No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.
James Gillespie Blaine was born January 31, 1830 in West Brownsville, Pennsylvania, the third child of Ephraim Lyon Blaine and his wife Maria (Gillespie) Blaine. Blaine’s father was a western Pennsylvania businessman and landowner, and the family lived in relative comfort. On his father’s side, Blaine was descended from Scotch-Irish settlers who first emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1745. His great-grandfather, Ephraim Blaine, served as a Commissary-General under George Washington in the American Revolutionary War. Blaine’s mother and her forebears were Irish Catholics who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1780s. Blaine’s parents were married in 1820 in a Roman Catholic ceremony, although Blaine’s father remained a Presbyterian. Following a Common compromise of the era, the Blaines agreed that their daughters would be raised in their mother’s Catholic faith while their sons would be brought up in their father’s religion. In politics, Blaine’s father supported the Whig party.
In 1848, Blaine was hired as a professor of mathematics and ancient languages at the Western Military Institute in Georgetown, Kentucky. Although he was only eighteen years old and younger than many of his students, Blaine adapted well to his new profession. Blaine grew to enjoy life in his adopted state and became an admirer of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. He also made the acquaintance of Harriet Stanwood, a Teacher at the nearby Millersburg Female College and native of Maine. On June 30, 1850, the two were married. Blaine once again considered taking up the study of law, but instead took his new bride to visit his family in Pennsylvania. They next lived with Harriet Blaine’s family in Augusta, Maine for several months, where their first child, Stanwood Blaine, was born in 1851. The young family soon moved again, this time to Philadelphia where Blaine took a job at the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind (now Overbrook School for the Blind) in 1852, teaching science and literature.
In 1858, Blaine ran for a seat in the Maine House of Representatives, and was elected. He ran for reelection in 1859, 1860, and 1861, and was successful each time by large majorities. The added responsibilities led Blaine to reduce his duties with the Advertiser in 1860, and he soon ceased editorial work altogether. Meanwhile, his political power was growing as he became chairman of the Republican state committee in 1859, replacing Stevens. Blaine was not a delegate to the Republican convention in 1860, but attended anyway as an enthusiastic supporter of Abraham Lincoln. Returning to Maine, he was elected Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives in 1861 and reelected in 1862. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he supported Lincoln’s war effort and saw that the Maine Legislature voted to organize and equip units to join the Union Army.
Under the Congressional calendar of the 1860s, members of the 38th United States Congress, elected in November 1862, did not begin their work until December 1863; by the time Blaine finally took his seat that month, the Union had turned the tide in the war with victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. As a first-term congressman, he initially said little, mostly following the administration’s lead in supporting the continuing war effort. He did clash several times with the leader of the Republicans' radical faction, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, firstly over payment of states' debts incurred in supporting the war, and again over monetary policy concerning the new greenback currency. Blaine also spoke in support of the commutation provision of the military draft law passed in 1863 and proposed a constitutional amendment allowing the federal government to impose taxes on exports.
Blaine was reelected in 1864 and, when the 39th Congress assembled in December 1865, the main issue was the Reconstruction of the defeated Confederate States. Although he was not a member of the committee charged with drafting what became the Fourteenth Amendment, Blaine did make his views on the subject known and believed that three-fourths of the non-seceded states would be needed to ratify it, rather than three-fourths of all states, an opinion that did not prevail and placed him, atypically, in the radical camp. The Republican Congress also played a role in the governance of the conquered South, dissolving the state governments President Andrew Johnson had installed and substituting military governments under Congress’ control. Blaine voted in favor of these new, harsher measures, but also supported some leniency toward the former rebels when he opposed a bill that would have barred Southerners from attending the United States Military Academy. Blaine voted to impeach Johnson in 1868, although he had initially opposed the effort. Later, Blaine was more ambiguous about the validity of the charges against Johnson, writing that “there was a very grave difference of opinion among those equally competent to decide," but at the time partisan zeal led him to follow his party’s Leaders.
