The Blaine Amendment is the common title for a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that would have forbidden the states to devote directly or indirectly any public money or land to schools having any religious affiliation. The history of this amendment shows both the political expediency and bigotry of the men who sponsored it.
One year before the disputed election of 1876, as an opening gun in the campaign to nominate a Republican candidate for the presidency, President Ulysses S. Grant told an encampment of Civil War veterans that the government of the United States had a serious obligation to educate all its citizens to preserve them from the dangers of "demagogery and priestcraft." Between Sept. 29, 1875, when this speech was delivered in Des Moines, Iowa, until the final decision that Rutherford B. Hayes had been elected over his Democratic opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, in March 1877, the issues suggested by Grant remained prominent. Grant's sketchy proposal was incorporated by James Gillespie Blaine, member of Congress from Maine, into a constitutional amendment presented to the House of Representatives on Dec. 14, 1875. Blaine then participated in the maneuvering in Congress while the measure was debated, and wrote to influential editors and politicians to secure support for his proposal.
Education and a Needed Issue. Like Grant, the incumbent president, and Hayes, then governor of Ohio but soon to be the candidate for the presidency, Blaine knew that issues marking a clear distinction between the two major parties were not abundant. The Republican party had emerged as the party of strength (after a brief period of immaturity) only when the Civil War began. Democratic party commitments to attitudes popular in the defeated South had materially decreased that party's effectiveness, but accusations of disloyalty had little impact a decade after the Civil War had ended. The Democrats had shown new strength, moreover, by winning a large number of mid-term elections in 1874. Some states theretofore regarded as certainly Republican had become Democratic; more were showing signs of disaffection from a party that had furnished evidences of corruption during the Grant administrations. The old device of the bloody shirt could hardly be flourished again.
Dissatisfaction of Voters. Republican leaders understood that other appeals, formerly successful in winning large numbers of votes, could no longer be regarded as reliable. Between 1865 and 1875, veterans of the Union Army had returned to their prewar occupations. Their primary interests centered in these activities, in their families, and in local concerns. Impassioned campaign speeches stressing military service of a decade before were proving ineffective in securing Republican victories. Equally disappointing were the efforts aimed at securing votes from an agricultural bloc. Farming regions differed too much, one from the other; the presence of a substantial number of farmers did not argue the existence of any agreement on what should constitute national farm policy. This decade, furthermore, witnessed an extraordinary growth in city dwelling and organization.
Present always in the minds of the party leaders of the 1870s was the possibility that the South might again decide to withdraw from the Union, or might at least participate in some rebellious activity. The "bloody shirt" issue could no longer unite the North and might further disaffect the South; neither veterans' nor farmers' votes could be relied on to ensure a Republican victory. Furthermore, public attention had to be distracted from the sorry record of the Grant years. Some new issue had to be found; and Grant's own speech, together with the letters of leaders within his party, make it clear that the school issue was the one accepted.
Personal Convictions. The unanimity with which Grant, Hayes, and Blaine seized upon this issue was attributable in part to their personal convictions and needs. All three might safely be described as committed to certain policies associated with the American democratic ideal as it was understood in the 19th century. An integral feature of this ideal was the furnishing of educational opportunity to all children in public elementary schools at public expense. Although the concept was introduced into America comparatively late, the idea of universal education had secured widespread support. The three chief figures in the presidential race of 1875 could rely on having chosen a ready-made issue of considerable appeal. Each of them could also associate this issue with his own hopes.
Grant was not yet convinced that a third term might not be his. If he could capitalize on the issues he suggested as vital in his annual message of 1875, he might yet secure sufficient support in the nominating convention to become the first third-term president. Hayes, often defeated for public office during a career of more than 30 years in Ohio politics, needed an appealing issue to carry his name before the national electorate. Neither of these leaders, however, had the deeply personal and strongly political needs of James G. Blaine.
Blaine and Catholicism. Originally a Pennsylvanian, Blaine had won political prominence in his adoptive state of Maine, and had served in the national House of Representatives through three terms. He had secured the speakership and used its then great power to decided effect. In all his actions, he gave evidence not only of great ability but of unusual political ambition. If he could make his name familiar to voters outside his home state, then he might well hope to secure the Republican nomination for the presidency and that office itself. Blaine began to work toward this end almost as soon as the lame duck Congress of 1875 began its sessions, although he must have been aware that a major inconsistency in his proposal could well appear if all the voters knew his entire background.
Family Ties. At a time when nativism continued to be a strong force within state and local politics, when Know-Nothingism frequently called attention to the presence of large numbers of Catholic immigrants in American cities Blaine had to keep hidden his affiliations with the Catholic Church or risk alienating his own constituents and possible future supporters throughout the country. Without losing the admiration and affection of his Catholic cousins, Ellen Ewing Sherman, wife of General William T. Sherman, and Mother Angela gillespie, CSC, American foundress of her order, Blaine managed to keep hidden his own close connection with their Church. Newspaper stories frequently mentioned Blaine's Catholic mother, Maria Gillespie Blaine, but the vehemence with which Blaine denied any personal allegiance to the Church, together with the reverence he declared he felt for it, since it had been his mother's consolation, preserved him from the political harm he feared.
