James Gillespie Blaine
THE best way to get acquainted with Blaine is through Mrs. Blaine’s delightful letters. In the most natural, most intimate fashion she reflects the whole course of her distinguished husband’s career, by glimpses and, as it were, afar off, yet with a vividness of suggestion and comprehension that no formal biography can equal. And she was a delightful person herself, a soul of intense emotion and sympathy, of keen insight, of playful humor. She had no love of notoriety, of great station, oh, no. Yet what she does not want stings her if she misses it; and she writes of Mrs. Cleveland, ‘Feminine Frances is spelt with an “ e.” Think of the first lady in the land, who is not your chère mère.’ She does not pretend to influence her husband, oh, no. Yet the husband declares that ‘the advice of a sensible woman in matters of statecraft is invaluable’; and what charming significance in the wife’s quiet remark, ‘He loves the confessional and the lay sister (me) — why, I do not know, as I always shrive him out of hand.’
Without making any odious comparisons as to the male objects, I must say that Mrs. Blaine’s letters have enabled me to understand Lady Macbeth better than ever before. There is the same mixture of adoration and fathomless pity, of warm motherly domestic comfort and stinging stimulus, with which Lady Macbeth surveyed, sustained, and prompted her husband’s lofty, if somewhat checkered, career. It is even possible that Lady Macbeth might have been capable of the pathetic tenderness of Mrs. Blaine’s comprehensive eulogy: ‘Those who know him most, love him best. I dare to say that he is the best man I have ever known. Do not misunderstand me; I do not say that he is the best man that ever lived, but that of all the men whom I have thoroughly known, he is the best.’ Is not that a text for meditation through a long summer’s day?
It may fairly be said that Blaine’s whole life was political. Even in his Pennsylvania boyhood whiffs of political passion played around him, and his child letters of the forties show more interest in politics than in any other earthly thing. For a short time he taught in a blind asylum, and the wicked insinuate that he here became an adept in making the blind see whatever he wished them to. He married at twenty years of age, in 1850. He then went to Maine, to edit a paper, and for the next forty years he and politics were united so that only death could part them.
Before losing ourselves in the political vortex, however, it will be well to establish thoroughly the general elements of the man’s character on which his public career was built.
His distinguishing intellectual trait was intense activity. He had a singular power of abstraction in all mental labor. He did not require solitude or quiet, but could read and write and think with the whole domestic hurly-burly going on about him, and liked it. He touched all sorts of subjects lightly and vividly, with illumination, if not penetration. Mrs. Blaine goes with him to an astronomical lecture and when they get home, comments: Mr. Blaine ‘ demonstrates astronomically that Mars could not have any moons, and with such a scientific aroma that it would deceive the very elect, if they did not know that he does not know, and know that we know that he does not know anything about it.’ This suggests, what is everywhere evident, that, though by no means deficient in thoughts, Blaine was on all occasions and in all connections an ingenious and unfailing master of words. It would be libelous to say that words were the whole of him. They were not, ever. But they played a large part in his life, much larger than he himself realized, and most of his writing suggests a splendid facility and felicity in words. His letters snap and sparkle with them. His eulogy on Garfield, which Senator Hoar rather wildly calls 4 one of the treasures of our literature,’ is at any rate an interesting specimen of abundant diction as well as of genuine feeling. The two bulky volumes of Twenty Years in Congress are almost oppressive in a verbal extension which tends to obscure their real shrewdness, common sense, and sanity.
