The Election of 1888
(November 6, 1888)

In 1888 the presidential contest centered on a serious issue: the tariff. President Cleveland injected it into the campaign when he devoted his entire annual message to Congress in December 1887 to lowering the tariff. "What is the use of being elected or re-elected," he said to his advisers, "unless you stand for something?" Tariff reformers were delighted by his speech but Republican leaders predictably called it an "attempt to fasten upon this country the British policy of free foreign trade." Within weeks the Democratic House and the Republican Senate headed for a deadlock on a new tariff bill and soon after the two parties met to pick candidates for the nation's 1888 election.

The Democrats nominated Cleveland for re-election by acclamation in St. Louis early in June, added former Senator Allen G. Thurman of Ohio, a popular but aging and ailing party faithful, to the ticket, and endorsed tariff revision. The Republicans, meeting in Chicago in mid June, took longer to settle on a candidate. After seven ballots they chose Benjamin Harrison, fifty-four, former Senator from Indiana and a Civil War veteran, and an all-out protectionist, as their standard-bearer. His running mate, Levi Morton, a wealthy New York banker, generous contributor to the Republican war chest, was also a devout protectionist.

As the campaign got under way, Harrison made a hopeful prediction. "We have joined now a contest of great principles," he said, "and ...the armies which are to fight out this great contest before the American people will encamp upon the high plains of principle, and not in the low swamps of personal defamation or detraction." He was only partly right. Some Republicans called Cleveland the "Beast of Buffalo," said he got drunk all the time, and accused him of beating his wife (he had married Frances Folsom, his twenty-one-year-old ward, in 1886) in fits of drunken rage. The First Lady finally issued a statement saying the charge was a "foolish campaign story without a shadow of foundation." For good measure she added that she wished "the women of our Country no greater blessing than that their homes and lives may be as happy, and their husbands may be as kind, considerate and affectionate as mine." The Democrats tried to get back at Harrison; they said he was a cold fish ("Kid Glove" Harrison), anti-labor, a religious bigot, and favored unrestricted Chinese immigration to keep wages low in America. But for the most part the contestants avoided the "low swamps" and talked about the tariff. There were, though, the usual campaign tricks and plenty of corruption in 1888.

The Republican party, now beginning to be called the G.O.P. ("Grand Old Party"), had several advantages over the Democrats in 1888: better organization, more funds, a candidate willing to take an active part in soliciting votes, and an issue they could easily identify with: Americanism. Harrison's "front porch" campaign in Indianapolis was enormously effective. He received thousands of visitors in his hometown between July and October and made scores of brief speeches, mainly about the tariff, which were widely quoted in newspapers throughout the country. Republican managers also distributed millions of tracts, pamphlets, flyers, and handbills on the tariff and sent many excellent speakers (like Blaine) out on the stump to denounce free trade. To pay for all this they raised more than three million dollars (the biggest campaign fund to date) from industrialists who benefited from high duties on foreign imports. John Wanamaker, Philadelphia merchant, was the chief fund-raiser. Early in the campaign he sent out a circular to leading manufacturers announcing: "We want money and we want it quick." Not long before election day he appealed for more money; and, as he later put it: "We raised the money so quickly that the Democrats never knew anything about it. They had their spies out supposing that we were going to do something, but before they knew what it was we had them beaten." Manufacturers not only came through with the dough; they also warned their employees of wage slashes and even layoffs if Cleveland won the election.

The Democratic campaign was, by contrast, feeble and fitful. Cleveland refused to campaign himself; he adhered to the traditional view that it was unseemly for presidential candidates to seek votes. He also refused to permit his Cabinet members to go out on the hustings. This meant that his running mate, Allen Thurman, bore the brunt of the battle. The seventy-five-year-old Thurman did the best he could to convince his audiences that the Cleveland administration favored "moderate reductions of tariff duties," not free trade; but he often digressed to mention his personal ailments and once even collapsed on the platform before finishing his remarks.

On November 6, Harrison beat Cleveland in the Electoral College by 233 to 168 votes, but his popular vote (5,439,853) was around 100,000 votes fewer than Cleveland's (5,540,329). Harrison's victory was scarcely a mandate for his tariff views. Cleveland carried the manufacturing states of New Jersey and Connecticut as well as the Solid South and also did well in states like Michigan, Ohio, and California, which were regarded as pro-tariff states. But the Republicans ran a far better campaign than the Democrats did. And they were able to do so partly because their protectionist position enabled them to raise large sums of money among manufacturers. Cleveland took his loss gamely. He was pleased he had forced discussion of the tariff issue. "I don't regret it," he told a friend. "It is better to be defeated battling for an honest principle than to win by a cowardly subterfuge."

Source: Paul F. Boller Jr., Presidential Campaigns (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 157-59.