The Last Word

One of the handbills circulated during the 1888 election.

By Pat Doherty, Contributor
February / March 2001

The last time it happened…The Irish were to blame.


The election results are in. The presidential candidate of the incumbent Democratic party has won the popular vote but lost the election because one big state has narrowly swung to the Republicans. Commentators blame the Democratic loss, in part, on defections among a key ethnic group many of whom had been led to believe that the Democratic administration was now supporting the oppressive government in their homeland, from which they and their parents had fled to escape political and economic subjugation.

Is this 2000? Al Gore and Florida? The Miami Cubans and Elian?

No. The year was 1888. President Grover Cleveland was the incumbent Democratic candidate. The state was New York…and the Irish were to blame.

The burning issue of the presidential campaign of 1888 was free trade versus protectionism. The Republicans, then as now, the party of big business, were protectionist, favoring high tariffs against foreign goods, so as to protect U.S. industry from competition. The Democrats under President Cleveland, then as now, supported free trade, which they argued would mean lower prices for consumers. England, as the world’s leading mercantile power, was also a strong supporter of free trade, and the Republicans built a very clever campaign for the Irish American vote based on this British support for the Democratic position.

Republican campaign literature treated Irish Americans to egregious examples of racism from the British press: “When the Celt crosses the Atlantic he begins, for the first time in his life to consume the manufactures of this country [England] and indirectly contribute to its revenue. We may possibly live to see the day when the chief product of Ireland will be cattle, and English and Scotch the majority of her population. The nine or ten millions of Irish, who by that time, will have settled in the United States cannot be less friendly to England, and will certainly be much better customers to her than they are now” (The London Times). The flyer concludes by saying, “Irishmen – England expects every man of you to do your duty, and vote for British Free Trade.” The Republicans were not above fabrications, such as this widely distributed invention which was also supposed to have appeared in the London Times: “The only time England can use an Irishman is when he emigrates to America and votes for free trade.”

By October, the election was shaping up as one of the closest in American history, but despite the Republicans’ best efforts, Cleveland was expected to prevail. Then the Republicans released their “October surprise.” It seems that an enterprising California Republican named Charles Osgoody, had written to Sir Lionel Sackville-West, the British ambassador in Washington, under an assumed name, posing as a loyal English expatriate who had recently become a naturalized U.S. citizen. He told the Ambassador he was undecided in the presidential contest, and wanted to know from him which candidate would best promote Britain’s interests. The Ambassador, in a shocking lapse of diplomatic discretion, responded to the fictitious Englishman “Charles Murchison” on September 13, “Sir: I am in receipt of your letter of the 4th inst., and beg to say that I fully appreciate the difficulty in which you find yourself in casting your vote. You are probably aware that any political party which openly favored the mother country at the present moment would lose popularity, and that the party in power is fully aware of this fact. The party, however, is I believe, still desirous of maintaining friendly relations with Great Britain.”

The Republicans released the “Murchison letter” on October 24 and immediately flooded the Irish wards of New York with thousands of cards and handbills reproducing the correspondence. President Cleveland was labeled “England’s Choice” for President. Handbills purporting to support the Democratic candidates and which prominently displayed the British flag suddenly appeared everywhere in the streets.

The Democrats were shocked, and scrambled to recoup. Ambassador Sackville-West, Britain’s undiplomatic diplomat, was unceremoniously kicked out of the country by President Cleveland. And the Democrats responded to the flood of handbills depicting them under the British flag by issuing a flyer presenting Republican Benjamin Harrison as “China’s Presidential Candidate,” because of his support for unrestricted Chinese immigration which would take jobs away from Irish American workers. “He [Harrison] voted not only for unrestricted immigration of Chinese, but also for their naturalization…If you want the Chinese flag to replace the American, Chinese labor to take the place of American and a real Chinese candidate, Benjamin Harrison is the man to vote for.”

But all of this was too little too late. On November 5, Harrison carded New York and with it the 47 electoral votes that put him over the top in the electoral college. Nationally, Cleveland ended up winning the popular vote by more than 100,000 votes. But because of the New York Irish, the Republicans were headed back to the White House.

Postscript: Four years later the popular vote winner Cleveland came back to oust Harrison and recapture the presidency for the Democrats. Time will tell if history will repeat itself. ♦

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