ames G. Blaine was born at Indian Hill Farm, near West Brownville, in
Washington county, Pennsylvania. His father was one of the state's largest
landowners. Blaine was educated for several years in Lancaster, Ohio, then
entered Washington and Jefferson College (Washington, Pennsylvania) in 1843,
graduating in 1847, at the age of seventeen, near the top of his class. After
graduation, he was a schoolteacher at Western Military Institute (Kentucky)
before moving to Philadelphia where he taught at the Pennsylvania Institute for
the Blind and studied law in his spare time. In June 1850 he exchanged wedding
vows in secret with Harriet Stanwood. They remarried in March 1851 because of
the questionable legality of the first marriage ceremony.
In 1854, Blaine moved to Augusta, Maine, his wife's hometown. He edited the
Kennebec Journal and Portland Advertiser, and was one of the founders of the
Republican party in his adopted state. He was elected to the lower house of the
state legislature, serving from 1859-1862, the latter two years as speaker of
the house. By that time, Blaine was solidly positioned as a major player in
Republican state politics. He was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives
in 1863 and served until 1876. He became an expert parliamentarian and was
elected to three terms as Speaker (1869-1875).
During his tenure in Congress, Blaine backed most of the Radical Reconstruction
agenda and favored the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. On economic
issues like tariff and monetary policies he took centrist positions. He became
leader of the moderate wing of the Republican party, called the
"Half-Breeds," standing in opposition to both the conservative,
pro-Grant "Stalwarts," led by his bitter rival, Senator Roscoe
Conkling of New York, and the liberal faction, represented by Senator Carl
Schurz and Harper's editor George William Curtis.
In 1876, Blaine was the leading presidential candidate going into the Republican
National Convention, but his chances were undermined by revelations in the
"Mulligan Letters" which allegedly implicated him in graft involving
railroad companies. Still, he led on the first six ballots, and it was only on
the seventh that a stop-Blaine movement came together to nominate a compromise
candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes. It was at this convention, though, that the
nickname "Plumed Knight" was bestowed on Blaine in a rousing
nominating speech by Robert Ingersoll. The term was a compliment to Blaine's
legislative skill and patriotism, as "a man who has preserved in Congress
what our soldiers won upon the field." In the 1884 election, however,
cartoonist Thomas Nast would use the epithet to mercilessly taunt Blaine.
Shortly after the convention, on July 10, 1876, Blaine resigned his
congressional seat to become Maine's junior U.S. senator upon the retirement of
Lot Morrill. Blaine was then elected in his own right and served until 1881. In
the Senate, he chaired the Committee on Rules and the Committee on Civil Service
and Retrenchment (much to the dismay of civil service reformers).
In 1880, a third-term boom made former president Ulysses S. Grant the
front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, while opponents of
Grant backed Blaine or Senator John Sherman. The convention deadlocked for
thirty-three ballots as none of the three candidates could win the requisite
number of votes. On the thirty-four ballot, momentum started for a compromise
candidate, Representative James Garfield, and culminated in his nomination. As a
loyal party-man, Blaine endorsed and worked hard to elect Garfield. The new
president rewarded him with the cabinet post of secretary of state.
So on March 5, 1881, Blaine resigned the U.S. Senate to resume his new position.
After Garfield's assassination, though, Blaine stayed on only briefly in the
Arthur administration, resigning in December 1881. In his brief tenure as
secretary of state, he called for a Pan-American conference and advocated U.S.
control of an anticipated inter-oceanic canal crossing Central America. Upon his
retirement, he began writing memoirs of his public life, published in two
volumes (1884 and 1886) as Twenty Years in Congress.
In 1884 Blaine was the leading contender for the Republican presidential
nomination. Former Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman was a popular
alternative, but he refused to have his name placed in nomination. Blaine was
nominated on the fourth ballot over incumbent President Chester Arthur, who had
alienated conservatives without gaining the support of reformers. Because of
Blaine's alleged corruption, opposition to civil service reform, and reckless
foreign policy views, an influential group of independent Republicans (called
"Mugwumps") broke off from their party and supported Democratic
nominee Grover Cleveland. The tumultuous campaign ended in Cleveland narrowly
defeating Blaine. After the election, Blaine returned to finish the second
volume of his memoirs, and in 1887 toured Europe, where he was received by
several heads of state.
In 1888 Blaine was again considered the front-runner for the Republican
presidential nomination. This time he declined to enter the race, believing that
another acrimonious convention would damage whomever the Republicans nominated.
He still received a few scattered votes. He had worked behind the scenes to
nominate Benjamin Harrison, and when Harrison became president in 1889, he
appointed Blaine to his previous position as secretary of state. In 1889-1890,
Blaine chaired the first Pan-American Conference and advocated reciprocal tariff
agreements between Latin American and the United States. In 1892 he resigned his
cabinet post to seek the Republican presidential nominee against Harrison. The
president, however, was renominated on the first ballot, with Blaine and William
McKinley in a near-tie for a distant second place.
James G. Blaine died in Washington, D. C., on January 27, 1893, and was interred
at Oak Hill Cemetery. In 1920 his remains were transferred to Blaine Memorial
Park in Augusta, Maine.