James G. Blaine

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James G. Blaine : biography

31 January 1830 – 27 January 1893

Secretary of State, 1881

Foreign policy initiatives

Blaine saw presiding over the cabinet as a chance to preside over the Washington social scene, as well, and soon ordered construction of a new, larger home near Dupont Circle. Although his foreign policy experience was minimal, Blaine quickly threw himself into his new duties. By 1881, Blaine had completely abandoned his protectionist leanings and now used his position as Secretary of State to promote freer trade, especially within the western hemisphere. His reasons were twofold: firstly, Blaine’s old fear of British interference in the Americas was undiminished, and he saw increased trade with Latin America as the best way to keep Britain from dominating the region. Secondly, he believed that by encouraging exports, he could increase American prosperity, and by doing so position the Republican party as the author of that prosperity, ensuring continued electoral success. Garfield agreed with his Secretary of State’s vision and Blaine called for a Pan-American conference in 1882 to mediate disputes among the Latin American nations and to serve as a forum for talks on increasing trade. At the same time, Blaine hoped to negotiate a peace in the War of the Pacific then being fought by Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. Blaine favored a resolution that would not result in Peru yielding any territory, but Chile, which had by 1881 occupied the Peruvian capital, rejected any negotiations that would gain them nothing. Blaine sought to expand American influence in other areas, calling for renegotiation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty to allow the United States to construct a canal through Panama without British involvement, as well as attempting to reduce British involvement in the strategically located Kingdom of Hawaii. His plans for the United States’ involvement in the world stretched even beyond the Western Hemisphere, as he sought commercial treaties with Korea and Madagascar.

Garfield’s assassination

On July 2, 1881, Blaine and Garfield were walking through the Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in Washington when Garfield was shot by an assassin, Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau, a deranged man who had earlier pestered Blaine and other State Department officials to be appointed to ambassadorships for which he was grossly unqualified, believed that by assassinating the President he could ingratiate himself with Vice President Arthur and receive his coveted position. Guiteau was captured immediately and hanged nine months later; he survived longer than Garfield, who lingered for two-and-a-half months, then died on September 19, 1881. Garfield’s death was not just a personal tragedy for Blaine; it also meant the end of his dominance of the cabinet and the end of his foreign policy initiatives. With Arthur’s ascent to the presidency, the Stalwart faction now held sway and Blaine’s days at the State Department were numbered. Arthur asked all of the cabinet members to postpone their resignations until Congress recessed that December; Blaine nonetheless tendered his resignation on October 19, 1881 but agreed to remain in office until December 19, when his successor was in place. Blaine’s replacement was Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Stalwart. Arthur and Frelinghuysen undid much of Blaine’s work, cancelling the call for a Pan-American conference and stopping the effort to end the War of the Pacific, but they did continue the drive for tariff reductions, signing a reciprocity treaty with Mexico in 1882.

Private life

Blaine began the year 1882 without a political office for the first time since 1859. Troubled by poor health, he sought no employment other than the completion of the first volume of his memoir, Twenty Years of Congress. Friends in Maine petitioned Blaine to run for Congress in the 1882 elections, but he declined, preferring to spend his time writing and supervising the move to the new home. His income from mining and railroad investments was sufficient to sustain the family’s lifestyle and to allow for the construction of a vacation cottage, "Stanwood", on Mount Desert Island, Maine, designed by Frank Furness. Blaine appeared before Congress in 1882 during an investigation into his War of the Pacific diplomacy, defending himself against allegations that he owned an interest in the Peruvian guano deposits being occupied by Chile, but otherwise stayed away from the Capitol. The publication of the first volume of Twenty Years in early 1884 added to Blaine’s financial security and thrust him back into the political spotlight. As the 1884 campaign loomed, Blaine’s name was being circulated once more as a potential nominee, and despite some reservations, he soon found himself back in the hunt for the presidency.