BLAINE, JAMES GILLESPIE (1830–1893), American statesman, was born in West Brownsville, Pennsylvania, on the 31st of January 1830, of sturdy Scottish-Irish stock on the side of his father. He was the great-grandson of Colonel Ephraim Blaine (1741–1804), who during the War of Independence served in the American army, from 1778 to 1782 as commissary-general of the Northern Department. With many early evidences of literary capacity and political aptitude, J. G. Blaine graduated at Washington College in Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1847, and subsequently taught successively in the Military Institute, Georgetown, Kentucky, and in the Institution for the Blind at Philadelphia. During this period, also, he studied law. Settling in Augusta, Maine, in 1854, he became editor of the Kennebec Journal, and subsequently of the Portland Advertiser. But his editorial work was soon abandoned for a more active public career. He was elected to the lower house of the state legislature in 1858, and served four years, the last two as speaker. He also became chairman of the Republican state committee in 1859, and for more than twenty years personally directed every campaign of his party.
In 1862 he was elected to Congress, serving in the House thirteen years (December 1863 to December 1876), followed by a little over four years in the Senate. He was chosen speaker of the House in 1869 and served three terms. The House was the fit arena for his political and parliamentary ability. He was a ready and powerful debater, full of resource, and dexterous in controversy. The tempestuous politics of the war and reconstruction period suited his aggressive nature and constructive talent. The measures for the rehabilitation of the states that had seceded from the Union occupied the chief attention of Congress for several years, and Blaine bore a leading part in framing and discussing them. The primary question related to the basis of representation upon which they should be restored to their full rank in the political system. A powerful section contended that the basis should be the body of legal voters, on the ground that the South could not then secure an increment of political power on account of the emancipated blacks unless these blacks were admitted to political rights. Blaine, on the other hand, contended that representation should be based on population instead of voters, as being fairer to the North, where the ratio of voters varied widely, and he insisted that it should be safeguarded by security for impartial suffrage. This view prevailed, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was substantially Blaine’s proposition. In the same spirit he opposed a scheme of military governments for the southern states, unless associated with a plan by which, upon the acceptance of prescribed conditions, they could release themselves from military rule and resume civil government. He was the first in Congress to oppose the claim, which gained momentary and widespread favour in 1867, that the public debt, pledged in coin, should be paid in greenbacks. The protection of naturalized citizens who, on return to their native land, were subject to prosecution on charges of disloyalty, enlisted his active interest and support, and the agitation, in which he was conspicuous, led to the treaty of 1870 between the United States and Great Britain, which placed adopted and native citizens on the same footing.
As the presidential election of 1876 approached, Blaine was clearly the popular favourite of his party. His chance for securing the nomination, however, was materially lessened by persistent charges which were brought against him by the Democrats that as a member of Congress he had been guilty of corruption in his relations with the Little Rock & Fort Smith and the Northern Pacific railways. By the majority of Republicans, at least, he was considered to have cleared himself completely, and in the Republican national convention he missed by only twenty-eight votes the nomination for president, being finally beaten by a combination of the supporters of all the other candidates. Thereupon he entered the Senate, where his activity was unabated. Currency legislation was especially prominent. Blaine, who had previously opposed greenback inflation now resisted depreciated silver coinage. He was the earnest champion of the advancement of American shipping, and advocated liberal subsidies, insisting that the policy of protection should be applied on sea as well as on land. The Republican national convention of 1880, divided between the two nearly equal forces of Blaine and General U. S. Grant—John Sherman of Ohio also having a considerable following—struggled through thirty-six ballots, when the friends of Blaine, combining with those of Sherman, succeeded in nominating General James A. Garfield. In the new administration Blaine became secretary of state, but, owing to the assassination of President Garfield and the reorganization of the cabinet by President Chester A. Arthur, he held the office only until December 1881. His brief service was distinguished by several notable steps. In order to promote the friendly understanding and co-operation of the nations on the American continents he projected a Pan-American congress, which, after being arranged for, was frustrated by his retirement. He also sought to secure a modification of the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, and in an extended correspondence with the British government strongly asserted the policy of an exclusive American control of any isthmian canal which might be built to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
With undiminished hold on the imagination and devotion of his followers he was nominated for president in 1884. After a heated canvass, in which he made a series of brilliant speeches, he was beaten by a narrow margin in New York. By many, including Blaine himself, the defeat was attributed to the effect of a phrase, “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion,” used by a clergyman, Rev. Samuel D. Burchard (1812–1891), on the 29th of October 1884, in Blaine’s presence, to characterize what, in his opinion, the Democratic party stood for. The phrase was not Blaine’s, but his opponents made use of it to misrepresent his attitude toward the Roman Catholics, large numbers of whom are supposed, in consequence, to have withdrawn their support. Refusing to be a presidential candidate in 1888, he became secretary of state under President Harrison, and resumed his work which had been interrupted nearly eight years before. The Pan-American congress, then projected, now met in Washington, and Blaine, as its master spirit, presided over and guided its deliberation through its session of five months. Its most important conclusions were for reciprocity in trade, a continental railway and compulsory arbitration in international complications. Shaping the tariff legislation for this policy, Blaine negotiated a large number of reciprocity treaties which augmented the commerce of his country. He upheld American rights in Samoa, pursued a vigorous diplomacy with Italy over the lynching of eleven Italians, all except three of them American naturalized citizens, in New Orleans on the 14th of May 1891, held a firm attitude during the strained relations between the United States and Chile (growing largely out of the killing and wounding of American sailors of the U.S. ship “Baltimore” by Chileans in Valparaiso on the 16th of October 1891), and carried on with Great Britain a resolute controversy over the seal fisheries of Bering Sea,—a difference afterwards settled by arbitration. He resigned on the 4th of June 1892, on the eve of the meeting of the Republican national convention, wherein his name was ineffectually used, and he died at Washington, D.C., on the 27th of January 1893.
During his later years of leisure he wrote Twenty Years of Congress (1884–1886), a brilliant historical work in two volumes. Of singularly alert faculties, with a remarkable knowledge of the men and history of his country, and an extraordinary memory, his masterful talent for politics and state-craft, together with his captivating manner and engaging personality, gave him, for nearly two decades, an unrivalled hold upon the fealty and affection of his party.
See the Biography of James G. Blaine (Norwich, Conn., 1895) by Mary Abigail Dodge (“Gail Hamilton”), and, in the “American Statesmen Series,” James G. Blaine (Boston, 1905) by C. E. Stanwood; also Mrs Blaine’s Letters (1908). (C. E. S.)
- This attack led to a dramatic scene in the House, in which Blaine fervidly asseverated his denial.