“Burn This Letter”


James G. Blaine in 1860 (Library of Congress)

James G. Blaine is something of a forgotten figure from history today, but he was a mover and shaker during his day and came close to winning the presidency. A glance at the inscription on his tomb in Augusta, Maine, will give you an idea of his accomplishments. Newspaper editor, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, U.S. Congressman, Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, U.S. Senator—he could put all these on his resume. He was also dogged by allegations of corruption. His opponents called him “the continental liar from the state of Maine.” During his attempt to get the presidential nomination in 1876 there were charges that a railroad had attempted a scheme to pay him off; he had ended a missive regarding the transaction with the note, “Kindly burn this letter.” His correspondent disregarded the instruction and “Burn this letter” became a catch phrase for his political opponents.






Blaine was born in Pennsylvania but moved to Maine to become editor of the Kennebec Journal in Augusta. Oliver Otis Howard got to know Blaine when the future general was posted to the Kennebec Arsenal there, and Blaine later played an important role in Howard’s Civil War career when he help get him the colonelcy of the 3rd Maine Infantry regiment. This is what Howard wrote about him in his autobiography:

“His figure was good nearly six feet and well proportioned; his hair, what you could see of it under his soft hat pushed far back, was a darkish brown. It showed the disorder due to sundry thrusts of the fingers. His coat, a little long, was partially buttoned. This, with the collar, shirt front, and necktie, had the negligee air of a dress never thought of after the first adjustment. His head was a model in size and shape, with a forehead high and broad, and he had, as you would anticipate in a strong face, a large nose. But the distinguishing feature of his face was that pair of dark-gray eyes, very full and bright. He wore no beard, had a slight lisp in speech with a clear, penetrating nasal tone. He excelled even the nervous [Gov. Israel] Washburn in rapid utterance. Nobody in the Maine House of Representatives, where he had been for two years and of which he was now the Speaker, could match him in debate. He was, as an opponent, sharp, fearless, aggressive, and uncompromising; he always had given in wordy conflicts, as village editor and as debater in public assemblies, blow for blow with ever-increasing momentum. Yet from his consummate management he had already become popular. Such was Blaine at thirty years of age.”

Blaine still had most of his career stretching out before him at that point. He died in 1893 and was originally buried in Washington, but in 1920 he was reinterred in the park in Augusta that now bears his name. It’s a beautiful spot on a hill overlooking town near the National Guard’s Camp Keyes (which is named after Civil War general Erasmus Keyes). I used to hang out in this park on occasion when I was young, and I snickered at the blatant inequality between the inscription on Blaine’s tomb and that on his wife’s. When I lived in Washington, I often walked past his impressive Gilded Age mansion on Dupont Circle. Now he has some prime real estate in Augusta. Pity he can’t enjoy it.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s