In the same way it is somewhat difficult to get through the covering of words to Blaine’s real feeling about the most serious things. When he writes to his son that ‘there is no success in this life that is not founded on virtue and purity, and a religious consecration of all we have to God,’ I would not for a moment imply that he did not mean it; but it did sound well. The utter absence in Mrs. Blaine’s printed letters of all religious suggestion, both for him and for her, is very noticeable; but with it we must instantly place Blaine’s own fine reference to ‘those topics of personal religion, concerning which noble natures have an unconquerable reserve. It is certain that he was zealous in his church membership, taught in Sundayschool so as to produce a lasting impression, and liked at all times to discuss theology, as to discuss anything else. But he was intensely occupied with the affairs of this world, and his daily attitude was quite the reverse of that of the old Scotchman whose caustic words he enjoyed putting into the mouth of a theological disputant: ‘I meddle only with the things o’ God which I cannot change, rather than with the things o’ man where I might do harm.’
If practical preoccupations somewhat interfered with Blaine’s religion, they cut him off almost entirely from the delight of art and beauty. No doubt he talked about these things, but he had not time to feel them. When he was first in Europe, he wrote with enthusiasm of a Rubens picture, and Mrs. Blaine mentions his interest in picturebuying. Yet during their long stay in Florence in the eighties, it is remarkable that her letters, which speak of everything, make no reference whatever to the charm of old painting and sculpture, and in Florence too! Poetry he quoted, but neither read nor cared for. One form of art alone really took hold of him. He liked to build houses for himself and his friends, and to set the houses in surroundings of exquisite natural beauty. Without having time to think much of the attractions of the natural world, it is evident that he felt them.
For, if he did not care for art, the cause was lack of leisure, not lack of feeling; and his sensibility in all directions was quick and wide, perhaps profound. Mrs. Blaine’s account of his emotion when writing the Garfield eulogy is pathetic in the candor of its sympathy. After saturating two handkerchiefs, his only resource was to retire to solitude. Or, again, the sensibility would manifest itself in keen excitement, in turbid restlessness, in the eager desire to go somewhere, see somebody, do something. The external man, as revealed to the public and to superficial observers, of course veiled all this swift impulse under decorous control. But Mrs. Blaine saw everything and tells everything, if you know how to listen to her.
Health? Blaine in his later years became morbid about his health, and at all times, though he was naturally most active and vigorous, a threatening, even fancied, symptom was enough to distract him from the most important preoccupations. On this subject Mrs. Blaine is delightful in her remorseless tenderness. Nobody could care more lovingly for real, or even for imagined ills, than she, but she understands their nature and their significance, and sets it off with delicate humor. Is it a question of a house ? ‘ There is a house there, which he thinks would build up his health — argument with him irresistible.’ Is it a question of an agent? ‘A very swell-looking young man, with dyspepsia powders, which he says are the daily food of Aldrich, Hiscock, and other great men. I see a generous box of them lying on the table.’ And for all her love and for all her sympathy, there are moments when even her divine patience wavers a little. ‘ With these prodigious powers, the chimney-corner and speculation on his own physical condition are all that he allows himself. This is one of the days when I am not in sympathy with disease.’
With such extreme sensibility and with a proneness to imagine good and ill fortune of all kinds, it was to be expected that Blaine would be a man of the most mercurial disposition, liable to be unduly depressed or exalted. It is fascinating to watch the reflection of this tendency in the unconscious intimate record of his best beloved. Who better than she could indicate ‘ an abasement of soul and an abandonment of hope, such as those only know who have been fed and nurtured on political aspirations and convictions’? Again, she could suggest with a quiet touch the intense reaction, the eager burst of living, that was thrown into the most trivial pursuit, when mounting spirits put all care and doubt behind them. While the immediate contrast has rarely been better drawn than in her vivid account of two morning greetings: ‘“O Mother, Mother Blaine, I have so much to do, I know not which way to turn.” “Good!” said I. “Yes,” said he, “is n’t it perfectly splendid ? ” A very different cry from the “ O Mother, Mother Blaine, tell me what is the matter with me!” which has so oft assailed my earliest waking ear, and which always makes my very soul die within me.’
