Cover Story

Breaking through Blaine's roadblock

Today's school-choice proponents are fighting not only teachers unions but a legacy left by some of their ancestors: the Blaine Amendments in 37 state constitutions

Issue: "Ghost busting," Aug. 24, 2002

"Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling."

That slapstick humor from the book of Proverbs has rarely been better illustrated than in the current drive for school choice. Pro-voucher Protestants excited by the Supreme Court's late-June green light have now run into stop signs placed in state constitutions by some of their ancestors a century or so ago.

Those stop signs are called Blaine Amendments, and 37 of the 50 states have them. Delaware's is typical: No state money "shall be appropriated to, or used by, or in aid of any sectarian, church, or denominational school." But it's the story behind those amendments that could make all the difference in a U.S. Supreme Court analysis of the constitutionality of these provisions.

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Most cover stories in WORLD have what journalists call a "face" and a "nut graf." The face is usually a person who can add human interest to what otherwise might be a dry story. The "nut graf" in one paragraph gives the essence of the tale. This story is unusual in that the "face" is a man who died over a century ago, House Speaker (and presidential candidate) James G. Blaine. The nut graf can be one sentence: The state constitutional roadblocks that educational choice now faces grew out of anti-Catholic bigotry, anti-Southern politics, and the myth of educational neutrality.

Voucher proponents over the coming months will be emphasizing the role of anti-Catholic bigotry in the passage of Blaine Amendments, and it was a central one. But the other elements were important too, and we'll attempt to look at all of them.

WHEN JAMES G. BLAINE died in 1893, the great orator Chauncey Depew predicted that "his name will rank with Lincoln's." The Washington Evening News stated, "He has carved his name on the rock of enduring fame, where it will remain when the waves of countless years have rolled against it and receded from it." But 40 years later Blaine biographer Charles Russell gave an accurate summation: "No man in our annals has filled so large a space and left it so empty."

Blaine, born in Pennsylvania in 1830 to a loosely Presbyterian father and a Catholic mother, was brought up as a secularist. He moved to Maine in 1854 and edited newspapers in Kennebec and Portland before gaining election to Congress in 1862. As biographer Edward Stanwood put it, "A facile pen, a wonderful memory, a tendency to intellectual combativeness, and a social disposition" underlay his success both in journalism and politics. In 1868 Blaine became Speaker of the House of Representatives, and by the autumn of 1875 seemed the likely successor to President Ulysses S. Grant.

As the leaves fell in Washington, though, Blaine and other Republican strategists saw that he and the GOP had some problems. The 1874 elections had produced a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War, in part because wartime tensions had diminished while concern about GOP connections to big business scandals had increased. Republicans such as Senators Oliver Morton of Indiana and John Sherman of Ohio, along with Wisconsin Governor C.C. Washburn, looked for ways to re-energize the Northern Protestants who formed the Republican base.

Probable candidate Blaine himself had some weaknesses along those lines. Some Protestant voters were nervous about his semi-Catholic ancestry and the charges of corruption that dogged him. Blaine issued a statement emphasizing six generations of Protestant ancestors (on his father's side) and noting that he attended church regularly. But what about an issue that could drive a wedge into the Democrats and excite many Republicans?

Then, as now, most parents were deeply concerned about the education of their children. Education in America had traditionally been in the hands of private, often church-led schools paid for by parents, with scholarships provided to needy students. But since the 1840s tax-supported government schools had spread throughout the Northern states. The intellectual leader of the movement was Horace Mann, a Unitarian who had overcome opposition from some Northern Protestants by assuring them that the new, secularized public schools could still include daily reading from the King James Bible and generic moral instruction.

That would not have been enough to clinch Mann's victory but for concern among many Protestants about the growing number of Catholic immigrants, largely from Ireland. Opposition to such immigration, and concern that children going to Catholic schools would grow up to oppose American liberty, led to riots in the 1840s and 1850s, including one in Philadelphia in 1844 that resulted in 13 deaths and the burning down of a Catholic church.


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