United States presidential election, 1884

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In the 1884 presidential election, Democratic Party candidate Grover Cleveland ran against the Republican candidate, James G. Blaine. Both parties used "army" style campaigns designed to maximize turnout of their loyal supporters. Few men were independents, although an informal group of "Mugwumps" emerged to protest the Republican candidate.[1] As the election grew near, it appeared that because of his relative experience, Blaine was pulling ahead of his rival. Some of this advantage was also due to Blaine's efforts at forming inroads into the Irish Catholic vote, which was typically 95% in support of the Democratic Party. A Protestant minister by the name of Samuel Dickinson Burchard was assisting with this effort, especially in New York City.[2]

Rum, romanism, and misinformation

On October 29, 1884, a speech was scheduled by the Republicans for several hundred clergymen, gathered in the Firth Avenue Hotel in New York, to reassure them of Blaine's support. The gathering was to be led by Dr. McArthur. However, on the day of the event, McArthur did not arrive. After waiting some time for him, it was decided that a substitute was needed. Samuel Burchard, who was a well-respected Protestant minister and skilled orator was an obvious choice to perform this task. When asked, Burchard agreed to speak even though he had nothing prepared. Andrew Devine typically determined what a speaker was going to say beforehand, but since this was a spontaneous decision and Devine was not on hand, there was no proper review performed or possible for Burchard's speech.[3] During his short introduction for Blaine, he made a statement which was misunderstood, and soon became infamous. Burchard had the practice of occasionally pairing three words starting with the same letter together during his speeches. Following this familiar habit in his spontaneous speech, he referred to the democrats as being a party of "rum, romanism and rebellion."
By this, Burchard was pointing out three different characteristics he believed applied to the party.

  1. Rum: The democratic party opposed the prohibition movement.
  2. Romanism: In his opinion, the democratic party tended to be immoral and only bound loosely by ethics. Since Cleveland himself had an illegitimate child, this was a direct attack on his opponent as much as it was against the party as a whole.
  3. Rebellion: In his opinion, the democratic party was in support of the confederacy and the civil war it lead to.

Blaine himself missed this pairing of three R's, but others did not. In very short order, the Democrats began generating fliers, posters, and other forms of media and announcements stating that Blaine was opposed to Roman Catholicism (because Burchard said "Romanism"). This was apparently started by a reporter for the "Star" by the name of John Tracy. Tracy was known to be associated with the democratic committee, and regularly did work for them. He attended this event, expecting to only publish a paragraph on the event. While only half-listening to the event, he heard Burchard using his unfortunate choice of words, and immediately realized the potential value in this phrase. He immediately rushed across the hotel corridor to the telegraph office, where he sent dispatches to his own and several other publications, as well as democratic headquarters. In very short order, publication began of materials to spread the idea that this was said against Roman Catholics, even though this was never the intended meaning. It is debatable whether Tracy himself understood the intended meaning at the time or not.[4][5]

There were two problems with this misinformation. First, Blaine himself did not say this, or know about it at the time. Blane was not opposed to Catholicism in any way.[6] Secondly, Burchard was not talking about Roman Catholics, nor was he opposed to them in any way, as he later announced in an open letter.

The purport of my words in the address of welcome to Hon. J. G. Blane at the Fifth Avenue hotel October 29, 1884, has been wholly misunderstood. I did not intend to cast any reflections on the Roman Catholic church and was speaking of a party and the doings of the democratic party. I am the last person in a promiscuous (mixed) assemblage to characterize any religious denomination offensively, and believe in the most perfect religious freedom and toleration of all religious options. I desire to emphasize the fact that I alone am responsible for the language and sentiment of the address -Samuel D. Burchard, October 31, 1884[7]


Interestingly, not all Roman Catholics were turned against Blaine or Burchard as a result of this.[6] Nonetheless, this "three Rs" speech was widely publicized with the incorrect meaning, and was often directly attributed to Blaine. As an apparent result, the state's vote was turned in favor of Cleveland. The Democratic plurality in New York was 1,047 at the time, so less than six hundred votes would have changed the result. Cleveland won in New York, and that state's electoral vote ended up being the deciding factor in this election. With New York turned in favor of the democrats, the democratic candidate Grover Cleveland won the presidential election.[5]


Results

Election results (Blue = Cleaveland, Red = Blaine, click for details)

The result of this election was that Grover Cleveland won his first term as president for 1885 to 1889, and succeeded Chester Arthur. In four years, he would be beaten by Benjamin Harrison, only to be reelected for his second term in 1892, making him the only U.S. president to serve two non-consecutive terms. This election also had a couple other results. First, it proved that misinformation (or "fake news") can be used to turn something as significant as a presidential election. Another result was that this same misinformation had worked its way into history books, and even at least one book published on the specific topic.[1]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Summers, Mark Wahlgren. Rum, Romanism and Rebellion: The Making of a President, 1884. (2000), 326pp; the standard scholarly history online edition
  2. Reminiscences of the family, especially with the reference to the author of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion, by Anna T. Burchard.
  3. The Hartford Courant (1887-1922); [Hartford, Conn.] May 6, 1909
  4. The Hartford Courant (1887-1922) ; Hartford, Conn. [Hartford, Conn]29 May 1897: page 8.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Dictionary of American Biography
  6. 6.0 6.1 Hartford Daily Courant (1840-1887) ; Hartford, Conn. [Hartford, Conn] 03 Nov 1884: 3.
  7. Post Exbus, Rochester NY; September 26, 1891