Among the various real and fancied grounds of depression, nothing, unless considerations of his own health, affected Blaine more than considerations of his wife’s. When she is ill, even not seriously, he cancels all his political engagements and remains at her bedside, inappropriately perturbed and causing more discomfort than he relieves. ‘In my room he sat on my bed or creaked across the floor from corner to corner, by the hour, making me feel a guilty wretch to cause him so much misery. He is a dear, dear old fellow.’
For he loved his family as they loved him, and no picture of him could be complete which did not show his charm and infinite affection in the delightful atmosphere of his home. His children he always speaks of with thoughtful tenderness, and he not only watched over them but enjoyed them. Not many busy fathers, however loving, could have made, and meant, the apt reply, when asked, ‘How can you write with these children here?’ — ‘It is because they are here that I can write.’ And he could do more than attend to his deepest concerns in their presence. He could and did do what is perhaps even more difficult, take them into his counsels and discuss large matters of thought and profound questions of state with intimate freedom at his own fireside, thus making it, his biographer says, ‘ the happiest fireside in the world.’
As for Mrs. Blaine, his tenderness for her is written all over his life and hers. He could indeed indulge in such chaffing criticism as rather expresses tenderness than dulls it. ‘ I drove the pair, my wife rode; she is not generally driven, but in family arrangements she more commonly drives.’ But the depth and permanence of the tenderness are everywhere felt, even when not expressed, and they are manifested by the constant need and constant appeal far more than could be done by any power of language. The most exquisite witness to them is their reflection in Mrs. Blaine’s letters. ‘So much of life and so much love,’ she says of her family, ‘do not often go together.’ And I do not know where to find summed up in briefer, more expressive words the typical attitude of a devoted wife toward an affectionate husband than in the following phrase: ‘I miss his unvarying attention and as constant neglect.’
When it came to enlarging affection beyond the family circle, Blaine, like most busy men with happy homes, does not appear to have had any very intimate friends, at least in later life. But the list of those who were deeply attached to him is a long one, and his unswerving loyalty to all is unquestioned. As to his general social qualities, it is evident that he was born to mix with men, to please them, and to succeed with them. He liked his fellows; did not like to be alone, but more than that, really liked to be with others; and there is a distinct and appreciable difference between the two instincts. Yet, though he enjoyed society and sought it and liked to play a prominent part in it, he was always simple and natural, always himself. He even carried artless candor to the point of abstraction; was careless about his appearance, careless about his clothes; would sit in a merry company entirely lost and absorbed in thought. Then he would return to himself, insist that he had not been absent, and with incomparable ease and sprightliness make up for any absence by a presence that, though never obtrusive, was all-pervading and triumphant.
When we sum up this social attraction in Senator Hoar’s reference to ‘ the marvelously persuasive charm of his delightful and graceful manners,’ we are prepared to understand something of Blaine’s prominent place in the political life of his time.
For, whatever else he was, and no matter what his achievement in other lines, he was always, by common consent, a consummate politician. He could sway great masses of men by his personality as few leaders in American history have been able to do. ‘Mr. Blaine was certainly the most fascinating man I have ever known in politics,’ says Andrew D. White. ‘No wonder that so many Republicans in all parts of the country seemed ready to give their lives to elect him.’ To be sure, he had enemies as well as friends, and both were ardent. ‘There has probably never been a man in our history upon whom so few people looked with indifference,’ says Senator Hoar, ‘He was born to be loved or hated. Nobody occupied a middle ground as to him.’ Yet even his enemies found it difficult to escape his charm. After he had made some rather irritating decision as Speaker, one Democrat was heard to say privately to another, ‘Now there’s Blaine — but damn him, I do love him.’ In his later years, when he was campaigning for others rather than for himself, he was everywhere received with what John Hay called ‘a fury of affection.’
Something in his appearance must have charmed people. As we look at his portraits to-day, it is not quite easy to say what this was. Indeed, in some of them there is a look about the eyes that repels. But there must have been in his manner and bearing a spirit, a vivacity, an instant response to all minds and tempers, that does not get into the portraits.
