US History: Election Of 1888 – Grover Cleveland Vs. Benjamin Harrison

In the Election of 1888 incumbent president, Grover Cleveland takes on Civil War Hero turned politician, Benjamin Harrison so with all that said… Let’s get into it.

Grover’s Presidency

After narrowly winning the previous election in 1884, Grover Cleveland began to enact much of his policies which included vetoing a large number of bills, reducing government spending, supporting free trade, having a non-interventionist foreign policy and even appointing various politicians to jobs within his administration solely based on their merits thereby being the first president is quite some time to turn his back on the spoils system. 

Cleveland also found time during his presidency to get married as he found love with the 21-year-old, Francis Clara Folsom before the two tied the knot on June 2nd, 1886 making the now Mrs. Cleveland the youngest first lady in United States history.

When the time came for the Democratic Party’s nominating convention, Cleveland was unanimously re-nominated which was the first time since Martin Van Buren in 1840 that the Democrats renominated the incumbent president of their party.

One major change to Cleveland’s campaign ticket going into this election is the fact that Thomas Hendricks, the former Governor of Indiana and Cleveland’s vice president had died just eight months into Grover’s term, so his running mate going into this election was a former Senator of Ohio named Allen G. Thurman.

So, that’s Grover Cleveland’s time in office and his gotten the renomination by his party with a new running mate, now it’s time to see what’s going on with the Republican Party.

Harrison For President

The Republicans had a few names running for the nomination in 1888 but one name who wouldn’t be involved was James Blaine, who was the man Cleveland beat four years earlier to become the new president.

Although Blaine was the frontrunner at the GOP convention, he backed out as he realized that the Republicans needed to gather all of their support to a nominee that wouldn’t divide the party but as he withdrew his name from the proceedings, he did endorse two candidates running for the nomination with the first one being Ohio Senator, John Sherman who was the brother of a famous civil war hero and a candidate who ran for the nomination back 1880.

The other person Blaine endorsed was Benjamin Harrison, a Senator from Indiana who served as a General during the Civil War and he was the grandson of William Herny Harrison, the 9th president who died just 31 days into office.

The Republican Party chose Benjamin Harrison as their nominee for president mostly due to his record as a popular war hero, being a charismatic speaker and the fact that he lived in Indiana which was a swing state at the time.

Harrison’s running mate was Levi Morton a former banker and Congressman from New York who was the ambassador to France and the guy who was chosen to James Garfield’s pick for VP but declined the offer back in 1880. Now I wouldn’t go into the third parties for this election as many of them weren’t major factors compared to the previous election, so instead let’s get into the issues and campaign strategies both sides used in this race.

The Issue of Tariffs and Political Campaigns

The biggest issue regarding this election was surrounding the idea of tariffs aka government taxes on imported goods; Grover Cleveland like many in the Democratic Party Classical Liberals or Bourbon Democrats meaning they believe in free trade and reducing taxes with Cleveland himself claiming that unnecessary taxation is unjust taxation. 

Cleveland also is against union pensions that would be paid out to former Civil War veterans as part of his limited government/non-wasteful spending policies and it’s these ideas plus his record in the White House is what Grover Cleveland is running on in this election. 

However, he didn’t actively campaign (as many politicians had done before) in fact he even went so far as to forbid his cabinet to campaign for him and instead left all of that in the hands of his 75 year old running mate, Allen Thurman and you can only imagine how well that turned out.

Benjamin Harrison on the other hand is actively campaigning from his front porch in Indiana, a tactic similarly used to great success by former president James Garfield. 

Harrison during the campaigns is in support of high tariffs which would help many factory workers who feared of losing their jobs and having them being shipped overseas due to all this free trade. He also is a bigger supporter of union pensions for war veterans which isn’t too surprising considering he is a former Union General in the Civil War. 

So those are the major issues and the campaign tactics by both candidates but there are some other factors in play that will help to decide the outcome of this election.

The Murchison Letter & Blocks of Five

In order to make sure that their man Benjamin Harrison got into the White House a few scandalous actions by members of the Republican Party took place during this election.

The first of these actions involved ‘The Murchison Letter’ which was a letter written by a GOP member from California who used a fake name to write and ask the then British ambassador to the U.S., Lionel Sackville-West on who the British would support in the election, and the letter was reportedly to have said they the U.K. would support Grover Cleveland.

What makes this so important is the fact the U.K. was in favor of free trade much like Cleveland, but one group of people who aren’t so happy about this is Irish immigrants who live in the U.S. as many of them could lose their jobs as a result of all of this free trading and the Irish also have a frosty relationship with Britain, so the contents of the letter is used as a way to convince many Irish immigrants especially those in places like New York to vote for Harrison. 

The other big scandal occurring in the election revolves around Indiana native and Treasurer of the Republican National Committee, William Wade Dudley who along with some others in Indiana are attempting to split up Indiana into five districts and bribe many of the people there to vote for Harrison. This is a big deal because as mentioned previously, Indiana was a swing state meaning the votes in that state can really swift the election in a big way.

This is soon discovered by the Democrats, and they are using this as ammunition against Harrison and the GOP as election day approaches; Not only that but it’s also because of this scandal that ballots were cast in secret going forward and not in the open. So those are the biggest scandals occurring in this election, but will they play a big factor in this race? Well to find this out, let’s go to the results.

The Results

Much the previous election, the candidates need 201 votes to win and in terms of the electoral vote, Benjamin Harrison becomes the 23rd president in U.S. History receiving 233 votes whilst winning swing states like his state of Indiana and even Grover Cleveland’s home state of New York.

In fact, it’s the state of New York that ultimately was the deciding factor as Grover barely won his home state in 1884 to become the president, had he done so again in this election Cleveland would’ve squeaked out with 204 votes to remain president, but it’s the likely the results of the Murchison Letter and Cleveland’s own free trade beliefs that cost him New York.

In the end, Grover Cleveland received 168 electoral votes but actually defeated Harrison in the popular vote with Cleveland getting 48.6% to Harrison’s 47.8% making this the third time since 1876 in which the candidate who won the popular vote did not become president.

As Grover and his wife were getting ready to leave the White House, Francis Cleveland allegedly told the staffers to take care of the building as she and her husband will be returning, when asked when they’ll be coming back, she responded…in four years.

So that’s the election of 1888, we got a new president in Benjamin Harrison albeit at the expense of the former commander and chief, but will Mrs. Cleveland’s parting words come to fruition by time of the next election? Be sure to check out my article on the election of 1892 to find out.

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