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Twenty Years of Congress: From Lincoln to Garfield

James Gillespie Blaine (1884-1886) 

Senator James Blaine wrote Twenty Years of Congress chiefly as a political history, but also as a personal reminiscence. The two volumes cover the political events from 1861 through 1881. Volume one begins with a thorough review of events leading up to the formation of the Republican party, the election of President Abraham Lincoln, and the secession of the Southern states. The second volume covers issues that arose during the Civil War and Reconstruction era and the people and political events of that tumultuous time.

Blaine’s intent was to present an objective history, and he wrote respectfully of political opponents, including a portrait of his political foe, Senator Roscoe Conkling, of New York. A contemporary newspaper account proclaimed it “an instance of the wise elimination of prejudice from his work,” to which Blaine responded, “The history of Congress would be incomplete without [Conkling’s] name and services.”  

James Gillsepie Blaine began his career in public service in 1859 and remained at the forefront of American politics for 33 years, serving as U.S. representative, Speaker of the House, Senator from Maine, and twice as secretary of state. A powerful force in American politics, known for his personal charisma and oratory skills, he was considered one of the founders of the modern Republican party. Thus he was positioned to have vast knowledge of the political issues preceding the Civil War and the formulation of American policy in the second half of the 19th century. Blaine sought the GOP nomination for president three times, including in 1876 when he unexpectedly lost the Republican nomination to Rutherford B. Hayes. Blaine’s likeness is included in the Cornelia Fassett painting depicting the disputed presidential election of Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Despite his personal success, Blaine remained awe-struck by the success of the U.S. political system in such trying times. “The twenty years between 1861 and 1881 are memorable in the history of the Congress of the United States. Senators and Representatives were called upon to deal with new problems from the hour in which they were summoned by President Lincoln to provide for the exigencies of a great war. They confronted enormous difficulties at every step; and if they had failed in their duty, if they had not comprehended the gravity and peril of the situation . . . the Union of the States might have been lost, the progress of civilization on the American Continent checked for generations.”