At any rate, the charm was there, and was irresistible; and one searches curiously to find out the causes of it. It was effective with individuals, taken singly. And here it seems to lie largely in a complete and instant understanding. Blaine loved to probe men’s characters. He was immensely attentive to what others were saying and thinking and doing. ‘Your Father, whose quick ear catches everything that is said,’ observes his most loving critic. He not only caught what was said, but he interpreted it, put two and two and ten and ten together, and built men’s minds out of their common, careless actions. And he not only understood, but sympathized, showed others that he thought and also felt as they did. He came among the people and stepped right into their lives. ‘Wherever man earns his daily bread by the sweat of his brow, there Mr. Blaine enters and is ever welcome,’ said one of his neighbors. There was some policy in this, undoubtedly; but there was also some love. It is impossible to dispute the admirable verdict of his biographer: ‘He had a passion for human happiness.’ And it was a real passion, not a whim or fancy: life and his political pursuits were to him always a serious matter. He had plenty of jesting at his command, plenty of easy gayety. But he was never disposed to take ambition or success or the achievement of great public objects after the fashion of Seward, as an exciting game, or a neatly fashioned and highly finished work of art. He moved the souls of other men because their souls and their welfare and their hopes moved him.
Also, he not only understood and felt, but he remembered, and it is impossible to overestimate the value of this gift in dealing with men. He would meet a man he had not seen for twenty years and recall little details of their last interview. He would shake hands with old farmers and remember their white horses and clever trades they made long ago. ‘How in the world did he know that I had a sister Mary who married a Jones? ’ said one fellow, and went and voted for him. He professed that the memory was instinctive, and when asked, ‘How can you remember so ?’ answered, ‘How can you help it ?’ But he knew well enough that there was effort and attention in it; and attention, as Chesterfield said, is the foundation of courtesy. One day a carriage drove up. ‘I think it must be for you,’ said a friend. ‘Yes,’ said Blaine, ‘but that is not the point. The point is that there is a man on that front seat whom I have not seen for twenty-seven years, and I have got just two minutes and a half to remember his name in.’ He remembered it.
Probably all these things together make what we call magnetism. It is interesting to hear Blaine’s own opinion of this quality, as embodied in someone else. ‘What precisely is meant by magnetism it might be difficult to define, but it is undoubtedly true that Mr. Burlingame possessed a great reserve of that subtile, forceful, overwhelming power which the word magnetism is used to signify.’ Neither Burlingame nor anyone else ever possessed more of it than Blaine.
As it attracted individuals, who met him man to man, so it affected vast masses, who never came into direct contact with him at all. He was not a great orator; but he never said too much and what he did say, told. He was wonderfully quick at retort, rarely let a critic or questioner get the best of him. He was energetic and straightforward. His reputation as a politician leads you to expect rhetoric in his speeches. But it is not there, or rarely. Instead, there is quick and telling common sense. And he was simple, spontaneous, appeared to speak and did speak direct from the heart, often with immediate and profound emotion. For it is characteristic of the man, and accounts for much of his success, that he combined impulse and passion with a singular degree of far-reaching foresight.
It was this divination and foresight, even more than his gift of speech, that enabled him to hold and control the masses. He was a natural leader; not merely in the organizing sense, for he often left organizing to others; but, as Senator Hoar says, he touched the people because he was like the people. He saw and foresaw the issues that would animate and the right moment for introducing them; and he knew how to give them the form that clutched men’s hearts.
No man has ever understood better the value as well as the defects of the American party system. His friends and his enemies were, on the whole, those of his party. He may perhaps have been inclined to favor and reward the former unduly, and it cannot be denied that he sometimes fell into extremes of partisan and personal bitterness of the sort that drove even his kindly wife to exclaim, ‘I hate to hate, but I am in danger of that feeling now.’ But for the most part, his grudges were laid aside as quickly as they were adopted, and he viewed political machinery merely as a superb agency to accomplish a particular end.
