Home > 1884 Campaign > By Rebecca Alt–Scandal and Character in the 1884 Election of S. Grover Cleveland

By Rebecca Alt–Scandal and Character in the 1884 Election of S. Grover Cleveland

In modern elections in the United States there are often scandalous incidents involving one or more presidential candidates or the people closest to them. Most recently, New Jersey Governor and potential 2016 Republican candidate was involved in a bridge scandal, which has severely influenced perceptions of his character and subsequent conversations regarding his potential candidacy. Although Christie claims that “Bridgegate” has not and will not affect his 2016 plans, the scandal still remains a black mark on his record and one of the many examples the role personal character plays in presidential campaign rhetoric.

Alt Cleveland PicThis is only one type of scandal voters are exposed to during the modern never-ending campaign season. Apart from incidents that involve an action (or inaction) taken while in public office that could affect the welfare of people, skeletons often come out of closets that prompt audiences to question or reconsider a politician’s character. Juicy secrets are revealed about politicians and presidential candidates to audiences willing to indulge them. Often when the skeletons come out, the mudslinging begins—supporters of the other, better candidates not only share the damning information but exploit it in a variety of ways for a particular end—damaging the candidate’s character enough to cost him/her the election to public office. This topic is ripe with content for analysis, but for this blog post I will focus on one 19th century election and a “major scandal” that resulted in rhetorical acts of mudslinging and character attacks, analyzing one particular artifact (while also showing other related images) that acted symbolically to shape perceptions of S. Grover Cleveland in the 1884 election versus James Blaine.

Character attacks, or the latin ad hominem, are not uncommon to political discourse generally. In the historical discourses we have examined as a part of #COMM 760, it is clear that “mudslinging” is not unique to the most current era of politics. Everything about a candidate’s character—appearance, intelligence, and experience, for example—directly impacted that candidate’s trustworthiness as leader of the nation, more so than “issues” in a campaign. As Trevor Parry-Giles explains, “American elections, particularly at the presidential level, are dominated by images and personality-based arguments.”[1] Political images, then, or “verbal and/or visual rhetorical markers of public character and individual persona,” take the abstract idea of “character” and concretize it.[2] With this basic framework in mind, I turn to the primary political image artifact that appeared during the 1884 Cleveland v. Blaine election: a cartoon entitled “Another Voice for Cleveland.”[3] 

Alt Cleveland Pic 2In this political cartoon appearing in The Judge, magazine Grover Cleveland’s scandalous secret is not only exposed to the audience, but it is exploited in a way that casts Grover Cleveland as cowardly.[4] Ernest Ferguson explains that after the Democratic convention and nomination was secured for Cleveland “came the bombshell. Several days after the Democratic convention, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph published an exposé, headlined ‘A Terrible Tale: A Dark Chapter in a Public Man’s History,’ which revealed a secret episode in Cleveland’s life. The article alleged that Cleveland was the father of an illegitimate 9-year-old child, and that he’d been paying the mother for years to keep her quiet. Republican newspapers gleefully picked up the story, and Blaine supporters started reciting a jeer of their own: ‘Ma, ma, where’s my pa?’”[5] In the cartoon, the child is visibly upset, but the words read, “I want my Pa!” instead of “Where’s my Pa?” This, as the title of the cartoon does, suggests that the child is “another one for Cleveland.” Cleveland is shown looking discombobulated –almost drunken—as he tries to cover his ears and ignore the cries from his child. Cleveland is depicted as shaken and visibly trying to tune the child out, thus he is cowardly in the face of his secret. The child’s mother—the woman, Maria Halpin, whom Cleveland’s affair was with, is shown hiding her face in shame. Perhaps she is portrayed as such because of the allegations that Cleveland paid for her silence over the years.