A Baptized Catholic. In actuality Blaine's ties to the Church were far more binding than he would admit. He had been baptized a Catholic and probably had received some Catholic instruction during early youth. His denial of this charge can hardly be accepted as convincing. He concealed the fact that his father, Ephraim, had been received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed, and had been buried in a Catholic cemetery. If these details became known, Blaine would incur the wrath of the urban Irish-Catholic voters, who would regard him as a traitor to their faith. If he could not maintain his public position as an adherent to some established variety of Protestantism—he claimed both Presbyterian and Congregational ties—he would lose large segments of the voting public elsewhere in the country and would incur, as well, the anger of other Republican chieftains. Hence he pleaded for newspaper stories that would show him as a worshipper in the "church of his fathers," the Presbyterian congregation of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Amendment and Debate. Blaine's private motives thus gave added urgency to his astute appeals to the electorate during the winter of 1875 to 1876. Without going directly to the voters, since he retained his House membership until July, Blaine could hope to work through his fellow Republicans to secure passage of the proposed amendment. The measure would forbid states to devote public monies or lands to schools under control of any religious sect. A favorable two-thirds vote of each chamber of Congress would send this measure to the states for their consideration. Adoption would mean that Blaine would be most favorably placed for political advancement; even consideration would ensure national political prominence for him.
Goals. Offered originally as a joint resolution, the Blaine amendment capitalized on Grant's message of a week earlier, which had stressed the desirability of such an amendment. The Congressional Record discloses that Grant had not only emphasized the need for an amendment, but that three of the five points appearing in the recapitulation of his message mentioned the need for public school education; the desirability of eliminating sectarian influences through the taxation of church properties; and the withholding of public funds from denominational schools, orphanages, hospitals, or other institutions.
Religious Prejudice. The debate touched off by Blaine's proposed amendment included references to nativism, bigotry, treason, and political intrigue. States like New York, Ohio, and Missouri had already adopted constitutional amendments respecting public schools; there was the question now merely of using the most persuasive arguments to place other states in the same column. Hayes had suggested that the Democrats be "crowded" on school and other state issues; Blaine's initial reaction to this suggestion had been to hope that elimination of denominational schools would mean the abolition of all sectarian strife. Since some of his fellow Republicans believed that the growth of the Democratic party was the work of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, however, appeals to religious prejudice as well as to party allegiance might be expected.
Debate over the terms of the amendment centered in conventional issues: the rights of states to determine their own educational policies—a strong Democratic position; the privilege of city-dwellers, many of them Catholics and of foreign origin, to secure religious instruction in schools attended by their children—a popular urban position; and the allegations of politicians distrustful of Blaine's ambitions. The Senate Judiciary Committee reported the amendment to the whole Senate in a fashion that seemed to cast doubts on Blaine's intelligence and honesty. Possibly the clinching arguments against the proposal were that the national government would be left free to give to any private, nonreligious corporation any amount of land or money, but could give nothing to any charitable cause, and that the states would likewise be crippled in their efforts to support worthy projects. Such an argument had the added merit of allowing a graceful retreat from support of the bill; it failed to win the necessary two-thirds majority by the middle of August 1876, and never again secured the essential support.
Lasting Effects. Despite this failure, however, the Blaine amendment had performed important services. It had called attention to the flimsiness of earlier political appeals, and pointed out quite accurately that there were deeper issues having greater interest for the electorate. For Blaine himself, it had served to make his name a national one, even though he would wait eight more years for the presidential nomination. In its own right, the amendment had demonstrated clearly that profound differences of opinion on educational, religious, and political questions existed in divisive fashion among native-white-Protestant and foreign-white-Catholic groups; that the urban and rural voters of the country could be separated into factions or grouped into voting blocs over matters not purely economic; and that a party's choice of an issue combining political with religious and intellectual implications was sure to attract attention. Even in its failure, then, the Blaine amendment proved a potent political force in 1875 to 1876, and surely helped to suggest the similar amendments of the 1890s and 1920s (see oregon school case).
Bibliography: Archives of The Catholic University of America, Lambert Papers. Library of Congress, Division of Manuscripts, Blaine, Harrison, Hayes, Whitelaw Reid Papers. Congressional Record, 44th Congress, 1875–76. a. p. stokes, Church and State in the United States, 3 v. (New York 1950). m. c. klinkhamer, "The Blaine Amendment of 1875: Private Motives for Political Action," American Catholic Historical Review 42 (April 1956) 15–49; "Historical Reasons for Inception of the Parochial School System," The Catholic Educational Review 52 (February 1954) 73–94.
[m. c. klinkhamer]
"Blaine Amendment." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 26, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/blaine-amendment
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