Childhood & Early Life
James Gillespie Blaine was born on January 31, 1830 in West Brownsville, Pennsylvania, to Ephraim Lyon Blaine and his wife Maria Gillespie as their third child. His father was a relatively wealthy businessman and landowner.
He grew up to be a smart boy and performed well in school. As a teenager he went to Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College), in nearby Washington, Pennsylvania, and graduated in 1847.
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He embarked on a teaching career and was employed as a professor of mathematics and ancient languages at the Western Military Institute in Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1848. He was just 18 at that time and younger than many of his students!
The teaching profession suited him well even though his initial career aspiration was to become a lawyer. He accepted a job at the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind (now Overbrook School for the Blind) in 1852, teaching science and literature.
A lucrative career change awaited him in 1853—he received the opportunity to become editor and co-owner of the ‘Kennebec Journal’. He, along with the other co-owner of the newspaper actively promoted the newly-formed Republican Party, and this set the pace for his political career.
It did not take him long to get involved in Republican Party politics and was selected as a delegate to the first Republican National Convention in 1856. The following year he became editor of the ‘Portland Daily Advertiser’, and ran successfully for a seat in the Maine House of Representatives in 1858.
He proved to be popular in this position and was successfully re-elected in 1859, 1860, and 1861. With his power rising within the Republican Party, he became chairman of the Republican state committee in 1859.
He was an ardent supporter of President Abraham Lincoln and ensured that the Maine Legislature voted to organize and equip units to join the Union Army. Eventually he was elected Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives in 1861 and re-elected in 1862.
He was elected as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maine's 3rd district in 1863. In this position he developed a reputation for parliamentary skills, and when the leadership of the House became vacant in 1868, he was elected speaker of the House.
As the speaker he reached even greater heights of political prominence and was greatly valued by President Ulysses S. Grant for his oratory skills and charismatic personality. Blaine was re-elected as Speaker in the 42nd and 43rd Congresses, and served for a total term of six years in the Speaker's chair.
James G. Blaine grew even more politically ambitious in the 1870s and set his eyes upon the president’s office. He entered the 1876 presidential campaign as the favorite but his chances were squashed by a rumor of corruption though there was no credible proof to back the rumor. However, he was able to earn a senate seat from Maine that year.
He spent the next few years preparing for the next presidential campaign and was again a contender for the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 1880. This time too he was not successful.
The new President James A. Garfield asked Blaine to be the Secretary of State. In this position he attempted to strengthen the Monroe Doctrine and revived a previously conceived idea of calling an inter-American conference to consider an arbitration plan designed to prevent wars in the Western Hemisphere. However, the assassination of the president in 1881 jeopardized Blaine’s plans and he resigned from his position.
In 1884, Blaine was finally named the Republican nominee for presidency. A seasoned politician, he was considered a favorite. However, he lost to Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, by an extremely narrow margin in the presidential election.
In 1889 the Republicans regained power with the successful election of Benjamin Harrison as the president. Harrison nominated Blaine to be Secretary of State for another term. During this tenure Blaine assumed the chairmanship of the first Pan-American Conference and attempted to negotiate a disagreement over Canadian fur seal hunting rights in the Bering Sea. He retired in 1892 due to ill health.
Personal Life & Legacy
During his teaching career he met another teacher, Harriet Stanwood, whom he married in June 1850. The couple had seven children, of whom many tragically predeceased Blaine.
James G. Blaine suffered from ill health during his later years and retired from politics in 1892 due to his worsening health. He died a few months later on January 27, 1893.