Cover Story

Breaking through Blaine's roadblock

"Breaking through Blaine's roadblock" Continued...

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

Some writers wanted to stop all immigration, but others looked to public schools to save America. An article in The Massachusetts Teacher in 1851 stated that children of immigrants "must be taught as our own children are taught. We say must be, because in many cases this can only be accomplished by coercion.... The children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished."

The Civil War brought out in the North an emphasis on sacrificing individual rights to preserve the Union, and that carried over into the educational debate. Andrew Coulson's book Market Education quotes a statement from California's education superintendent that children should be taught to consider teachers as "superior to the parent in point of authority." The Wisconsin Teachers' Association declared in 1865 that "children are the property of the state." The National Teachers' Association (precursor to the National Education Association) in 1866 published claims that "the duties which a citizen owes to the government are prior to any personal or individual claims."

Some biblical Protestants in the North still put theological duties first and emphasized parental responsibility for educating children, but they were outnumbered. Blaine represented well a generation that embraced a myth of educational neutrality, the idea that school subjects could be taught without any reference to God. By the 1870s the only section of the country where governmental authority over schooling received sharp, popular attack was the South, and that also played into the thinking of GOP strategists.

R.L. Dabney, a theologian who had been Stonewall Jackson's adjutant-general and would go on to help found the University of Texas, engaged in a press debate with Virginia's new superintendent of schools in 1876. Dabney argued that "if secular education is to be made consistently and honestly non-Christian, then all its more important branches must be omitted, or they must submit to a mutilation and falsification, far worse than absolute omission. It is hard to conceive how a teacher is to keep his covenant faithfully with the State so as to teach history, cosmogony, psychology, ethics, the laws of nations, as to insinuate nothing favorable or unfavorable touching the preferred beliefs of either the evangelical Christians, Papists, Socinians, Deists, Pantheists, Materialists, or Fetish worshippers, who claim equal rights under American institutions. His pedagogics must indeed be 'the play of Hamlet, with the part of Hamlet omitted.'" (For more of Dabney, see p. 32.)

But Blaine and other Northern Republican leaders were not listening or did not care. Blaine perceived an opportunity to hit both Catholics and Southern whites, two groups largely lost to the GOP anyway, and win crucial support among Northern advocates of a bland Protestantism. He gained the support of President Grant, who had only a superficial knowledge of Scripture but hated Catholicism, which Grant called a center of "superstition, ambition and ignorance." The president on Dec. 7, 1875, proposed a Constitutional amendment that would require states to establish government-funded schools, forbid those schools to teach any religious tenets, and prohibit any government funds from going to religious schools.

Blaine introduced such an amendment the following week. Vermont Senator Justin Morrill wrote, "The Catholics will rave, but I suppose there is not one who ever voted for free-men, free-schools, or the Republican party in war or peace." Ohio Senator Sherman crowed that "the Priests from the Pope down have been so foolish as to assail our common schools. Their position is untenable." An April, 1956, issue of The Catholic Historical Review cites many other examples of anti-Catholic sentiment surrounding the legislative debate.

What became known as the Blaine Amendment easily passed the House of Representatives in 1876 by a 180-7 vote, but 98 congressmen abstained. That prefigured a more contentious Senate debate involving the issue of whether the amendment gave the federal government too much power over the states. The Nation, then a new political magazine, favored Blaine's measure but in March, 1876, predicted that it would fail and speculated that Blaine did not care: "All that Mr. Blaine means to do or can do with his amendment is, not to pass it but to use it in the campaign to catch anti-Catholic votes."

Blaine's popularity in the House also did not carry over to the Senate, where senators such as William Wallace Eaton of Connecticut showed little desire to further an "election dodge.... This whole business originated with the Hon. James G. Blaine.... It was one of his dodges to get a nomination." And Blaine surprisingly did not get that nomination. Concerned with charges that Blaine had accepted bribes-"Blaine, Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine" has gone down in political history as one of the most effective negative campaign chants ever-the GOP convention chose "clean" Rutherford Hayes by a slight majority. The Senate then turned down the Blaine Amendment by four votes.

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