“As the Lord sent upon us an ass in the shape of a preacher and a rainstorm, to lessen our vote in New York,” wrote Republican candidate James G. Blaine two weeks after he had lost the presidential election of 1884, “I am disposed to feel resigned to the dispensation of defeat.” Thanks in no small part to an explosive remark made by the Reverend Samuel D. Burchard, Democrat Grover Cleveland had carried pivotal New York by 1,049 votes and with them the 36 electoral votes that decided the election.
A week before the November 4 election, Burchard (right), minister of the Murray Hill Presbyterian Church and one of a group of several hundred clergymen, greeted Blaine at his Fifth Avenue Hotel and concluded his address by calling Democrats “the party whose antecedents have been RUM, ROMANISM and REBELLION.” Blaine, looking haggard after his six-week, 400- speech tour of the West, ignored the blatant insult to Irish Catholics and expounded on the “conclusive issue” of the campaign, the protective tariff.
In high glee, the Democratic Executive Committee—which had “watching scouts” to take down every word Blaine uttered—saw Burchard’s alliterative phrase quoted in the next day’s issue of the New York World. No time was lost in splashing it on posters and handbills for distribution throughout the city.
Three days passed before Blaine (left) distanced himself from his supporter’s offensive remark. “I have refrained carefully and instinctively from making any disrespectful allusion to the Democratic party,” he protested. In a reference to his Catholic mother, he added, “I should esteem myself of all men the most degraded if under any pressure, or under any temptation, I could in any presence make a disrespectful allusion to that ancient faith in which my mother lived and died.”
It was too late. Irish Catholic voters, who tended to like the charismatic Blaine and who appreciated his propensity to “twist the tail” of the British lion, had second thoughts about straying from the Democratic fold. Blaine afterward declared that he had won “thousands upon thousands” of Irish votes in New York and would have had many more “but for the intolerant and utterly improper remark of Dr. Burchard, which was quoted everywhere to my prejudice and in many places.” He would have carried New York by ten t housand votes, Blaine insisted, “had Dr. Burchard been doing missionary work in Asia Minor or Cochin China.”
Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine/Unidentified artist, 1884/Chromolithograph/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Milton and Ingrid Rose
Samuel Dickinson Burchard/Mathew Brady Studio, undated/Glass plate collodion negative/Frederick Hill Meserve Collection, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
James Gillespie Blaine/David H. Anderson, c. 1884/Albumen silver print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Robert L. Drapkin