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Blaine, James Gillespie (January 31, 1830 - January 27, 1893)

James G. Blaine was born on a farm near West Brownville, Pennsylvania. Educated for several years in Ohio, he returned to Pennsylvania to attend Washington and Jefferson College. He graduated in 1847 near the top of his class. He taught school in Kentucky and Philadelphia, while studying law in his spare time. In 1854, Blaine moved to Maine where he edited the Kennebec Journal and Portland Advertiser and became one of the founders of the Republican party in his adopted state. He served in the state legislature (1859 -1862), the latter two years as speaker, then represented Maine in the U. S. House of Representatives (1863 -1876), including three terms as speaker (1869 -1875).

In 1876, Blaine was the leading presidential candidate going into the Republican National Convention. His chances were undermined by revelations in the "Mulligan Letters" which implicated him in graft involving railroad companies. He lost the nomination to dark-horse candidate Rutherford B. Hayes. It was at this convention that the nickname "Plumed Knight" was bestowed on Blaine in a nominating speech by Robert Ingersoll. Shortly after the convention, Blaine resigned his congressional seat to become Maine’s junior U.S. senator, serving until 1881.

In the Senate, Blaine was an ardent, vocal supporter of Chinese exclusion. He believed that the Chinese laborers immigrating to the American West Coast were a servile class of workers, little better than slaves, who were lowering the standard of living for all free laborers. In his opinion, it was the Chinese government that had violated the Burlingame Treaty by failing to ensure that their emigrants came to America voluntarily rather than as part of an exploited labor force. He also claimed that it was less costly for a Chinese worker to immigrate to the West Coast than for an American to migrate there from the eastern United States. Critics charged that Blaine was merely trying to gain support on the West Coast to boost his presidential chances. William Lloyd Garrison asserted that the Senator from Maine had "barter[ed] his manhood for a prospective mess of pottage," and political cartoonist Thomas Nast vilified him as the leading eastern proponent of exclusion. Blaine’s stance on the issue, though, was solidly mainstream and probably gained him little political capital.

In 1880, Blaine was again a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination but lost to another dark-horse, James Garfield. President Garfield named Blaine to the post of Secretary of State, but he resigned in December 1881, a few months after Garfield’s assassination. In retirement, Blaine wrote memoirs of his public life, published in two volumes (1884 and 1886) as Twenty Years of Congress.

In 1884, Blaine was finally selected as the Republican presidential nominee. Because of his alleged corruption, opposition to civil service reform, and reckless foreign policy views, an influential group of independent Republicans (called "Mugwumps") broke off from the Republican party to support Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland. The tumultuous campaign ended with Cleveland narrowly defeating Blaine.

In 1888, Blaine was again considered the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, but declined to enter the race. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Blaine Secretary of State again. He chaired the first Pan-American Conference and advocated reciprocal tariff agreements between Latin America and the U.S. In 1892, he resigned his cabinet post in an unsuccessful effort to wrest the Republican presidential nominee from Harrison.

James G. Blaine died in Washington, D. C., on January 27, 1893 and was interred at Oak Hill Cemetery. In 1920, his remains were transferred to Blaine Memorial Park in Augusta, Maine.

Sources consulted:

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (on-line); William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U. S. Presidents (New York: Random House, 1993)

Dictionary of American Biography; Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History

Thomas W. Herringshaw, ed., Prominent Men and Women of the Day (A. B. Gehman & Co., 1888)

David Saville Muzzey, James G. Blaine: A Political Idol of Other Days (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1935)


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