I blame the Democrats for what happened to James Gillespie Blaine (above). The donkeys were supposed to be doing their nominal job of keeping Republicans honest, but because the Democrats jumped the ideology shark with their "Southern Strategy" in the run up to the Civil War, there weren’t a lot of them around when Republican James Blaine was first elected to congress in 1862. Nor was it James’s fault that his brother-in-law, Eben C. Stanwood, was so greedy. There is always a lot of money floating around Washington during a war, the kind of easy money even a brother-in-law could get his hands on. And James Blaine would have been a saint if he hadn’t been tempted by the offer by the money to be made selling stock in the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. Of course James didn’t have to jump in quite so enthusiastically…
The Little Rock Railroad was supposed to have been completed before the civil war broke out, but it went bankrupt. And that was when Boston speculator Josiah Fisher convinced a group of investors (including the brother-in-law, Eben) to buy up the worthless stock. It was Eben - and another crooked “investor” named Joshua Caldwell - who dangled fat sales commission checks in front of the new Congressman James Blaine. And from the second he heard about the idea, James wanted in. In fact, the Maine Congressman wrote to Fisher on the 10th of September 1867, in a letter marked “Strictly Private”, “…my position will enable me to render you services of vital importance and value….I do not feel I shall be a dead head....Are you not willing to aid me (elsewhere) where you can do so with profit to yourself at the same time?” Fisher did not reply to this crude solicitation, so evidently James paid him a visit in person. We know about the agreement they reached because Blaine was helpful enough to lay out the details in a second letter he wrote to Fisher, which he helpfully marked “Burn after Reading.”
By September of 1869 James Blaine had sold over $130,000 in Little Rock railroad bonds (worth about $2 million today), mostly to other railroad barons, who, of course, did not need or want paper they knew was worthless. But still, James was paid very handsome commissions for those sales. By then passengers could actually board the train in Little Rock. However they were required to cover the last fifty miles to Fort Smith in a stagecoach, a 3 ½ hour living hell of dust, mud and potholes. Not surprisingly, the railroad went bankrupt yet again. But despite the business having failed twice, Congresman Blaine was still demanding that he be “compensated” in addition to the commission checks he had already cashed. Fisher was ready to tell Blaine to drop dead, until one of the other robber barons reminded Fisher, “…it is important that he should be conciliated…However unreasonable in his demand he may appear to you…he should in some manner be appeased.” So Speaker Blaine was “appeased” with loans he was not expected to repay. But Banker Fisher was not likely to forget he had been made to feel like one of the suckers of his own scam.
After serving three very profitable terms as Speaker of the House, James Blaine stepped down so he could concentrate on a run for the White House. Just think how much money he could make there! As the campaign season of 1876 approached, he was a serious possibility. However, things had changed in Washington by then. The Democrats were back, and had captured control of the House of Representatives. That gave them the power of subpoena, and they used it to subpoena a certain Mr. James Mulligan, who was a Boston bookkeeper in the employ of Banker Josiah Fisher. Remember him?
It seems that Mr. Mulligan had never burned an incriminating letter in his life. On May 31st , 1876 under the gentle guidance of Judiciary Committee Chairman, Democrat Proctor Knott (I love that name!), Mr. Mulligan casually admitted that he had in his possession “certain letters written by Rep. Blaine to Mr. Fisher”. Given the high sign by Blaine, the senior Republican on the committee immediately moved to adjourn for the day. That night Rep. Blaine appeared at Mr. Mulligan’s door at the Riggs House hotel, and proceeded to chase Mulligan all over his room, begging and whining and reminding Mulligan what disgrace would mean to Blaine's poor children. Finally, because he was embarrassed and cornered, Mulligan allowed the Congressman to read the letters. But once he had his hands on them Blaine announced that since they were “his” letters, he was going to keep them, and left with the letters safely in his own pocket.
On the floor of Congress over the next several days the Democrats demanded that Blaine hand the letters back over. Finally, on June fifth, James Blaine rose to speak in front of packed House galleries. He thundered, “I have defied the power of the House to compel me to produce these letters…but, sir,…I am not afraid to show the letters. Thank God Almighty, I am not afraid to show them.” As proof of his willingness to show the letters, he showed the letters. He waved them over his head. “These are they…and with some sense of humiliation,…with a sense of outrage which I think any man in my position would feel, I invite the confidence of 44 million of my countrymen while I read those letters from this desk.” And so he did, with commentary and asides in his own defense. The Republicans were persuaded, but the Democrats were not.
Having earlier read the letters himself, Chairman Knott (above) knew that Blaine had avoided reading certain incriminating sections of the letters, and he rose to challenge Blaine’s version. And that was when James Blaine pulled the rabbit out of his...hat. Suddenly changing the subject, he asked Knott if the committee had received a transatlantic cable from Joshua Caldwell (remember him?), supporting Blaine’s version of events. In fact Caldwell had sent such a cable. But Caldwell was a well known liar, and nobody in their right mind would believe anything he said - certainly Proctor Knott didn't. Still, that was not the question. Rep. Blaine stomped right up to Proctor’s desk and accused him, nose to nose, of suppressing the Caldwell cable. Blushing, Proctor was forced to stammer that indeed they had received such a cable. The galleries erupted in thunderous applause for Blaine.
Chairman Proctor Knott himself described the challenge as “…one of the most extraordinary exhibitions of histrionic skill, one of the most consummate pieces of acting that ever occurred upon any stage on earth.” Blaine had so completely turned the tables on the Democrats that nobody except them seemed to notice that he had not, in fact, denied the basic allegations of bribery in the letters.
Still, the effort had extracted a toll on Congressman James Blaine. That Sunday he collapsed on the front steps of his church, and passed out. If he was stricken going into the church or coming out I have been unable to confirm. He was bedridden for several weeks, during which time the committee investigation faded until it simply evaporated. But James G. Blaine's dreams of the White House had to be put off for the time being. Of course, being one of the biggest egomaniacs of his age, he never said never. And come 1884 he would try for the White House yet again. Which is when those letters would resurface, again.
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