His standing as a politician, then, no one can dispute. Moreover, it is universally admitted that he was a remarkably quick, effective, and, on the whole, fair presiding officer in the legislature and in Congress. Was he a great statesman ? On one side of statesmanship, that of slow, careful, matured, solid construction, he seems to have accomplished little. His name is widely identified with a protective tariff and he spoke and worked for it all his life, but he was connected with no actual tariff measure, unless the reciprocity element in the McKinley bill. As Secretary of State in 1881 and again, under Harrison, from 1889 to 1892, he dealt with various large questions of diplomacy. His action was always clear, incisive, and energetic. His logic was reasonable and his aims high. But one of his most judicious advocates speaks of his ‘failure in tact as a diplomatist,’ and admits that he was a little too prone to carry the methods of congressional debate into the sedater sphere of diplomacy. And General Sherman, who was a connection and warm friend, says, referring to his executive ability, ‘His qualities are literary, not administrative. . . . I would not choose Blaine to command a regiment or frigate in battle. Many an inferior man would do this better than he.’
On the other hand, from what may be called the imaginative side of statesmanship, Blaine was admirable. His mind lived in and with large ideas. He looked forward, far forward, as Seward did, and built ample, confident projects in the world to come. His discussions of difficult questions were almost always sane, simple, reasonable. Take, for instance, his speech on Ireland, at Portland, in 1886. The subject was as thorny then as it is to-day, and few have handled it with more discretion, moderation, and true wisdom than Blaine.
An even larger and more important matter was the problem of Pan-America. Blaine’s conception of this was far in advance of his own time, and his treatment of it, both in planning the Peace Congress and afterwards in guiding it, was enlightened and enlightening. I do not know what can be added to Mr. Root’s just remark that Blaine had ‘that imagination which enlarges the historian’s understanding of the past into the statesman’s comprehension of the future.’
On the whole, most persons not blinded by party prejudice will to-day, I think, agree with Senator Hoar that Blaine would have made an excellent president, unless as they take exception to his financial career.
From his youth Blaine had a natural taste for business and the world of money. None of his biographers elucidates very thoroughly the transition from the poor teacher to the comfortably situated, if not wealthy, editor, who at an early age threw himself into the world of politics. But it is evident that at all times he had an instinct for speculative investments, liked the excitement of them, and needed the cash. Also, in business as in politics, his taste was rather for large conception than for the slow and methodical handling of detail. One of Mrs. Blaine’s delightful sentences tells, or suggests, all we need to know on this head. ‘My dearer self—and certainly he might apply the title with another significance to me — is looking up his sadly neglected stocks. All that fine Fortunatus’s purse which we once held the strings of, and in which we had only to insert the finger to pay therewith for the house, has melted from the grasp which too carelessly held it.’ (Italics mine.)
And the money melted, not only from careless management, but from direct expenditure. Blaine was always ready to give, always charitable. No worthy appeal was made to him in vain. Naturally, the outlay for personal living was not less in proportion. Mrs. Blaine managed as best she could; but to bring up six children in the expensive atmosphere of Washington cost money, and it was impossible to elude the fact or cover it up.
The pressure, the financial stringency, are everywhere evident. Mrs. Blaine’s inimitable candor pushes through all her sense of reserve. ‘ A great family are we, so far as the circulation of money is concerned. To-night we are very nearly square with the world.’ Again, with as near to a reflection upon ‘the best man she ever knew thoroughly’ as she can permit herself: ‘I have drawn so much money this month, how can anyone who never listens to or enters into a detail, understand it?’ And Blaine’s own dry, vivid echo fully confirms her distresses: ‘I really do not know which way to turn for relief, I am so pressed and hampered.... Personally and pecuniarily I am laboring under the most fearful embarrassments.’ To which he adds elsewhere this telling figure: ‘If I had the money myself, I would be glad to advance it to you, but I am as dry as a contribution-box.’
