The election of 1884 was one of the most contentious in U.S. history. The spoils system remained the central issue of the political contest, and candidates debated about what it would take to reform civil service. Republicans nominated Half-Breed James Blaine of Maine, while Democrats nominated Governor Grover Cleveland of New York. The Democratic Party accused Blaine of conspiring with wealthy plutocrats to win the White House, while Republicans attacked Cleveland for having an illegitimate son. In the end, Cleveland barely defeated Blaine, by a margin of only forty electoral votes and a paltry 30,000 popular votes.
Cleveland’s first four years were fairly uneventful; his only major action was his proposal of a lower tariff to reduce the Treasury surplus near the end of his term. When the election of 1888 rolled around, Republicans rallied big business in the North and nominated Benjamin Harrison, a grandson of ninth U.S. president William Henry Harrison. Republicans were afraid that Democrats would succeed in lowering the protective tariff, so Harrison campaigned for an even higher tariff. Democrats countered by renominating Grover Cleveland. The results of the election were just as close as the other presidential elections of the Gilded Age, and Harrison ended up victorious.
During Harrison’s term, the Republican-majority Congress passed several notable bills, including the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which allowed the government to buy more silver to produce currency; the Pension Act, which distributed more money to Civil War veterans; and the controversial McKinley Tariff, which increased duties on foreign goods to about 50 percent.