U.S. Election of 1884 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After one of the dirtiest presidential election campaigns in U.S. history, Grover Cleveland’s victory in 1884 broke the Republicans’ twenty-four-year hold on the presidency, and Cleveland became known for his exceptional integrity.

Summary of Event

The 1884 presidential election, which pitted Republican James G. Blaine against Democrat Grover Cleveland, was one of the dirtiest in U.S. history. The parties were evenly split as far as voter loyalties were concerned, so the race turned on the personal characters of the two major party nominees. The presidential election was won by Cleveland, a former mayor of Buffalo, New York, and the governor of New York. He was the first successful Democratic candidate for the presidency in twenty-four years. However, the voting was so close that a shift of six hundred votes in a single state would have reversed the outcome. During a time of electoral stalemate between the parties, narrow margins in the popular vote were typical. Public excitement in the campaign ran high, and spectacular episodes swayed the electorate throughout the campaign. Presidency, U.S.;election of 1884 Presidency, U.S.;Grover Cleveland[Cleveland] Cleveland, Grover [p]Cleveland, Grover;election of 1884 Blaine, James G. [p]Blaine, James G.;election of 1884 Democratic Party;election of 1884 Republican Party;election of 1884 [kw]U.S. Election of 1884 (Nov. 4, 1884) [kw]Election of 1884, U.S. (Nov. 4, 1884) [kw]1884, U.S. Election of (Nov. 4, 1884) Presidency, U.S.;election of 1884 Presidency, U.S.;Grover Cleveland[Cleveland] Cleveland, Grover [p]Cleveland, Grover;election of 1884 Blaine, James G. [p]Blaine, James G.;election of 1884 Democratic Party;election of 1884 Republican Party;election of 1884 [g]United States;Nov. 4, 1884: U.S. Election of 1884[5400] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 4, 1884: U.S. Election of 1884[5400] Burchard, Samuel D. Butler, Benjamin Franklin St. John, Pierce Schurz, Carl

When the Republicans met in Chicago to nominate their candidate on June 3, 1884, the front-runner was the most popular figure of his time: James G. Blaine of Maine. The incumbent president, Chester A. Arthur Arthur, Chester A. , had little support. He had been an adequate president after succeeding the assassinated Garfield, James A. [p]Garfield, James A.;assassination of James A. Garfield in 1881, but the party regulars and the rank and file of the so-called Grand Old Party (GOP) preferred the more charismatic Blaine. Unfortunately for the party, however, Blaine also had weaknesses. Charges circulated that he had used his offices for personal gain. His dealings with an Arkansas railroad while he had been Speaker of the House during the 1870’s had been recorded in damaging letters that were owned by a man named Mulligan. These “Mulligan letters,” on which Blaine had written, “Burn this letter when you have read it,” dogged him throughout the election.

Blaine’s nomination was relatively easy. He was selected on the fourth ballot, and John A. Logan Logan, John A. of Illinois became his running mate. For Republican reformers—who were nicknamed mugwumps, after an Indian term for big chief—Blaine was an impossible choice. Their spokesman, Carl Schurz Schurz, Carl , said that electing Blaine would have evil results. These discontented Republicans prepared to support the Democratic nominee.

Democratic Party campaign poster for Grover Cleveland and Thomas A. Hendricks.

(Library of Congress)

A month after the Republican convention, the Democratic Party met in Chicago. Sensing a victory after long years in the political wilderness, the Democrats had a fresh face in Grover Cleveland, who had gained a reputation in New York as a foe of corrupt politics and an enemy of an activist government. He had quarreled with the New York City political machine, Tammany Hall Tammany Hall New York City;Tammany Hall . Enemies called him the Veto Governor. Cleveland was a large man, whose family called him Uncle Jumbo. Cleveland seemed the clear choice during an era when the Democrats could win the presidency by carrying the solidly Democratic South, New York, and one or two midwestern states. Cleveland was nominated on the second ballot, and Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana balanced the ticket as his midwestern running mate.

The campaign that followed quickly became dirty. In July, news broke that Cleveland had been involved with a woman named Maria Halpin and that he might be the father of her illegitimate son. The story was true. Cleveland accepted responsibility for the child and paid for his upbringing. Republicans tried to capitalize on the episode in their political rallies. Marchers strode behind baby carriages and chanted, “Ma! Ma! Where’s My Pa?” Cleveland responded to the allegations by urging his supporters to tell the truth. By admitting what had happened right away, Cleveland defused the scandal.

Meanwhile, the Democrats charged Blaine with corruption concerning the Mulligan letters, and further revelations during the campaign added to the force of the allegations. In the giant rallies that they staged, the Democrats shouted together as they walked through the streets of towns and cities:

Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine The continental liar from the State of Maine Burn this letter!

The overall electoral picture in 1884 gave the edge to the Democrats. Their base in the South was so solid that they had to win fewer northern states than the Republicans did. The economy had slipped into a mild recession that favored the party out of power. Because the Republicans had been in power so long, accumulated grievances against the federal government worked against them. As a result of the defection of the mugwumps, many of the newspapers and magazines in the East that ordinarily would have favored the Republican candidate were in the Democratic camp.

In response, the Republicans looked to capitalize on perceived areas of Democratic weakness. Cleveland did not enjoy much support from labor. Accordingly, the Republicans provided money for the Greenback-Labor Party Greenback-Labor Party[Greenback Labor Party] and its presidential candidate, Benjamin Franklin Butler Butler, Benjamin Franklin of Massachusetts. The erratic Butler campaigned with great energy but was not an important factor in the outcome of the race.

