If remembered at all in the popular mind, the Presidential election of 1884 is best known, perhaps, as the "dirtiest" campaign in American history. But the election of 1884 is notable in several other respects. It resulted in the first Democratic victory since 1856. Beyond the personal scandals associated with both candidates and the campaign, many other issues were at stake, some of which were addressed, some of which were suppressed or ignored, such as women's rights, civil rights for African Americans, growing disparities in wealth (and what to do about that), prohibition, civil service reform, and the challenges immigration posed in creating a more pluralistic society. If many of these sound familiar to us today, the election of 1884 is worth a second look.
In this exhibit we'll be drawing on over a hundred objects to tell the story of this moment in American history. The Hervey Priddy Collection, the Danny O. Crew Collection, and the R. Hal Williams Collection are featured prominently, as well as items from the general DeGolyer Library collections. From the beginning, our benefactor Hervey Priddy wanted to mount this exhibit in honor of the late Hal Williams, a beloved and respected professor here at SMU, who had been working on a biography of James G. Blaine at the time of his death. It is a pleasure for us to do so.
A novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1873) defined the boom and bust times of the post Civil War era, when unbridled acquisitiveness dominated national life. As they note, tongue-in-cheek: "In a State where there is no fever of speculation, no inflamed desire for sudden wealth, where the poor are all simple-minded and contented, and the rich are all honest and generous, where society is in a condition of primitive purity and politics is the occupation of only the capable and the patriotic, there are necessarily no materials for such a history as we have constructed out of an ideal commonwealth."
1884 was a banner year in the Gilded Age.