Some writers wanted to stop all immigration, but others looked to public schools to save America. An article in The Massachusetts Teacher in 1851 stated that children of immigrants “must be taught as our own children are taught. … In many cases this can only be accomplished by coercion. … The children must be gathered up and forced into [public] school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.”
The Civil War brought out in the North an emphasis on sacrificing individual rights to preserve the Union. That carried over into the educational debate. Andrew Coulson’s Market Education quotes a statement from California’s education superintendent that children should be taught to consider teachers as “superior to the parent in point of authority.”
Many teachers supported such thinking. The Wisconsin Teachers’ Association declared in 1865, “Children are the property of the state.” In 1866, the National Teachers’ Association (precursor to the National Education Association) published claims that “the duties which a citizen owes to the government are prior to any personal or individual claims.”
Some Biblical Protestants in the North still put theological duties first and emphasized parental responsibility for educating children, but they were outnumbered. Blaine represented well a generation that embraced a myth of educational neutrality, the idea that school subjects could be taught without any reference to God, as long as the students had a daily Bible reading.
Some theologians opposed that notion. R.L. Dabney, in an 1876 press debate with Virginia’s superintendent of schools, said, “If secular education is to be made consistently and honestly non-Christian, then all its more important branches must be omitted, or they must submit to a mutilation and falsification, far worse than absolute omission.” Leaving God out of teaching, he added, was like “the play of Hamlet, with the part of Hamlet omitted.”
Blaine and other Northern Republican leaders were not listening or did not care. They perceived an opportunity to batter both Catholics and Southern whites, two groups largely lost to the GOP anyway, and to win crucial support among Northern advocates of a bland Protestantism. He gained the support of President Ulysses S. Grant, who had only a superficial knowledge of Scripture but hated Catholicism, which Grant called a center of “superstition, ambition and ignorance.”
Grant in 1875 proposed a constitutional amendment that would require states to establish government-funded schools, forbid those schools to teach any religious tenets, and prohibit any government funds from going to religious schools. Blaine introduced such an amendment the following week. Congressional debate was full of anti-Catholic sentiment. Vermont Sen. Justin Morrill sneered, “The Catholics will rave.” Ohio Sen. Sherman said “Priests from the Pope” were fools.
What became known as the Blaine Amendment easily passed the House of Representatives in 1876, but many senators thought the amendment gave the federal government too much power over the states. The Nation, then a new political magazine, favored Blaine’s measure but said it would fail and Blaine did not care: His goal “is not to pass it but to use it in the campaign to catch anti-Catholic votes.”
That prediction was correct: Senators such as William Wallace Eaton of Connecticut showed little desire to further an “election dodge. … This whole business originated with the Hon. James G. Blaine. … It was one of his dodges to get a nomination.” Predictions that Blaine would be nominated despite bribery accusations, though, were wrong. “Blaine, Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine” has gone down in political history as one of the most effective negative campaign chants ever.
The GOP convention made “clean” Rutherford Hayes its presidential nominee by a slight majority. The Senate then turned down the Blaine Amendment by four votes. That did not end the matter, though. Blaine remained a prominent GOP leader for the next 16 years and served twice as secretary of state. He became his party’s presidential nominee in 1884.
Blaine failed nationally. His involvement in bribery cases sickened many Republicans: They refused to support him and became known as Mugwumps, stuck on the political fence with their “mugs” on one side and their rumps on the other, as the joke went. Blaine lost narrowly to Democrat Grover Cleveland and what Republicans called the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”
Blaine supporters kept alive his bigotry and political strategy by placing “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions. For example, Missouri’s says no state government body can “pay from any public fund whatever, anything [that would] sustain any private or public school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church or sectarian denomination whatever.”
Three dozen other states passed similar decrees. They clearly forbid direct appropriations from state government to religious schools. But what about tax credits that put decision-making in the hands of parents rather than government officials? What about tax credits for scholarships that can be used at either secular or religious schools?
Also, does legislative intent make a difference? Blaine Amendments passed not because legislators were against religious teaching but because many incorrectly assumed the public schools would emphasize Protestant teaching. Many displayed a clear anti-Catholicism and hoped Catholic schools would fail for financial reasons.