Saturday, October 30, 2010

James G. Blaine, Continental Liar from the state of Maine

Today I finished reading Neil Rolde's Continental Liar, a biography of James G. Blaine. This is not the first historical account of Blaine I have digested. Before this, I read Edward Stanwood's (1905) and David Muzzey's (1934) biographies as well as Edward Crapol's study of Blaine's terms as the nation's chief diplomat (2000). Mostly forgotten today, Blaine was one of the most popular political figures of the late 19th century. He was a school teacher and newspaper editor before becoming a Congressman, Speaker of the House, Senator, Secretary of State, failed presidential candidate (1884), and Secretary of State again.

Rolde is very good at two things. First, he does an excellent job in depicting Blaine's family life.  Today we seem jaded on the subject of the family lives of our politicians. From Kennedy's philandering to the drama of the Clinton marriage we question the sincerity of their relationships. There can be no doubt Blaine loved his family and his role as father, husband, and grandfather were just as important in his life as his role as statesman. Second, Rolde, a former Maine politician himself, focuses on Blaine's role in Pine State politics, even when he was a Senator and Secretary of State.

Despite these two positive attributes, there are some negatives to Rolde's biography. He never answers the question of where Blaine got his money from. He seemed to have plenty of it, far in excess of his government pay. Was he as corrupt as his contemporaries charged? Did he benefit from wise investments? These questions are not satisfactorily answered. Second, Rolde did not seem to sift through the 7,000 items that comprise the Blaine papers in the Library of Congress. He did access a journal written by one Blaine's daughters from the Blaine papers, but nothing else.  Rolde leaves some gaps in Blaine's legislative career. He covers the Reconstruction period throughly enough, but there is little else on the rest of Blaine's Congressional career. For example, where did Blaine stand on President Grant's financial legislation in the wake of the panic of 1873. Finally, I don't think he really explains Blaine's interest in reciprocity or how it connected to his larger views on expanding American power overseas.


  1. This is the first I've heard about the Rolde biography of Blaine. I will have to take a look at it. I have the other Blaine bios; I'm sort of a devotee of 19th Century politics. Blaine would seem to have been a capable secretary of state and a gifted politician with very flexible ethics. He was eminently more appealing than his arch-rival Roscoe Conkling, however.

  2. Thanks Barry for being the first person to post a comment on my blog!!

    Rolde's book is by a small publisher based in Maine named Tillbury House. I was just searching for Blaine one day and found it. I agree Blaine is much more interesting than Conkling. In fact, it is hard to find one positive thing to say about Conkling. We are still waiting for a biography worthy of Blaine.