James G. Blaine

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James G. Blaine : biography

31 January 1830 – 27 January 1893

House of Representatives, 1863–1876

Elected to the House

Blaine had considered running for the United States House of Representatives from Maine’s 4th district in 1860, but agreed to step aside when Anson P. Morrill, a former governor, announced his interest in the seat. Morrill was successful, but after redistricting placed Blaine in the 3rd district for the 1862 elections, he allowed his name to be put forward. Running on a campaign of staunch support for the war effort, Blaine was elected with an ample majority despite Republican losses across the rest of the country.

Under the Congressional calendar of the 1860s, members of the 38th United States Congress, elected in November 1862, did not begin their work until December 1863; by the time Blaine finally took his seat that month, the Union had turned the tide in the war with victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. As a first-term congressman, he initially said little, mostly following the administration’s lead in supporting the continuing war effort. He did clash several times with the leader of the Republicans’ radical faction, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, firstly over payment of states’ debts incurred in supporting the war, and again over monetary policy concerning the new greenback currency. Blaine also spoke in support of the commutation provision of the military draft law passed in 1863 and proposed a constitutional amendment allowing the federal government to impose taxes on exports.

Reconstruction and impeachment

Blaine was reelected in 1864 and, when the 39th Congress assembled in December 1865, the main issue was the Reconstruction of the defeated Confederate States. Although he was not a member of the committee charged with drafting what became the Fourteenth Amendment, Blaine did make his views on the subject known and believed that three-fourths of the non-seceded states would be sufficient to ratify it, rather than three-fourths of all states, an opinion that did not prevail and placed him, atypically, in the radical camp. The Republican Congress also played a role in the governance of the conquered South, dissolving the state governments President Andrew Johnson had installed and substituting military governments under Congress’s control. Blaine voted in favor of these new, harsher measures, but also supported some leniency toward the former rebels when he opposed a bill that would have barred Southerners from attending the United States Military Academy. Blaine voted to impeach Johnson in 1868, although he had initially opposed the effort. Later, Blaine was more ambiguous about the validity of the charges against Johnson, writing that "there was a very grave difference of opinion among those equally competent to decide," but at the time partisan zeal led him to follow his party’s leaders.

Monetary policy

Continuing his earlier battle with Stevens, Blaine led the fight in Congress for a strong dollar. After the issuance of 150 million dollars in greenbacks—non-gold-backed currency—the value of the dollar stood at a low ebb. A bipartisan group of inflationists, led by Republican Benjamin F. Butler and Democrat George H. Pendleton, wished to preserve the status quo and allow the Treasury to continue to issue greenbacks and even to use them to pay the interest due on pre-war bonds. Blaine called this idea a repudiation of the nation’s promise to investors, which was made when the only currency was gold. Speaking several times on the matter, Blaine said that the greenbacks had only ever been an emergency measure to avoid bankruptcy during the war. Blaine and his hard money allies were successful, but the issue remained alive until 1879, when all remaining greenbacks were made redeemable in gold by the Specie Payment Resumption Act of 1875.

Speaker of the House

With Speaker Schuyler Colfax’s election to the Vice Presidency in 1868, the leadership of the House became vacant. Blaine had only been a member of Congress since 1863, but he had developed a reputation for parliamentary skill and, aside from a growing feud with Roscoe Conkling of New York, was popular with his fellow Republicans. He was elected with the unanimous vote of the Republican members at the start of the 41st Congress in March 1869. Blaine was an effective Speaker with a magnetic personality; President Ulysses S. Grant valued his skill and loyalty in leading the House. He enjoyed the job and made his presence in Washington more permanent by buying a large residence on Fifteenth Street in the city. At the same time, the Blaine family moved to a mansion in Augusta.