November 6, 1888
Matthew Quay and the 1888 Presidential Election
Grover Cleveland pulled off an upset victory in 1884, defeating James Blaine in a race for the presidency and breaking 25 years of Republican control of the White House. Four years later, Cleveland remained the Democratic standard-bearer, but the Republican candidacy was up for grabs. After a long evening and multiple ballots, the Republican convention nominated a one-term senator from Indiana, Benjamin Harrison—the grandson of President William Henry Harrison.
To promote Harrison to the presidency, Republicans turned to Senator Matthew Quay, the powerful political boss of Pennsylvania. Described as the "ablest politician this country has ever produced,” Quay was a shrewd operator who enjoyed the game of politics and, as one biographer noted, “possessed a keen eye for detecting the enemy's weak points.” In 1888, he was the ideal man to chair the Republican National Committee.
Senator Quay understood that victory in this election depended upon the key state of New York and its 36 electoral votes. He also knew that New York City was controlled by the political machine of Tammany Hall, notorious for stuffing ballot boxes and altering election returns. One division of the city's sixth ward, for example, with a population of 850, once produced 934 votes. According to Quay, that was more votes than the division’s combined population of “men, women, children...and dogs.” Quay was convinced that Cleveland’s 1884 presidential victory had been the result of vote manipulation in New York City. He was determined that it would not happen again.
To combat the influence of Tammany Hall, Matt Quay devised an ingenious plan. He set up an office in Manhattan, ostensibly to create what he called a “city directory” as a strictly business venture with no political purpose. For months, Quay’s agents quietly canvassed the streets of New York, attracting little attention—from the press or the political opposition. Collecting data and mapping districts—block by block, house by house—they compiled a comprehensive list of every eligible voter in New York City.
Two weeks before election day, Quay revealed his strategy. “I have the names of the bona fide voters of every election district in New York,” he proclaimed. “If any fraud is attempted on election day, we are not only in position to detect it, but we will see to it that the guilty go to prison.” As a final safeguard, Quay arranged to have certified copies of all election returns delivered to him just as the originals went to city hall. If any returns were altered by Tammany operatives, he’d know it—and report it.
Quay’s strategy did not stop Grover Cleveland from squeaking out a victory in heavily Democratic New York City, but it did limit the city’s margin of victory to so few votes that Benjamin Harrison carried the state and won the presidency on November 6, 1888. Matt Quay was crowned as kingmaker. “Providence has given us this victory,” sighed a grateful Benjamin Harrison, prompting kingmaker Quay to respond: “Providence hadn’t a damn thing to do with it.”