Of course, this was not a constant condition. Things looked up as well as down. But money poured out, was always needed, and, as is the inconvenient nature of money, it had to come from somewhere. In the later sixties, when he was wall established in Congress, Blaine was involved in complicated financial transactions with a certain Warren Fisher, Jr., with whom he had become acquainted when Fisher was connected with Blaine’s brotherin-law. At Fisher’s instance Blaine agreed to dispose of a large amount of first-mortgage bonds of the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad to his friends in Maine. The bonds normally carried with them to the purchaser a considerable amount of land-grant bonds and stock; but in this case these, together with other first-mortgage bonds, were to go — privately — to Blaine as a commission. The investment did not turn out successfully. The Little Rock bonds fell, and Blaine felt himself obliged in honor — and policy — to make up his friends’ loss. About this time a considerable number of Little Rock bonds were sold to the Atlantic and Pacific and Union Pacific roads at a price largely in advance of the market. It was never shown that these bonds came from Blaine, and he was able to advance specific evidence to the contrary. But much suspicion attached to him, and in the minds of many it was never thoroughly removed.
The implication of course was that he was trading on his great office as Speaker of the House of Representatives and his opportunity to favor the railroads. No corrupt act was ever directly and clearly proved against him. But various passages in his letters to Fisher seemed to make the charge plausible. Shortly before taking the Little Rock bonds Blaine had made a ruling in the House of importance to the road. In a letter written afterwards, he points out that, without knowing it, he had done his new associates a great favor. In another letter of earlier date he remarks: ‘I do not feel that I shall prove a dead-head in the enterprise, if I once embark in it. I see various channels in which I know I can be useful.’ These phrases are certainly not conclusive, but they are damaging. They are not made less so by a sentence in one of Fisher’s letters to Blaine: ‘Owing to your political position, you were able to work off all your bonds at a very high price; and the fact is well known to others as well as myself.’ This charge Blaine received almost cringingly and with no denial whatever.
From the time when the unpleasant matter was first stirred up, Blaine’s course about it was thoroughly unsatisfactory. He made well-sounding speeches in the House, which convinced all those who were convinced already. But to any careful scrutiny it was evident that he shuffled and prevaricated, contradicted himself, and used every effort to conceal what in the end could not be concealed. He declared publicly that the attempt to cover up an action itself condemned it; yet he urged upon Fisher the closest secrecy. ‘Burn this letter’ was a favorite phrase with him. It was perhaps a natural one, but it fitted his letters too well. In the crisis of his difficulties, when he was looking for the nomination in 1876, he wrote to Fisher, enclosing a letter which Fisher was to write to him, exonerating him from all blame. The document was more ingenious than ingenuous, and it is not pleasant to see a man in such a situation dictating about himself a sentence like the following: ‘When the original enterprise failed, I knew with what severity the pecuniary loss fell upon you, and with what integrity and nerve you met it.’
The reader will ask curiously how all these very private letters of Blaine’s came into the evidence. The answer involves not the least disagreeable part of the whole affair. The Congressional committee which investigated the matter in the spring of 1876 called before it one Mulligan, who had been in the employ of Fisher. Mulligan had possession of the Blaine correspondence and proposed to produce it. This annoyed Blaine greatly. He had an interview with Mulligan and, according to the latter, entreated him to return the letters, resorting to suggestions of bribery and to threats of suicide. All this, Blaine insisted, was utterly false. What is indisputable is that he got the letters into his hands, with at least the implied promise to restore them, and then calmly put them in his pocket and walked off with them, urging that they were his own private property.
As a climax of the Mulligan business, Blaine read the letters in the House, in the order and with the comments that suited him. He ended his speech characteristically by turning the tables on the investigating committee and accusing it of suppressing, for partisan purposes, evidence that would have completely cleared him. The attack was unjustified and, with Blaine’s knowledge of the facts, discreditable; but for the moment it was immensely telling, and shortly after, as a consequence of Blaine’s sudden illness, the immediate investigation was dropped. The infection of it, however, tainted his whole career.
