for his arduous duties. He remained in the Cabinet long enough to invite all the American republics to join in a Peace Congress at Washington, but soon after resigned and retired to private life.

On the 27th of February, 1882, he delivered in the hall of the House of Representatives one of the greatest orations of his life, his pathetic eulogy of the late President, before an audience of the most distinguished character. He was listened to with breathless attention as he bore touching tribute to the virtues and abilities of his dead friend, and ended with a passage of sublime beauty which held the audience spellbound with approval and admiration. A solemn hush fell upon the assembly as these impressive words were spoken, and all present felt that they had listened to one of the greatest oratorical efforts of history.

When, in 1884, another national convention was held, it was the general feeling that Blaine's nomination was a sure conclusion. So it proved; he was triumphantly nominated, and the convention adjourned. He had risen from the humble station of an obscure editorship to the choice of one of the great parties of the country, the party which had been triumphant in every Presidential election since 1860. Blaine had every reason to look for election. His position was in a measure like that of Henry Clay in 1844, but a far more virulent personal attack was made upon him than any one thought of bringing against Clay. In the end, however, a trivial incident led to his defeat. In the last week of the campaign he was visited at his hotel in New York by a delegation of clergymen, of whom the Rev. Dr. Burchard was the spokesman. The latter, after some appropriate words, made the glaring mistake of his life, saying: "We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion."

This alliteration of the "three R's "defeated Blaine. The Democrats took quick advantage of it, circulating widely the scandal that Blaine was a declared enemy of the Roman Catholic Church. The effect was fatal. Enough votes were lost in New York State to give a Democratic majority of about one thousand votes. Elsewhere the election was so close as to give New York the casting vote, and thus, because an insignificant clergyman pleased himself by getting off what he thought a telling phrase, Blaine's hopes of the Presidency went down in defeat.

During the administration of President Cleveland Mr. Blaine remained in private life, part of his time being spent in European travel, part in literary work. It was during this interval that he wrote his highly valuable "Twenty Years in Congress," a work which admirably supplements Benton's "Thirty Years' View." He made up his mind not to run again for the Presidency, and in 1888 positively declined a nomination. As a consequence, Benjamin Harrison was nominated, and Blaine resumed under him his old office of Secretary of State. One of the most important things done by him was to bring about that meeting of the American republics which he had worked for in 1881. This conference, called the Pan American, was held in 1889, and was an important step in the interest of American unity. Illness obliged him to resign from the Cabinet in 1892, and he died January 27, 1893.

Thus passed away one of America's greatest legislators. Chauncey M. Depew has said of him: "He will stand in our history as the ablest parliamentarian and most skilful debater of our Congressional history, He had an unusual combination of boundless audacity with infinite tact. No man during his active career disputed with him his hold upon the popular imagination and his leadership of his party. He has left no successor who possesses, in any degree such as he possessed it, the affection and the confidence of his followers."