On monetary issues, Blaine continued the advocacy for a strong dollar that he had begun as a Representative. The issue had shifted from debate over greenbacks to debate over which metal should back the dollar: gold and silver, or gold alone. The Coinage Act of 1873 stopped the coinage of silver for all coins worth a dollar or more, effectively tying the dollar to the value of gold. As a result, the money supply contracted and the effects of the Panic of 1873 grew worse, making it more expensive for debtors to pay debts they had entered into when currency was less valuable. Farmers and laborers, especially, clamored for the return of coinage in both metals, believing the increased money supply would restore wages and property values. Democratic Representative Richard P. Bland of Missouri proposed a bill, which passed the House, that required the United States to coin as much silver as miners could sell the government, thus increasing the money supply and aiding debtors. In the Senate, william B. Allison, a Republican from Iowa offered an amendment to limit the silver coinage to two to four million dollars per month. This was still too much for Blaine, and he denounced the bill and the proposed amendment, but the amended Bland–Allison Act passed the Senate by a 48 to 21 vote. Hayes vetoed the bill, but Congress mustered the two-thirds vote to pass it over his veto. Even after the Bland–Allison Act’s passage, Blaine continued his opposition, making a series of speeches against it during the 1878 congressional campaign season.
The 1874 House elections produced a Democratic majority for the 44th Congress, and Blaine’s time as Speaker was at an end. This gave Blaine more time to concentrate on his presidential ambitions, and to develop new policy ideas. One result was a foray into education policy. In late 1875, President Grant made several speeches on the importance of the separation of church and state and the duty of the states to provide free public education. Blaine saw in this an issue that would distract from the Grant administration scandals and let the Republican party regain the high moral ground. In December 1875, he proposed a joint resolution that became known as the Blaine Amendment.
Although he supported a general amnesty for former Confederates, Blaine opposed extending it to include Jefferson Davis, and he cooperated with Grant in helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in response to increased violence and disenfranchisement of blacks in the South. He refrained from voting on the anti-third term resolution that overwhelmingly passed the House that same year, believing that to vote for it would look self-interested. Blaine was loyal to Grant, and the scandals of the Grant administration did not seem to affect how the public perceived him; according to his biographer, Blaine was never more popular than when he was Speaker of the House. Liberal Republicans saw him as an alternative to the evident corruption of other Republican Leaders, and some even urged him to form a new, reformist party. Although he remained a Republican, this base of moderate reformers remained loyal to Blaine and became known as the Half Breed faction of the party.
Blaine was appointed to the Senate on July 10, 1876, but did not begin his duties there until the Senate convened in December of that year. While in the Senate, he served on the Appropriations Committee and held the chairmanship of the Committee on Civil Service and Retrenchment, but he never achieved the role of leadership that he had held as a member of the House. The Senate in the 45th Congress was controlled by a narrow Republican majority, but it was a majority often divided against itself and against the Hayes administration. Blaine did not number himself among the administration’s defenders, but neither could he join the Republicans led by Conkling—later known as the Stalwarts—who opposed Hayes, because of the deep personal enmity between Blaine and Conkling. He opposed Hayes’s withdrawal of federal troops from Southern capitals, which effectively ended the Reconstruction of the South, but to no avail. Blaine continued to antagonize Southern Democrats, voting against bills passed in the Democrat-controlled House that would reduce the Army’s appropriation and repeal the post-war Enforcement Acts he had helped pass. Such bills passed Congress several times and Hayes vetoed them several times; ultimately, the Enforcement Acts remained in place, but the funds to enforce them dwindled. By 1879, there were only 1,155 Soldiers stationed in the former Confederacy, and Blaine believed that this small force could never guarantee the civil and political rights of black Southerners—which would mean an end to the Republican party in the South.
Blaine received the news at his home in Washington and telegraphed Hayes his congratulations. In the subsequent contest of 1876, Hayes was elected after a contentious compromise over disputed electoral votes. The results of the convention had further effects on Blaine’s political career, as Bristow, having lost the nomination, also resigned as Treasury Secretary three days after the convention ended. President Grant selected Senator Lot M. Morrill of Maine to fill the cabinet post, and Maine’s governor, Seldon Connor, appointed Blaine to the now-vacant Senate seat. When the Maine Legislature reconvened that autumn, they confirmed Blaine’s appointment and elected him to the full six-year term that would begin on March 4, 1877.
