James G. Blaine

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James G. Blaine : biography

31 January 1830 – 27 January 1893

Pacific diplomacy

In 1891, a diplomatic crisis arose in Chile that drove a wedge between Harrison and Blaine. The American minister to Chile, Patrick Egan, a political friend of Blaine’s, granted asylum to Chileans who were seeking refuge from Chilean Civil War. Chile was already suspicious of Blaine because of his War of the Pacific diplomacy ten years earlier, and this incident raised tensions even further. When sailors from the Baltimore took shore leave in Valparaiso, a fight broke out, resulting in the deaths of two American sailors and three dozen arrested. When the news reached Washington, Blaine was in Bar Harbor recuperating from a bout of ill health and Harrison himself drafted a demand for reparations. The Chilean foreign minister, Manuel Antonio Matta, replied that Harrison’s message was "erroneous or deliberately incorrect," and said that the Chilean government was treating the affair the same as any other criminal matter. Tensions increased as Harrison threatened to break off diplomatic relations unless the United States received a suitable apology. Blaine returned to the capital and made conciliatory overtures to the Chilean government, offering to submit the dispute to arbitration and recall Egan. Harrison still insisted on an apology and submitted a special message to Congress about the threat of war. Chile issued an apology for the incident, and the threat of war subsided.

Relations with European powers

Blaine’s earliest expressions in the foreign policy sphere were those of a reactionary Anglophobe, but by the end of his career his relationship with the United Kingdom had become more moderate and nuanced. A dispute over seal hunting in the waters off Alaska was the cause of Blaine’s first interaction with Britain as Harrison’s Secretary of State. A law passed in 1889 required Harrison to ban seal hunting in Alaskan waters, but Canadian fishermen believed they had the right to continue fishing there. Soon thereafter, the United States Navy seized several Canadian ships near the Pribilof Islands. Blaine entered into negotiations with Britain and the two nations agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration by a neutral tribunal. Blaine was no longer in office when the tribunal began its work, but the result was to allow the hunting once more, albeit with some regulation, and to require the United States to pay damages of $473,151.{} Ultimately, the nations signed the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911, which outlawed open-water seal hunting.

At the same time as the Pribilof Islands dispute, an outbreak of mob violence in New Orleans became an international incident. After New Orleans police chief David Hennessy led a crackdown against local mafiosi, he was assassinated on October 14, 1890. After the alleged murderers were found not guilty in March 1891, a mob stormed the jail and lynched eleven of them. Since many of those killed were Italian citizens the Italian minister, Saverio Fava, protested to Blaine. Blaine explained that federal officials could not control how state officials deal with criminal matters, and Fava announced that he would withdraw the legation back to Italy. Blaine and Harrison believed the Italians’ response to be an overreaction, and did nothing. Tensions slowly cooled, and after nearly a year, the Italian minister returned to the United States to negotiate an indemnity. After some internal dispute—Blaine wanted conciliation with Italy, Harrison was reluctant to admit fault—the United States agreed to pay an indemnity of $25,000, and normal diplomatic relations resumed.

Party leader in exile

Blaine accepted his narrow defeat and spent most of the next year working on the second volume of Twenty Years of Congress. The book continued to earn him enough money to support his lavish household and pay off his debts. Although he spoke to friends of retiring from politics, Blaine still attended dinners and commented on the Cleveland administration’s policies. By the time of the 1886 Congressional elections, Blaine was giving speeches and promoting Republican candidates, especially in his home state of Maine. Republicans were successful in Maine, and after the Maine elections in September, Blaine went on a speaking tour from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, hoping to boost the prospects of Republican candidates there. Republicans were less successful nationwide, gaining seats in the House while losing seats in the Senate, but Blaine’s speeches kept him and his opinions in the spotlight.