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1888–The Murchison Letter

From COMM 458 student Ryan Castle:

Possibly one of the most important pieces of rhetoric created during the election of 1888 between Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland and Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison is the Murchison Letter. This letter highlights one of the most influential topics during the time of the election; free trade and its connection with Great Britain.

The issue between free traders and protectionists was one that dated back to the Dallas Tariff of 1816.  At the end of the War of 1812, Great Britain had stockpiled large amounts of iron and textiles. Since Great Britain had so much, their costs plummeted in comparison to those of American manufacturers thus leading to many Americans buying from Great Britain. The Dallas Tariff was then created by the United States to help bolster sales among American manufacturers that previously could not compete with Britain. This was especially important for the northern states as their economy was most dependent on manufacturing and the tariff enabled them to better compete with Britain. The tariff was received negatively by southern states, however, as it increased production costs on crops, notably cotton. It was also unpopular among New England merchants who wanted to restore trade with Britain. Nevertheless, international competition between the United States and Great Britain was still a dominant issue over 70 years later during the 1888 election.

Benjamin Harrison supported the idea of tariffs as a way for the United States to compete internationally with Great Britain, the primary country of concern. However, Grover Cleveland was against the tariffs and this led him to be associated with Great Britain, a country that supported free trade, and a costly connection to have at the time period as it gave him unfavorable notice among farmers and war veterans. Apart from trade disagreements, there was another heated issue taking place between Great Britain and the United States during the election. That issue was a longstanding one, involving which Canadian waters (controlled by the British at the time) would be allowed to be used by United States fishermen. In response to this issue, Cleveland appointed Thomas Bayard to negotiate an agreement with Britain. While Bayard and British colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain reached an agreement in February of 1888, it was rejected a few months before the election by the Republican-controlled Senate. This act cites another example of the stark disagreement between the candidates on dealing with Britain and set the stage for the final blow against Cleveland, the Murchison Letter.

The Murchison Letter was the final and possibly single most important incident that cost Cleveland the election. The letter was a “dirty campaign trick” in which a California Republican named George Osgoodby wrote a letter to the British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Lionel Sackville-West. Osgoodby, disguising himself in the letter as a former Englishman now California resident named Charles F. Murchison, asked how he should vote in the upcoming election. The response, from which the Murchison Letter gets its name, suggested that the vote be cast for Cleveland, claiming he would be the best choice for someone favoring Britain. The Republicans published this letter just weeks before the election with devastating results.

The results of the Murchison letter had the most significant impact on Irish voters who made up a significant portion of New York, Cleveland’s home state. The Irish were particularly disgusted to see support of Great Britain by an American presidential candidate and this cost Cleveland the state of New York and arguably, the election. The impact of the letter is comparable to the “Rum, Romanism Rebellion” act executed by Cleveland in the previous election which led to his narrow win. During the 1884 election, spokesman for the Republicans, Reverend Dr. Samuel Burchard, made a noteworthy statement. The statement, “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,” was seen as an attack on Roman Catholics. Cleveland took advantage of this and publicized it. The impact cost James Blaine, Cleveland’s Republican opponent, the state of New York in much the same way it would cost Cleveland in 1888.

Particularly noteworthy is how a single incident can have significant effects on voters, whether valid or not, simply because of publicity. The Murchison Letter is a prime example of this. While Cleveland was portrayed in a negative light by the wording of the letter, others argue he was simply standing up for what he believed was right in a time where his beliefs were unpopular. Cleveland wasn’t necessarily pro-British but it is interesting to note how his stance on a certain issue can take us down a “dark road” as a result of campaigning that leads to other implications that aren’t necessarily true and how widespread these beliefs can become simply because of media involvement. In retrospect, one could say Cleveland got a taste of his own medicine.





  1. susie russell wagner
    December 15, 2013 at 2:32 am

    I am George Osgoodby’s great granddaughter

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