& Rebellion
The Making of
A President, 1884

Mark Wahlgren Summers
(University of North Carolina)
For those of us somewhat vague on late 19th century American history, we know that the phrase "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" meant something important to somebody somewhere. But it wasn't until we read Summers exhaustive discussion of the campaign of 1884 that we learn that one Dr. Samuel D. Burchard, addressing a gathering of the Religious Bureau of the Republican National Committee, a week before the general election, stated,

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. We are loyal to our flag.

What Burchard did, by reciting this triplet, was to saddle the Democrats with being on the wrong side of three of the most sensitive issues of the times:

  • Prohibition --- a controversy which the Women's Christian Temperance Union and others had brought to fever pitch;
  • Catholicism --- a feared minority of the time (all actions were considered as coming from Rome), and
  • The Civil War --- which had but twenty years before, been brought to its bloody end, leaving in its wake no end of bitterness on both sides.

Summers points out that Doctor Burchard was

    a lifelong enemy of the saloons, a steadfast Union man who had assembled a regiment of volunteers in the church basement, but [he was] not noticeably anti-Catholic. Perhaps his own explanation later is the best, that like many preachers he could hardly resist a good alliteration, "a mere rhetorical flourish," and improvised on the spur of the moment.

The candidate James G. Blaine was there, in the audience, but there was some question as to whether he even heard. Some thought the minister had said, "Rum, Mormonism, and Rebellion." The newspapers mostly ignored the remark. If Blaine sensed trouble, he didn't do anything until a full three days had passed, when the public actually caught on to the ugliness of the phrase that had come out of the mouth of a man of god, at a Republican rally. By then, it was too late.

§     §     §

One of the joys of reading of this campaign is the feeling that they had a hell of a lot more fun with presidential elections than we do now. There was no television to turn the candidates to oatmeal. There were marches, and extended speechifying --- filled with rhetorical flourishes, and dozens of newspapers in the major cities to give dozens of different views of what was said.

The big issue of the campaign before the RR&R gaffe was widespread belief that Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate, had fathered a child out of wedlock by a Maria Halpin. The author's conclusion: it might have been Cleveland with his finger in the pie, or --- as likely --- it might well have been some associates of his who he wanted to protect. In any event, he did the right thing, at least by the standards of the time: arranging for housing and shelter for mother and child.

But then as now, the supposed misdeeds of the candidates were subject to extensive, sometimes tedious, examination. Blaine himself was accused of having "betrayed the girl whom he married, and then only married her at the muzzle of a shotgun." He was even accused of not watching his busses. According to the Indianapolis Sentinel,

    No longer ago than last night he kissed two men in this city, and one of these two was a Democrat. It is thus seen that the habit is growing on him. So long as he confined this method to the Republicans the Sentinel did not complain, but he shall not play it on Democrats with our consent.

Summers reviews some of the scandals from previous presidential campaigns:

    In 1856, a whispering campaign had imputed homosexuality to James Buchanan; in 1872, Horace Greeley was accused of endorsing "free love and free farms and all that." The attacks on Tilden in 1876 were better newspaperman [claimed] that the candidate was "the most utter old spinster that was ever bent on Presidential masturbation..."

Is it any better now? We suspect not. Summers discussion of the calumnies of so many years ago makes our own seem tame by comparison. If he does nothing else, he stirs up a fine sense of déjà vu --- he brings an ancient campaign to life, and makes us long for a time when crowds would actually march down the street, chanting doggerel like:

    Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine!
    The con-tinental liar from the state of Maine!


    Ma! Ma! Where's my pa?
    Gone to the White House! Ha, ha, ha!

--- R. P. Weise

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