The Scandalous Election of 1884

Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering a baby out of wedlock

Grover Cleveland campaign poster from 1884
Poster from the 1884 presidential election featuring Grover Cleveland and his running mate Thomas Hendricks.

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The election of 1884 shook up politics in the United States as it brought a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, to the White House for the first time since the administration of James Buchanan a quarter-century earlier. And the 1884 campaign was also marked by notorious mudslinging, including a paternity scandal.

In an era when highly competitive daily newspapers were relaying every scrap of news about the two major candidates, it seems that rumors about Cleveland's scandalous past would cost him the election. But then his opponent, James G. Blaine, a longtime political figure with a national reputation, participated in a catastrophic gaffe a week before election day.

The momentum, especially in the critical state of New York, dramatically swung from Blaine to Cleveland. And not only was the election of 1884 tumultuous, but it set the stage for several presidential elections to follow in the 19th century.

Cleveland's Surprising Rise to Prominence

Grover Cleveland had been born in 1837 in New Jersey, but lived most of his life in New York State. He became a successful lawyer in Buffalo, New York. During the Civil War he chose to send a substitute to take his place in the ranks. That was entirely legal at the time, but he was later criticized for it. In an era when Civil War veterans dominated many facets of politics, Cleveland's decision not to serve was ridiculed.

In the 1870s Cleveland held a local post as sheriff for three years, but returned to his private law practice and probably anticipated no further political career. But when a reform movement swept New York State politics, the Democrats of Buffalo encouraged him to run for mayor. He served a one-year term, in 1881, and the following year ran for governor of New York. He was elected, and made a point of standing up to Tammany Hall, the political machine in New York City.

Cleveland’s one term as New York’s governor positioned him to be the Democratic nominee for president in 1884. Within a span of four years, Cleveland was propelled by reform movements from his obscure law practice in Buffalo to the top spot on a national ticket.

James G. Blaine, the Republican Candidate in 1884

James G. Blaine had been born into a political family in Pennsylvania, but when he married a woman from Maine he moved to her home state. Rising quickly in Maine politics, Blaine held statewide office before being elected to Congress.

In Washington, Blaine served as Speaker of the House during the years of Reconstruction. He was elected to the Senate in 1876. He was also a contender for the Republican nomination for president in 1876. He dropped out of the race in 1876 when he was implicated in a financial scandal involving railroad stocks. Blaine proclaimed his innocence, but he was often viewed with suspicion.

Blaine’s political persistence paid off when he secured the Republican nomination in 1884.

The 1884 Presidential Campaign

The stage for the 1884 election had really been set eight years earlier, with the controversial and disputed election of 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes took office and pledged to serve only one term. Hayes was followed by James Garfield, who was elected in 1880, only to be shot by an assassin a few months after taking office. Garfield eventually died from the gunshot wound and was succeeded by Chester A. Arthur.

As 1884 approached, President Arthur sought the Republican nomination for 1884, but he wasn’t able to bring various party factions together. And, it was widely rumored that Arthur was in poor health. (President Arthur was indeed ill, and died in what would have been the middle of his second term.)

With the Republican Party, which had held power since the Civil War, now in disarray, it seemed the Democrat Grover Cleveland had a good chance to win. Bolstering Cleveland’s candidacy was his reputation as a reformer.

A number of Republicans who couldn’t support Blaine as they believed him to be corrupt threw their support behind Cleveland. The faction of Republicans supporting Democrats was dubbed Mugwumps by the press.

A Paternity Scandal Surfaced in the 1884 Campaign

Cleveland campaigned little in 1884, while Blaine ran a very busy campaign, giving about 400 speeches. But Cleveland encountered a huge obstacle when a scandal erupted in July 1884.

The bachelor Cleveland, it was revealed by a newspaper in Buffalo, was having an affair with a widow in Buffalo. And it was also alleged that he had fathered a son with the woman.

The accusations traveled quickly, as newspapers supported Blaine spread the story. Other newspapers, inclined to support the Democratic nominee, hustled to debunk the scandalous tale.

On August 12, 1884, the New York Times reported that a committee of "independent Republicans of Buffalo" had investigated the charges against Cleveland. In a lengthy report, they proclaimed that the rumors, which involved charges of drunkenness as well as the purported abduction of a woman, were baseless. 

The rumors, though, continued until election day. Republicans seized on the paternity scandal, mocking Cleveland by chanting the rhyme, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”

"Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" Created Trouble for Blaine

The Republican candidate created a huge problem for himself a week before the election. Blaine attended a meeting in a Protestant church at which a minister chided those who had left the Republican Party by stating, “We don’t propose to leave our party and identify with the party whose antecedents are rum, Romanism, and rebellion.”

Blaine sat quietly during the attack aimed at Catholics and Irish voters in particular. The scene was reported widely in the press, and it cost Blaine in the election, particularly in New York City.

A Close Election Determines the Outcome

The 1884 election, perhaps due to Cleveland’s scandal, was closer than many people expected. Cleveland won the popular vote by a narrow margin, less than half a percent, but secured 218 electoral votes to Blaine’s 182. Blaine lost the state of New York by little more than a thousand votes, and it was believed the “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” comments had been the fatal blow.

The Democrats, celebrating Cleveland’s victory, took to mocking the Republican attacks on Cleveland by chanting, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”

Grover Cleveland’s Interrupted White House Career

Grover Cleveland served a term in the White House but was defeated in his bid for reelection in 1888. However, he achieved something unique in American politics when he ran again in 1892 and was elected, thus becoming the only president to serve two terms that were not consecutive.

The man who defeated Cleveland in 1888, Benjamin Harrison, appointed Blaine as his Secretary of State. Blaine was active as a diplomat, but resigned the post in 1892, perhaps hoping to once again secure the Republican nomination for president. That would have set the stage for another Cleveland-Blaine election, but Blaine wasn’t able to secure the nomination. His health failed and he died in 1893.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Scandalous Election of 1884." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). The Scandalous Election of 1884. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Scandalous Election of 1884." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).