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May 17th, 2019

The next election in which an incumbent sought a second term in office occurred in 1888, when incumbent Grover Cleveland sought four more years. He would get them, but not in 1888, eventually becoming the only president thus far to serve two non-consecutive terms in office and messing up the way presidents are counted. In the election of 1888, just as in 2000 and 2016, the losing candidate won the popular vote. It was the third time this had happened. (In 1824 the winning candidate John Quincy Adams came in second in both the popular and electoral vote, and in 1876 Rutherford Hayes lost the popular vote and had the electoral votes awarded to him by a commission that decided how disputed votes would be awarded.) This time Benjamin Harrison had at least won a majority in the electoral college, but in the popular vote 5,443,892 voters had marked their ballots for him (47.8%), while 5,534,488 had voted for incumbent President Grover Cleveland (48.6%).


The issue in the election was tariffs (the amount of "tax" levied on imports into the country). High tariffs meant that imports cost more money, so that Americans were more likely buy more local goods. It was good for manufacturers, but bad for consumers because it meant that local producers could raise their prices. Much like today, the issue centered around a debate between protectionists (who wanted higher tariffs) and free traders (who wanted low tariffs). At the time the United States was the low-cost producer in most areas and could not be undersold by the less efficient Europeans, especially when one factored in the cost of transporting goods from Europe to the United States. Tariffs also fed the treasury. President Grover Cleveland proposed a dramatic reduction in tariffs in his annual message to Congress in December 1887. He argued that the tariff was unnecessarily high and that high tariffs hurt exporters because countries who had a high tariff imposed on them usually retaliated in kind. But this created an election issue as Republicans responded that the high tariff protected American industry from foreign competition and guaranteed high wages and high profits. (Does this argument sound familiar?)

At the time, the policy of free trade was most strongly advocated by the British. Any candidate who campaigned in support of free trade faced being labelled pro-British, attracting the loss of support from Irish-Americans. A California Republican named George Osgoodby wrote a letter to Sir Lionel Sackville-West, the British ambassador to the United States, under the false name of "Charles F. Murchison," describing himself as a former Englishman who was now a California citizen and asked how he should vote in the upcoming presidential election. Sir Lionel wrote back and in what became known as the "Murchison letter", suggesting that Cleveland was probably the best man from the British point of view. The Republicans published this letter just two weeks before the election, and it had an effect on Irish-American voters. Sackville-West was removed as British ambassador.

Benjamin Harrison campaigned by giving speeches from his front porch in Indianapolis that were covered by the newspapers. Cleveland followed the tradition of presidential candidates not campaigning, something that hampered him in the election. The election focused on four swing states: Cleveland's home state of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Harrison's home state of Indiana. Harrison and Cleveland split these four states, with Harrison winning in New York and Indiana. Had Cleveland won his home state, he would have won the electoral vote by an electoral count of 204-197 (201 electoral votes were needed for victory in 1888). Overall it was a very close election. Four states returned results where the winner won by less than 1 percent of the popular vote. Cleveland won 24 electoral votes from states he won by less than 1 percent: Connecticut, Virginia, and West Virginia. Harrison earned 15 electoral votes from a state he won by less than 1 percent: Indiana. Harrison won New York (36 electoral votes) by a margin of 1.09%.

As first lady Frances Folsom Cleveland was leaving the White House, she told an usher: "Now, Jerry, I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again." When asked when she would return, she responded, "We are coming back four years from today." The Clevelands moved to New York City where Cleveland took a position with the law firm of Bangs, Stetson, Tracy, and MacVeigh. But Cleveland spent considerable time at his vacation home Gray Gables at Buzzard Bay, where fishing became his main activity.

For Harrison, his administration's priority would be to worked with Congress to pass the McKinley Tariff, an aggressively protectionist measure and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which increased money backed by silver. Both of these policies were ones that Cleveland had been highly critical of. He considered them to be dangerous to the nation's financial health. At first he refrained from criticizing his successor, but following Harrison's inauguration, he did not stay silent for long.

Harrison transitioned into office claiming that he had made no political bargains and owed no one anything. But his supporters had given many pledges upon his behalf. Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania, a notorious political "boss" who had worked hard to get Harrison elected, was rebuffed for a Cabinet position. When Quay heard that Harrison had credited his narrow victory to Providence, Quay was said to reply that Harrison would never know "how close a number of men were compelled to approach the penitentiary to make him President." He any many others became very upset with the new President over how Harrison doled out political rewards.

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Harrison was known as the Centennial President because his inauguration celebrated the centenary of the first inauguration of George Washington in 1789. He came into office with an increased Republican majority in the House of Representatives. In his inaugural address, Harrison credited the nation's growth to the influences of education and religion. He promised a protective tariff and chastised big business, stating: "If our great corporations would more scrupulously observe their legal obligations and duties, they would have less call to complain of the limitations of their rights or of interference with their operations." He called for early statehood for the territories and advocated pensions for veterans, something that was met with enthusiastic applause. In foreign affairs, Harrison reaffirmed his support for the Monroe Doctrine, called for modernization of the Navy and for the creation of a merchant marine force. He gave his commitment to international peace through noninterference in the affairs of foreign governments.

Harrison and Cleveland would be opponents in another election with an incumbent. That would occur four years later in 1892. This time the roles would be reversed.


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