James G. Blaine

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James G. Blaine : biography

31 January 1830 – 27 January 1893

Blaine took his case to the House floor, proclaiming his innocence and calling the investigation a partisan attack by Southern Democrats, revenge for his exclusion of Jefferson Davis from the amnesty bill of the previous year. By now the pressure had begun to affect Blaine’s health, and he collapsed while leaving church services on June 14. Blaine’s ill health combined with the lack of evidence against him garnered him sympathy among Republicans, and when the Republican convention began in Cincinnati later that month, he was again seen as the front-runner.

Plumed Knight

Though he was damaged by the Mulligan letters, Blaine entered the convention as the favorite. Five other men were also considered serious candidates: Benjamin Bristow, the Kentucky-born Treasury Secretary; Roscoe Conkling, Blaine’s old enemy and now a Senator from New York; Senator Oliver P. Morton of Indiana; Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio; and Governor John F. Hartranft of Pennsylvania. Blaine’s was nominated by Illinois orator Robert G. Ingersoll in what became a famous speech:

The speech was a success and Ingersoll’s appellation of "plumed knight" remained a nickname for Blaine for years to come. On the first ballot, no candidate received the required majority of 378, but Blaine had the most votes, with 285 and no other candidate had more than 125. There were a few vote shifts in the next five ballots, and Blaine climbed to 308 votes, with his nearest competitor at just 111. On the seventh ballot the situation shifted drastically as anti-Blaine delegates began to coalesce around Hayes; by the time the balloting ended, Blaine’s votes had risen to 351, but Hayes surpassed him at 384, a majority.

Blaine received the news at his home in Washington and telegraphed Hayes his congratulations. In the subsequent contest of 1876, Hayes was elected after a contentious compromise over disputed electoral votes. The results of the convention had further effects on Blaine’s political career as Bristow, having lost the nomination, also resigned as Treasury Secretary three days after the convention ended. President Grant selected Senator Lot M. Morrill of Maine to fill the cabinet post, and Maine’s governor, Seldon Connor, appointed Blaine to the now-vacant Senate seat. When the Maine Legislature reconvened that autumn, they confirmed Blaine’s appointment and elected him to the full six-year term that would begin on March 4, 1877.

Notes

Early life

Family and childhood

James G. Blaine was born January 31, 1830 in West Brownsville, Pennsylvania, the third child of Ephraim Lyon Blaine and his wife Maria Gillespie Blaine. Blaine’s father was a western Pennsylvania businessman and landowner, and the family lived in relative comfort. On his father’s side, Blaine was descended from Scotch-Irish settlers who first emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1745. His great-grandfather, Ephraim Blaine, served as a Commissary-General under George Washington in the American Revolutionary War. Blaine’s mother and her forebears were Irish Catholics who emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1780s. Blaine’s parents were married in 1820 in a Roman Catholic ceremony, although Blaine’s father remained a Presbyterian. Following a common compromise of the era, the Blaines agreed that their daughters would be raised in their mother’s Catholic faith while their sons would be brought up in their father’s religion. In politics, Blaine’s father supported the Whig party.

Blaine’s biographers describe his childhood as "harmonious," and note that the boy took an early interest in history and literature. At the age of thirteen, Blaine enrolled in his father’s alma mater, Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College), in nearby Washington, Pennsylvania. There, he was a member of the Washington Literary Society, one of the college’s debating societies. Blaine succeeded academically, graduating near the top of his class and delivering the salutatory address in June 1847. After graduation, Blaine considered attending law school at Yale Law School, but ultimately decided against it, instead moving west to find a job.