Hayes had announced early in his presidency that he would not seek another term, which meant that the contest for the Republican nomination in 1880 was open to all challengers—including Blaine. Blaine was among the early favorites for the nomination, as were former President Grant, Treasury Secretary John Sherman of Ohio, and Senator George F. Edmunds of Vermont. Although Grant did not actively promote his candidacy, his entry into the race re-energized the Stalwarts and when the convention met in Chicago in June 1880, they instantly polarized the delegates into Grant and anti-Grant factions, with Blaine the most popular choice of the latter group. Blaine was nominated by James Frederick Joy of Michigan, but in contrast to Ingersoll’s exciting speech of 1876, Joy’s lengthy oration was remembered only for its maladroitness. After the other candidates were nominated, the first ballot showed Grant leading with 304 votes and Blaine in second with 284; no other candidate had more than Sherman’s 93, and none had the required majority of 379. Sherman’s delegates could swing the nomination to either Grant or Blaine, but he refused to release them through twenty-eight ballots in the hope that the anti-Grant forces would desert Blaine and flock to him. Eventually, they did desert Blaine, but instead of Sherman they shifted their votes to Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield, and by the thirty-sixth ballot he had 399 votes, enough for victory.
On July 2, 1881, Blaine and Garfield were walking through the Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in Washington when Garfield was shot by an Assassin, Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau, a deranged man who had earlier pestered Blaine and other State Department officials to be appointed to ambassadorships for which he was grossly unqualified, believed that by assassinating the President he could ingratiate himself with Vice President Arthur and receive his coveted position. Guiteau was captured immediately and hanged just short of a year later; he survived longer than Garfield, who lingered for two-and-a-half months, then died on September 19, 1881. Garfield's death was not just a personal tragedy for Blaine; it also meant the end of his dominance of the cabinet and the end of his foreign policy initiatives. With Arthur’s ascent to the presidency, the Stalwart faction now held sway and Blaine's days at the State Department were numbered. Arthur asked all of the cabinet members to postpone their resignations until Congress recessed that December; Blaine nonetheless tendered his resignation on October 19, 1881 but agreed to remain in office until December 19, when his successor was in place. Blaine's replacement was Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Stalwart. Arthur and Frelinghuysen undid much of Blaine's work, cancelling the call for a Pan-American conference and stopping the effort to end the War of the Pacific, but they did continue the drive for tariff reductions, signing a reciprocity treaty with Mexico in 1882.
Blaine began the year 1882 without a political office for the first time since 1859. Troubled by poor health, he sought no employment other than the completion of the first volume of his memoir, Twenty Years of Congress. Friends in Maine petitioned Blaine to run for Congress in the 1882 elections, but he declined, preferring to spend his time writing and supervising the move to the new home. His income from mining and railroad Investments was sufficient to sustain the family's lifestyle and to allow for the construction of a vacation cottage, "Stanwood" on Mount Desert Island, Maine, designed by Frank Furness. Blaine appeared before Congress in 1882 during an investigation into his War of the Pacific diplomacy, defending himself against allegations that he owned an interest in the Peruvian guano deposits being occupied by Chile, but otherwise stayed away from the Capitol. The publication of the first volume of Twenty Years in early 1884 added to Blaine's financial security and thrust him back into the political spotlight. As the 1884 campaign loomed, Blaine's name was being circulated once more as a potential nominee, and despite some reservations, he soon found himself back in the hunt for the presidency.
In the months leading up to the 1884 convention, Blaine was once more considered the favorite for the nomination, but President Arthur was contemplating a run for election in his own right. George Edmunds was again the favored candidate among reformers and John Sherman had a few delegates pledged to him, but neither was expected to command much support at the convention. John A. Logan of Illinois hoped to attract Stalwart votes if Arthur’s campaign was unsuccessful. Blaine was unsure he wanted to try for the nomination for the third time and even encouraged General william T. Sherman, John Sherman’s older brother, to accept it if it came to him, but ultimately Blaine agreed to be a candidate again.
Blaine and his wife and daughters sailed for Europe in June 1887, visiting England, Ireland, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, and finally Scotland, where they stayed at the summer home of Andrew Carnegie. While in France, Blaine wrote a letter to the New-York Tribune criticizing Cleveland’s plans to reduce the tariff, saying that free trade with Europe would impoverish American workers and farmers. The family returned to the United States in August 1887. His letter in the Tribune had raised his political profile even higher, and by 1888 Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, both former opponents, urged Blaine to run against Cleveland again. Opinion within the party was overwhelmingly in favor of renominating Blaine.