There is a significant juxtaposition in this cartoon. The tag hanging from Cleveland’s coat reads “Grover the Good.” Before the exposé of his sex scandal was published, Cleveland had a reputation for public integrity.[6] In fact, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The New York World, said, “When a blathering ward politician objects
to Cleveland because he is ‘more of a Reformer than a Democrat,’ he furnishes the
best argument in favor of Cleveland’s nomination and election.”[7] Ferguson continues, “At the Democratic convention in Chicago, one of Cleveland’s prominent boosters said that his friends ‘love him and respect him, not only for himself, for his character, for his integrity and judgment and iron will, but they love him most for the enemies he has made.’” The Judge cartoon depicts a common rhetorical attack on character: if you think you know “Grover the Good,” think again.

Alt Cleveland Pic 3While the cartoon itself serves as an argument against Cleveland’s personal character, Cleveland responds in a way that just might have been the reason he was able to win the election. When offered an envelope containing James Blaine’s scandalous activities, Cleveland paid for it, shredded it, and burned it.[8] Not only did Cleveland own up and accept responsibility for the illegitimate child, he chose to take “the moral high road” when given the opportunity to stoop to his opposition’s level.[9] Ferguson concludes his historical analysis of Cleveland’s sex scandal by saying “Cleveland wasn’t always honest. He had long held a grudge against the press, and during his second term he and aides covered up the news of a tumor in his jaw and surgeries to repair it. However, that did not dent his reputation for personal integrity and putting the public before politics. He died in Princeton, N.J., in 1908, and on his tombstone at the Nassau Presbyterian Church are carved the words: ‘I have tried so hard to do right.’”[10]

Cleveland’s character issue reflects the larger trend in American politics. Michael Calvin McGee reminds us of the ideal principle “not men, but measures” as the basis for electing leaders, but history has proven that it is oft not the case.[11] Character matters for audiences, and one could study any president/presidential candidate in terms of his or her character and that relation to election success. In Cleveland’s case, perhaps the voters appreciated his honesty when the scandal was exposed, and saw Blaine as posessing low-morals:

A delegate from Chicago summed up the situation. “I gather that Mr. Cleveland has shown high character and great capacity in public life but that in private life his conduct is open to question, while on the other hand, Mr. Blaine in public life has been weak and dishonest, while he seems to have been an admirable husband and father. The conclusion I draw from these facts is that we should elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office for which he is admirably qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private life which he is so eminently fitted to adorn.”[12]

Alt Cleveland Pic 4Grover Cleveland won the election of 1884 and married a woman named Frances Folsom in the White House. Mudslinging, character-attacking discourses are compelling arguments against character that could affect the outcome of an election. But Cleveland countered those arguments by enacting the character he had been previously known to have, ultimately overcoming the attack through his virtuous actions. Perhaps today’s politicians could learn from the strategies of Grover Cleveland in the face of political scandal.

Sources:

[1] Trevor Parry-Giles, “Resisting a ‘Treacherous Piety’: Issues, Images, and Public Policy Deliberation in Presidential Campaigns,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 13, no. 1 (2010): 37-38.

[2] Ibid, 39-40.

[3] http://elections.harpweek.com/1884/cartoon-1884-Medium.asp?UniqueID=27&Year=; also Ernest B. Ferguson, “Moment of Truth,” American History (2013): 65.

[4] Judge was a popular Republican-leaning publication (Ferguson 65).

[5] Ernest B. Ferguson, “Moment of Truth,” American History (2013): 65

[6] http://elections.harpweek.com/1884/cartoon-1884-Medium.asp?UniqueID=27&Year=

[7] Ernest B. Ferguson, “Moment of Truth,” American History (2013): 66.

[8] Ibid, 67.

[9] Ibid, 68.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Michael C. McGee, ‘Not Men, But Measures’: The Origins and Import of an Ideological Principle,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 64 (1978): 141-154.

[12] Ibid, 67.

[13] Photo, right: Library of Congress. Cleveland’s opposition event went as far as to question his trustworthiness because he went by his middle name!

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