Just days before the presidential election, Dr Samuel Dickinson Burchard delivered a bombshell to Republicans assembled at New York City's Fifth Avenue Hotel. Dr Burchard was a prominent Presbyterian minister and chancellor of Ingham University and president of Rutger's college for women. A powerful and euphonious sermonizer, Dr Burchard was a substitute for fellow clergyman Dr Thomas Armitage of the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church who had missed his train from Philadelphia where he had officiated at a wedding. Dr Burchard was to speak on behalf of candidate James F Blaine, but did him no favor.
It was a rancorous election year in which struggles between labor and capital and debates over immigration, gold versus silver currency, westward expansion, defeat of native Americans, and over whether the United States might annex regions in Latin America, were all part of and parcel of political stew that brought to fine contenders into the presidential hustings.
His opponent was Grover Cleveland, a fellow New Yorker who was revered by reformists in both parties. A wing of the Republican party was swayed by Cleveland's long campaign against government corruption that had besmirched Republican politicians ever since the end of the Civil War. Cleveland's bluff talk and fiscal prowess made him an icon of conservatism.
James Gillespie Blaine had had an illustrious career as a U.S Representative and Speaker of the House, and went on to become a U.S. Senator for Maine and the Secretary of State on two occasions. He was an advocate of closer relations to Latin America, as well as an advocate of railroads and enhanced foreign trade. A spell-binding and charismatic speaker, he was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln as well as suffrage for black Americans. He represented a faction of moderate Republicans known, oddly, as the 'Half-Breeds.' Blaine's mother was a Catholic, even while Blaine himself was a practicing Presbyterian. Catholics, largely of Irish ancestry, were largely oriented towards the Democratic party since it had been much more receptive to immigrants and the labor movement. Religion was then, as it is now, an item for debate since much of the Republican hierarchy was anti-immigrant and thus hostile to the Catholics and Jews who formed the bulk of the immigrants.
Even so, Catholics who had never voted Republican were planning to vote for Blaine, knowing full well that his mother and sisters were Catholics and that he himself had defended the Irish Protestant patriot Charles Parnell, an advocate of Irish home rule. Cleveland also drank at the well of Irish American sentiments, having eexpressed sympathy for the Fenians who had been arrested for their participating in a disastrous raid on Canada by the hapless General John O'Neill.
So it was on October 29, 1884 that Dr Burchard delivered his fateful oration to the members of the Grand Old Party in New York City. Drunkness, Fenianism, and Romanism were frequently on the lips of Protestant churchmen in the United States, who were reacting to the influx of immigrants and their alacrity in joining actively in politics as Democrats. It was during his speech that he said to his listeners "We are Republicans and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents are rum, Romanism, and rebellion."
Rather than emboldening the Republicans, Dr Burchard's red hot rhetoric backfired and drove wavering Catholics back into the fold of the Democratic party where they would largely remain for more than a century. Democrat Grover Cleveland won the decisive New York vote by a heart-stopping margin of just 1,149.
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.