As the state conventions drew nearer, Blaine announced that he would not be a candidate. His supporters doubted his sincerity and continued to encourage him to run, but Blaine still demurred. Hoping to make his intentions clear, Blaine left the country and was staying with Carnegie in Scotland when the 1888 Republican National Convention began in Chicago. Carnegie encouraged Blaine to accept if the convention nominated him, but the delegates finally accepted Blaine’s refusal. John Sherman was the most prominent candidate and sought to attract the Blaine supporters to his candidacy, but instead found them flocking to former senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana after a telegram from Carnegie suggested that Blaine favored him. Blaine returned to the United States in August 1888 and visited Harrison at his home in October, where twenty-five thousand residents paraded in Blaine’s honor. Harrison defeated Cleveland in a close election, and offered Blaine his former position as Secretary of State.
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 on March 14, 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.
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 the 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 Valparaíso, 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.
Blaine had always believed his health to be fragile, and by the time he joined Harrison’s cabinet he truly was unwell. The years at the State Department also brought Blaine personal tragedy as two of his children, Walker and Alice, died suddenly in 1890. Another son, Emmons, died in 1892. With these family issues and his declining health, Blaine decided to retire and announced that he would resign from the cabinet on June 4, 1892. Because of their growing animosity, and because Blaine’s resignation came three days before the 1892 Republican National Convention began, Harrison suspected that Blaine was preparing to run against him for the party’s nomination for President.
Blaine spent the summer of 1892 at his Bar Harbor cottage, and did not involve himself in the presidential campaign other than to make a single speech in New York in October. Harrison was defeated soundly in his rematch against former President Cleveland and when Blaine returned to Washington at the close of 1892, he and Harrison were friendlier than they had been in years. Blaine’s health declined rapidly in the winter of 1892–1893, and he died in his Washington home on January 27, 1893. After a funeral at the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington. He was later re-interred in Blaine Memorial Park, Augusta, Maine, in 1920.
A towering figure in the Republican party of his day, Blaine fell into obscurity fairly soon after his death. A 1905 biography by his wife’s cousin, Edward Stanwood, was written when the question was still in doubt, but by the time David Saville Muzzey published his biography of Blaine in 1934, the subtitle “A Political Idol of Other Days” already spoke to its subject’s fading place in the popular mind, perhaps because of the nine men the Republican Party nominated for the Presidency from 1860 to 1912, Blaine is the only one who never became President. Although several authors studied Blaine’s foreign policy career, including Edward P. Crapol’s 2000 work, Muzzey’s was the last full-scale biography of the man until Neil Rolde’s 2006 book. Historian R. Hal Williams was working on a new biography of Blaine, tentatively titled James G. Blaine: A Life in Politics, until his death in 2016.
As Secretary of State, Blaine was a transitional figure, marking the end of an isolationist era in foreign policy and foreshadowing the rise of the American Century that would begin with the Spanish–American War. His efforts at expanding the United States' trade and influence began the shift to a more active American foreign policy. Blaine was a pioneer of tariff reciprocity and urged greater involvement in Latin American affairs. An expansionist, Blaine’s policies would lead in less than a decade to the establishment of the United States' acquisition of Pacific colonies and dominance of the Caribbean.
Continuing his earlier battle with Stevens, Blaine led the fight in Congress for a strong dollar. After the issuance of 150 million dollars in greenbacks—non-gold-backed currency—the value of the dollar stood at a low ebb. A bipartisan group of inflationists, led by Republican Benjamin F. Butler and Democrat George H. Pendleton, wished to preserve the status quo and allow the Treasury to continue to issue greenbacks and even to use them to pay the interest due on pre-war bonds. Blaine called this idea a repudiation of the nation’s promise to Investors, which was made when the only currency was gold. Speaking several times on the matter, Blaine said that the greenbacks had only ever been an emergency measure to avoid bankruptcy during the war. Blaine and his hard money allies were successful, but the issue remained alive until 1879, when all remaining greenbacks were made redeemable in gold by the Specie Payment Resumption Act of 1875.
Harrison was unpopular with the party and the country, and many of Blaine’s old supporters encouraged him to run for the nomination. Blaine had denied any interest in the nomination months before his resignation, but some of his friends, including Senator Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania and James S. Clarkson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, took it for false modesty and worked for his nomination anyway. When Blaine resigned from the cabinet, his boosters were certain that he was a candidate, but the majority of the party stood by the incumbent. Harrison was renominated on the first ballot, but die-hard Blaine delegates still gave their champion 182 and 1/6 votes, good enough for second place.