What interests us far more than what Blaine actually did is his own attitude toward his own actions. We may assume with entire confidence that he did not for a moment admit to himself that he had done anything wrong. We have not only Mrs. Blaine’s definite, triumphant, if perhaps somewhat prejudiced, assertion that he was the best man she ever knew thoroughly: we have the general facts of human nature. An acute observer tells us that ‘One has always the support of one’s conscience, even when one commits the worst infamies. In fact, that is precisely what enables us to commit them.’ The dullest of human spirits is inexhaustible in finding excuses for its own conduct, and Blaine, far from being the dullest, was one of the most ingenious.
Therefore, I believe he was perfectly sincere when he declared upon the floor of the House: ‘I have never done anything in my political career for which I cannot answer to my constituents, my conscience, and the great Searcher of Hearts.’ These are tremendous phrases. Perhaps no living man could utter them with entire honesty, and they show the fatal, delusive power of words for their master — and their victim. Yet I have no doubt Blaine meant them. Beyond question he meant the far more impressive words spoken in privacy, with obviously genuine emotion. ‘When I think — when I think — that there lives in this broad land one single human being who doubts my integrity, I would rather have stayed — ’ There he stopped, but his gesture showed his earnestness.
It is intensely curious to turn from these statements to the pamphlet issued in 1884 by the Committee of One Hundred, and see the explicit analysis of what appear to be Blaine’s six deliberate falsehoods. The thoughtful reader, who has a human heart himself, will manage to divine how Blaine explained each one these. But it required an ingenuity worthy of a better cause.
Unquestionably he even excused to himself the complicated course of shuffling and concealment by which he endeavored to hide all his proceedings from the beginning. These were his own private concerns, he argued, long past and buried. The public had no conceivable business with them, and he was perfectly justified in making every possible effort to put the public off the scent.
Yet, as we look back at the affair, this seems to have been his worst mistake. If at the very start he had come out with perfect candor, told the story of the whole transaction, even in its most unfortunate features, admitted that he had blundered and had been foolish as well as apparently culpable, he might have stormed the country. For the American people and all humanity love nothing better than a man who acknowledges his faults; and this is the hardest of all lessons for a politician to learn. Blaine never learned it.
As to the business morality of what he did, it is, of course, difficult to pass final judgment on it, because we shall never know the facts. But it must be remembered that the late sixties were a period when speculation in railroads affected most business men more or less. Lowell, who was by no means friendly to Blaine, wrote: ‘I suspect that few of our Boston men who have had to do with Western railways have been more scrupulous.’ Further, it must especially be remembered that, in all his long career after 1872, no shadow of suspicion of anything corrupt really attached to Blaine, although he was always interested in speculative investments. Moreover, the bitter partisan animosity that was aroused against him must be taken into account. The most candid of the Mugwumps did not hesitate to exaggerate well-grounded suspicion into fantastic prejudice. Even Mr. Rhodes, sanest and kindliest of judges, who, in his eighth volume, is, I think, somewhat too favorable to Blaine’s statesmanship, speaks in volume seven of his ‘itching palm.’ Now Blaine’s palm never itched with greed. It was only slippery with liberality.
Blaine’s fundamental error was when, as a great political officer of the government, he engaged in dubious speculation at all. Senator Hoar, who admired him and exonerated him from all wrongdoing, yet insists that ‘ members of legislative bodies, especially great political leaders of large influence, ought to be careful to keep a thousand miles off from relations which may give rise to even a suspicion of wrong.’ Blaine was squarely in the midst of such things and not any miles off at all. His biographer tells us that one of his favorite maxims was, ‘Nothing is so weakening as regret.’ He regretted his dealings with Fisher, however, and spoke of them as ‘this most unfortunate transaction of my life, pecuniarily and otherwise.’ He had reason to, for they lost him the presidency.