A source of worry for the Republicans was the Prohibition Party Prohibition Party and its standard-bearer, John Pierce St. John. Voters for the “dry” candidate usually came from among former Republicans, and St. John St. John, Pierce was particularly strong in upstate New York, which played a large role in the outcome of the contest.

Blaine became the central focus of the campaign. He wanted to make the protective tariff Tariffs;protective a major issue and stressed economic concerns in his letter accepting the nomination. His record of opposition to Great Britain in foreign affairs also won him support from among Irish American voters. Working against Blaine was Republican disunity. The leader of the GOP in New York, former senator Roscoe Conkling Conkling, Roscoe , had a hatred for Blaine dating back to arguments they had had in the House of Representatives during the 1860’s. Conkling refused to campaign for Blaine, and his opposition to Blaine hurt Republican chances in the key state of New York.

To overcome these obstacles, Blaine decided to embark on a personal campaign swing. Although he was not the first presidential candidate to try this technique, it was an innovation for a major party candidate to woo the electorate directly. Democrats charged that Blaine was lowering the tone of the race for the White House. On the whole, the experiment was successful. Blaine drew large and enthusiastic crowds. The Republicans seemed to be ahead when they carried Maine and Vermont in September, and Ohio went Republican in October. (At that time, not all states voted for the president on the same days.)

The key state was New York, which Blaine had to carry to win. With reports coming in that the Democrats might win, Blaine decided to include New York on his speaking schedule. At the end of October, he spent a week in a determined effort to cover the vast expanses of the Empire State. He arrived in New York City on October 28 in a condition of near exhaustion.

On October 29, Blaine met with several hundred Protestant clergymen in his hotel lobby. When the designated speaker was delayed, the group called upon a Presbyterian minister named Samuel D. Burchard Burchard, Samuel D. as a substitute. Burchard announced in his remarks that “We are Republicans and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” In his answer, Blaine did not mention Burchard’s comment.

Burchard’s statement caused an uproar, because it attacked Roman Catholicism Roman Catholics;and election of 1884[Election of 1884] at a time when Blaine had been trying to woo the votes of predominantly Catholic Irish Americans. The Democrats spread the remark as widely as they could, and Republican disavowals were late and ineffective. Another public relations fiasco occurred when Blaine attended a dinner in his honor at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, where his audience was made up of millionaires and business leaders. The Democrats promptly dubbed the occasion “The Boodle Banquet.”

Election day on November 4 brought further problems for Blaine. In upstate New York, heavy rains kept Republican voters at home in an area where Blaine needed a big turnout. It was soon apparent that the election would be very close. Cleveland carried the Democratic South, and Blaine ran strongly in the Midwest. The key state was New York, whose returns trickled in slowly over several days. In the end, Cleveland won New York by a scant 1,149 votes. The Prohibition ticket had received 25,000 votes, the majority of which would have gone to Blaine under normal circumstances.


Cleveland won the 36 electoral votes of New York, and his total of 219 put him into the White House. Blaine’s total was 182 electoral votes. The popular vote was also close. Cleveland’s majority was less than 25,000 ballots. After the election, and in historical accounts since 1884, the episode involving the Reverend Burchard Burchard, Samuel D. was said to have cost Blaine the election. In fact, Blaine did better than any other Republican might have done. He ran 400,000 votes ahead of James A. Garfield’s total in 1880. The real explanation for what happened in 1884 was that, in a Democratic year, Grover Cleveland kept his party united to achieve a narrow victory. Four years later, Cleveland would lose his bid for reelection, but in 1892, he became the first former president to come back and be elected again.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crapol, Edward P. James G. Blaine: Architect of Empire. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2000. Biography of Blaine that pays special attention to his tenure as secretary of state, including his relations with Latin America and his attempts to upgrade the merchant marine and U.S. Navy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Lewis L. “1884.” In Running for President: The Candidates and Their Images, edited by Arthur Schlesinger et al. Vol. 1. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. Brief account of the 1884 election that incorporates updated historical scholarship about the outcome of the Blaine-Cleveland race.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graff, Henry F. Grover Cleveland. New York: Times Books, 2002. Solid contribution to a series of brief presidential biographies. Graff depicts Cleveland as a decisive president, a man of action and uncompromising integrity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeffers, H. Paul. An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland. New York: William Morrow, 2000. Jeffers portrays Cleveland as a staunch reformer, a man of high moral character and courage who restored dignity to the presidency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keller, Morton. Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977. Useful for understanding how the Blaine-Cleveland contest grew out of the political culture of the late nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGerr, Michael. The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Discusses the 1884 election in the context of evolving campaign styles and methods of getting voters to the polls.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, H. Wayne. From Hayes to McKinley: National Party Politics, 1877-1896. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1969. Readable, thorough account that places the 1884 election in the context of the battle between the Republicans and Democrats to secure a national majority.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welch, Richard. The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. Discusses how the election of 1884 brought Cleveland to national power and considers the political appeal that twice took him to the White House.

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Chester A. Arthur; James G. Blaine; Grover Cleveland; Carl Schurz. Presidency, U.S.;election of 1884 Presidency, U.S.;Grover Cleveland[Cleveland] Cleveland, Grover [p]Cleveland, Grover;election of 1884 Blaine, James G. [p]Blaine, James G.;election of 1884 Democratic Party;election of 1884 Republican Party;election of 1884

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