Americans have a need to inflate the importance… of the times in which they live. This is best illustrated by the hyperbole we attach to each Presidential election. Every four years we are confronted by “the most important election in a generation.” Each succeeding election contains events “never seen before.” The election of 2016 has been especially unheralded- two candidates resoundingly distrusted by the electorate- a truly unprecedented political event…. or is it??
1884 was just such an election… Republican James G. Blaine and Democrat Grover Cleveland were both equally distrusted by the American people. Blaine admittedly took bribes from railroad companies, while Cleveland confessed to fathering a child out-of-wedlock. The campaign asked the American people to decide which candidate was least objectionable. October found the two troubled candidates in a virtual dead-heat. 1884 also introduced us to that most predictable election year phenomena, the October surprise.
A week before the General Election… Samuel D. Burchard, a teetotaling Republican reformer, addressed a gathering of the Republican National Committee. His fiery speech included the infamous attack on Democrats and their association with “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” In one rhetorical flourish, he linked Democrats to the three most divisive issues of the day- alcoholism, Catholic immigration, and memories of the Civil War. The clumsy effort to purify his own party galvanized his opponents and sent them to the polls in record numbers. Blaine, who was in attendance, claimed he didn’t hear the offensive remarks- but an operative from the Cleveland campaign did. Ethnically diverse urban voters took special offense when the remarks became public and tipped the balance in Cleveland’s favor.
All of this sounds painfully familiar in 2016… once again proving the cliche that history repeats itself. It is also naive to believe that current events are somehow unprecedented and immune from the scrutiny of the historical record.