And the presidency may justly be regarded as the goal of his whole life. There has been much argument as to his own personal ambition. The biographers do not emphasize this element in him, and especially insist that in later years he became utterly indifferent to political advancement and so repeatedly expressed himself. No doubt he did so express himself. No doubt, after his defeat in 1884, he behaved with the utmost dignity in avoiding any insistent appeal for popular favor, and in declining to have his name tossed about like a straw in the gusts of partisan debate. But those who stress this attitude too much forget that an imaginative man may perfectly well combine a passionate desire for a thing with a philosophical sense of its worthlessness. All through Blaine’s career I catch gleams of intense ambition. And when I read Mrs. Blaine’s admirable sentence, ‘Your Father said to me only yesterday, “I am just like Jamie: when I want a thing, I want it dreadfully,”’ I have no difficulty in understanding Mr. Stanwood’s picture of him resigning his Secretaryship of State in 1892, and shutting himself up alone in a Boston hotel, to follow with passionate eagerness the reports of the Convention where his chance of touching the climax of his fate was slipping away forever.
For, no matter what view one takes of Blaine’s conscious, personal ambition, it cannot be denied that the total logic of his career bore him toward the presidency with a tremendous, long, unceasing sweep. He rose upward and onward through the course of state politics, through the larger world at Washington, succeeding everywhere and in everything, gaining friends and supporters and admirers. It seemed in 1876 as if the nomination must be his. Then the phantom of the fatal Fisher stalked in and thrust him out. It was the same in 1880. When 1884 came, the pressure of his immense popularity was too great to be resisted, and the convention was forced to nominate him. The campaign that followed was one of the fiercest, the most exciting, the most personal in American history. It was also one of the closest. To the end no one could tell or foretell. The incident of the over-zealous Reverend Burchard, who declared that his adored Blaine was the deadly enemy of ‘Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,’ may have affected only a few votes. But a few in New York were enough, so few that some contended that a dishonest count in a district here and there was sufficient to change the result. Yet, if it had not been for the defection of those who distrusted Blaine’s financial character, a dozen Burchards could hardly have made a ripple on the wave of his immense majority.
Unfortunately we have little light on Blaine’s inner life during the contest. Almost his last public words before the vote were, ‘ I go to my home to-morrow not without a strong confidence in the result of the ballot, but with a heart that shall not be in the least troubled by any verdict that may be returned by the American people.’ The shall is fine. But how such words wither before the vivid humanity of Mrs. Blaine’s description: ‘It is all a horror to me. I was absolutely certain of the election, as I had a right to be from Mr. Elkins’s assertions. Then the fluctuations were so trying to the nerves. It is easy to bear now, but the click-click of the telegraph, the shouting through the telephone in response to its never-to-besatisfied demands, and the unceasing murmur of men’s voices, coming up through the night to my room, will never go out of my memory — while over and above all, the perspiration and chills into which the conflicting reports constantly threw the physical part of one, body and soul alike rebelling against the restraints of nature, made an experience not to be voluntarily recalled.’
There is nothing to be said after that. For Blaine it was the end, though the end lasted for nearly ten years of lingering and superficially varied activity. After the bitterness of such an hour, what was there in life? You might preserve a decent outside, of courage, of dignity, of serenity, even of ardor and enthusiasm. Underneath there was nothing. You could nurse your pet symptoms of disease; you could turn an honest dollar in the stock market; you could trifle afar off with the presidential bauble; you could be a paltry Secretary of State, with much credit and some friction; you could see those you loved best dying about you; and, thank God, you could die yourself.
Such was the great moral tragedy of James Gillespie Blaine. With pretty much all the virtues, all the graces, all the gifts of genius, he will be remembered in his country’s annals as the man who lost the presidency because he was suspected of financial dishonor.