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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #75: Continental Liar from the State of Maine, James G. Blaine

Complete with plume.

Federal government in the United States of the 19th century was an overwhelmingly Congressional exercise. Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln aside, the vast majority of energy came from the legislative branch. Clay, Calhoun, Webster, Stevens, Reed. The presidents between Lincoln and McKinley are largely forgotten by most. (I once won a free pass on a history test in college by accepting the challenge to name all of what the professor termed the "cough drop box" presidents from 1865 to 1901. True story.) They probably shouldn't be - Garfield, for instance, was a singular human being who could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other simultaneously. At a time when I'd settle for a president who could write coherently with one hand in one language, that's impressive.

Anyway, one of the characters emerging from this era of congressional dominance was James G. Blaine. The Plumed Knight represented Maine in the US House from 1863-76, several of those as Speaker, and the US Senate from 1869-75. He was later Secretary of State under Garfield and Harrison, and ran for President in 1876 and 1880 before earning the Republican nomination in 1884. That campaign against Democrat Grover Cleveland is one of the more interesting elections in American history. It featured one candidate (Cleveland) who had an impeccable public reputation and somewhat sordid personal affairs against the other (Blaine) with unimpeachable personal integrity and a record of public corruption. Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock, while Blaine was notoriously in the pockets of the railroads. At the end of the campaign, the voters chose the public over the private, though only just - Cleveland defeated Blaine 219-182 in the Electoral College, with the popular vote a scant 48.9-48.3%. In New York only a thousand votes separated the candidates, and a different result there would have flipped the national result. (A thousand votes. Sigh.)

Blaine had his flaws - scandal about railroad bribes dogged him throughout an otherwise fascinating career. His terms as Secretary of State augured a more internationalist footing by the US, paving the way for the coming imperialist era. He also authored the Blaine Amendment of 1875 which read:

"No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations."

The Blaine Amendment passed the House but not the Senate, and it wouldn't be until the 1940s that the First Amendment-based separation of church and state was deemed to apply to states as well as the federal government. (Take note, voucher apologists...)

Of the nine men nominated by Republicans from 1860 to 1912, Blaine was the only one who never became President, contributing to the relative obscurity of the man who some historians consider an affable Nixon (likely an unfair legacy). Blaine was more than an also-ran, and more than a scandal-plagued fallen idol. But as Shakespeare tells us in Julius Casear, "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones."

Burn this letter.

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