hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News June 2021


Presidential loss cost local congressman his seat

Maury Thompson


President Chester Arthur, who was born in Vermont and lived for a portion of his childhood in Greenwich, N.Y., was loyal to his friends.

“His credo was stay by your friends — fight your enemies,” The Granville Sentinel wrote on Nov. 26, 1886.

U.S. Rep. Henry G. Burleigh, R-Whitehall, was “a warm personal friend” of Arthur and led the unsuccessful effort to nominate Arthur for re-election in 1884 at the Republican National Convention in Chicago.

Burleigh, a businessman with interests in iron ore, transportation, banking and more, represented Washington and Rensselaer counties in Congress for two terms, from March 4, 1883 to March 3, 1887. He previously had served as a state assemblyman in the 1870s and as Ticonderoga mayor in the 1860s.

He was known as “perpetual motion Burleigh” because of his extraordinary enthusiasm.
“In business, as in politics, Mr. Burleigh never sleeps,” the Sentinel wrote on Oct. 29, 1886. “He is always at work, and the restless spirit within him, directed by the very genius of an intuitive and alert mind, brings out results that command the admiration of all who know something of the difficulties he has mastered and the achievement he has been able to accomplish.”

Arthur, who was elected vice president in 1880, ascended to the presidency the next year after the assassination of James Garfield.

Once James Blaine had clinched the 1884 Republican presidential nomination, Burleigh capitulated and made the motion to make Blaine’s nomination unanimous, the Ticonderoga Sentinel wrote in an account published after Burleigh’s death in August 1900.

Burleigh had mistakenly predicted Blaine would carry New York.
“The campaign will be fought very largely on the tariff issue. … For that reason, I believe any Republican can carry New York,” Burleigh said in a June 10, 1884 report in The Morning Star of Glens Falls. “Blaine will be a much heavier load than Arthur, whom I think was the strongest candidate that I could have named.”

But Burleigh became a scapegoat for Blaine’s narrow loss in New York, which tipped the Electoral College vote to Democrat Grover Cleveland.

Cleveland won by just 37 electoral votes, with a razor-thin lead of about one-half of a percentage point in the national popular vote.

The process of counting and verifying votes was controversial, with Republicans raising claims of fraud and inaccuracy. Locally, there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the days after the 1884 election.

“Washington County Republicans threaten to give Congressman H.G. Burleigh a ‘cold shoulder’ should he come up for election again,” The Morning Star, which was politically independent, reported on Nov. 17, 1884. “It is said he exerted himself but very little during the recent campaign and permitted Whitehall — his town — to go against Blaine. The more charitably inclined of his party say the congressman is not to blame — he could not ‘stem the tide.’”

His support for Arthur indeed cost Burleigh his congressional seat in 1886.
The Granville Sentinel, which had long boosted Burleigh and other Republicans, was incensed at the turn of events in what was then New York’s 18th Congressional District.

“It is enough to make a man denounce our system of government,” the paper wrote in an editorial on Nov. 5, 1886.

Just three days before the election, Democrats had recruited Edward W. Greenman, a little-known former deputy county clerk from Troy, who upset Burleigh, a two-term incumbent.
Many Republicans stayed home, some angry over the 1884 presidential results, and others because they thought Burleigh had no opponent.

“Tuesday’s election in this county was characterized with quietness and general Republican apathy, a light party vote being pulled,” the Granville paper reported. “The Democracy,” as Democrats were sometimes called in that era, “however, was out in force.”
Burleigh carried his hometown of Whitehall, a Democratic stronghold, and all of Washington County, but Greenman piled up an insurmountable lead in the more populous Rensselaer County.

Burleigh said the timing of his opponent entering the race was a factor, as word did not reach rural communities before the election.

The Knights of Labor mustered a huge voter turnout for Greenman in Troy.
Democratic organization was a key factor, but Republican infighting also played a role.
“By double deal and political assault upon the most influential man in their congressional district, certain Republicans have struck down the Hon. Henry G. Burleigh in a cowardly and unmanly manner,” The Glens Falls Times, a Republican paper, wrote in an editorial. “Jealously was the prime motive that instigated the unexpected assault.”

The Troy Budget, a Republican newspaper, accused Burleigh of being disloyal to the Republican Party ­­— a claim the Troy Times, another Republican paper, disputed.

“But no man has the right to slander,” the latter paper said in an editorial, republished Oct. 1, 1886, in The Granville Sentinel. “There has been a good deal of this in private circulation against Mr. Burleigh. But now that it has been given publicity, it is only just to him that this lie should be nailed.”

Burleigh said he campaigned for Blaine in Whitehall, Fort Ann, Granville and Ticonderoga.
“The defeat of Mr. Blaine cannot be laid at my door,” Burleigh said.

In the race for Burleigh’s seat, the Democratic Party had been unable to field a candidate at its nominating convention on Oct. 19.

J.M. Barnett, a delegate from Fort Ann, urged fellow delegates not to leave Burleigh unchallenged.

“We want a candidate to vote for,” he said.” If you can’t get a strong man, give us a weak man.”
Gideon Reynolds, a Rensselaer County delegate, said that if Washington County “will give us a man, we will vote for him.”

“There is no man in Rensselaer County who will accept the nomination,” Reynolds said.
But Democrats met again Oct. 26 and still could not field a candidate until Greenman emerged days later.

U.S. Rep. John Swinburne, an incumbent Republican who represented the Albany area, also lost re-election in 1886.

“Like Burleigh, Congressman Swinburne is slaughtered in the Albany District by the forces of Democracy,” The Granville Sentinel wrote in an editorial. “A man of brains and statesmanship evidently has no business running for Congress.”

Greenman, after defeating Burleigh, served one term and did not seek re-election.
Burleigh soon returned to political influence. Although he did not again hold office, he was a Republican mover and shaker regionally and nationally until he died in 1900.
Burleigh was back at the Republican National Convention in 1888, when the campaigns of two presidential contestants from Indiana were distributing virtually identical political buttons bearing the slogan, “Protection for American Labor, 1888.” The only difference between the two buttons was the candidate’s name.
A mix-up of the two buttons subjected Burleigh to a good-natured ribbing.

“Ex-Congressman Henry G. Burleigh, who is so excessively nervous in his movements that his friends jokingly say that they never know whether he is standing on his head or his feet, was the subject of a laughable affair at Chicago, which he turned off in an apt manner,” the Chicago Tribune reported, in an article republished July 6, 1888, in The Granville Sentinel.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Walter O. Gresham, whose name was on one of the buttons, had more votes on the first three ballots than former U.S. Sen. Benjamin Harrison, the eventual nominee. Gresham, though losing ground, stayed in the contest through the eighth and final ballot.

When Harrison began gaining ground, Burleigh asked Russell Harrison, son of the eventual nominee, for a Harrison button to wear.

Russell Harrison had been attempting to collect buttons from as many of the 16 nominees as possible, and mistakenly gave Burleigh an almost identical Gresham button.

Burleigh, not realizing the mix-up, put on the button in such a hurry that he put the button on upside down, not noticing the name.

“When a friend came along a short time afterward and called Burleigh’s attention to the Gresham button, he glanced down at it in astonishment, but quickly said, ‘Why, Russell Harrison gave me that button. But, by Jove, it’s all right. A Gresham button upside down is a Harrison button, isn’t it?’”

Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.