In June 1884, Thomas Nast drew a caricature of himself making a “dainty dish” of the “Plumed Knight,” Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine (here depicted as the “‘Plumed’ Crow,”) for the 21 June issue of Harper’s Weekly. The engraved cartoon, copied from this drawing, was printed in a reduced size in the magazine.
After a hiatus in his long career as a political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast “announced” in cartoons that began to appear in March 1884 that he had returned to his easel. While his first cartoon was an anodyne plea for aid to flood victims, he quickly turned his pen and pencil to politics. A long-time supporter of President Grant and the Republican Party, Nast drew a “Sacred Elephant” —the Republican symbol that he had created—that could only win if it was kept “pure and clean” and had “not too heavy a load to carry.” Although he is not named in this cartoon, Nast was clearly taking aim at the “Plumed Knight” of the Republican Party, James G. Blaine, who had been compared, during his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1880, to a gallant “Plumed Knight,” but whose long public career and “magnetic” personality had been tarnished by accusations of financial corruption; as Nast put it in a cartoon caption, “the prostitution of public office for private gain.”
After Blaine was nominated as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in June 1884, Nast began to directly attack him in the pages of Harper’s, often with more than one satirical cartoon each week. For the 21 June issue (p. 395), Nast drew this caricature of himself rising from a feast upon Blaine (the “Plumed” Crow). The cartoon, in reduced form, appeared at the bottom right-hand corner of a page, immediately followed by a double-page cartoon, “Death Before Dishonor” (p. 396-397). Nast drew his own version of the Roman legend of the “death before dishonor” of Virginia, in which the Republican Party in the form of a maiden (Virginia) is stabbed to death by her father, Virginius (representing liberal Republican reformers—“Mugwumps”), rather being allowed to fall into the unsavory hands of a toga-clad Jim Blaine (in the role of the lecherous Appius Claudius).
Thomas Nast was relentless. In a supplement to the 26 July 1884 issue of Harper’s, he reprised ten of his earlier anti-Blaine cartoons dating back to the time of Blaine’s previous campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1880. This was both an opportunity for Nast to demonstrate his longstanding distrust and contempt for the “Plumed Knight” (Nast’s visual symbol of Blaine wearing a top hat bedecked with three ostrich feathers was just catching hold in the early 1880s) and to hammer home his attacks on Blaine’s moral and political failings.
In these reprinted cartoons, Nast accused Blaine of supporting the exclusion of Chinese immigrants in order to gain favor with xenophobic California voters and of attempting to show himself as a “strong man” during a contested Maine state election. Few of Nast’s caricatured subjects complained to him about how they had been depicted, probably to protect themselves against further vitriol, but Blaine made an unavailing protest that Nast had accused him of promoting violence. Nast also had satirized Blaine’s personal magnetism by drawing him in the shape of a giant magnet that weighed down the Republican Party by attracting a “load” of financial and political scandals.
Just as Thomas Nast began his campaign against Blaine, he suffered a crushing financial loss from which he never recovered—losing almost all the wealth he had had accumulated from more than 20 years of prodigious labor (in addition to his cartoons, he illustrated books and other Harper Brothers publications—most famously creating the modern image of Santa Claus). He had invested in Grant and Ward, a financial firm managed by Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., the son of the former president, and Ferdinand Ward. When Grant and Ward collapsed in May 1884, Nast lost everything he had invested; his hero, former President Grant, was also bankrupted.
While working through the crisis in his personal life, Thomas Nast found himself caricatured in competing humor magazines and newspapers. He had drawn himself as a diminutive figure in so many of his cartoons that his image was familiar to the public. Now he was depicted as the “Mugwump’s monkey”—a tool of liberal Republican reformers who had rebelled against the nomination of Blaine—and a figure of derision. The reformers, described as “Mugwumps,” took their name from an Algonquian word for “officer” or “war leader,” but more colloquially were derided as being so divided in their support for both civil service reform and party loyalty that their “mugs” were on one side of the political fence and their “wumps” on the other.
Nast, depicted as an organ grinder’s chained monkey, was criticized for his hypocrisy: he had remained loyal to a Republican Party that had abandoned its founding principle of support of Black civil rights, and savagely attacked Democratic political corruption while, for the most part, overlooking the personal failings of President Grant and most Republican politicians except James G. Blaine. Until 1884, Nast had drawn scathing caricatures of the Republican reformers, but now supported their cause. The attacks on Nast seemed to miss the point; he was not the party candidate, and he continued to batter the “Plumed Knight” right up until the election.
James Gillespie Blaine was born in 1830 in Pennsylvania. After a brief career as a school teacher and young college professor, he moved to Maine in the 1850s, where he became a newspaper editor and a founder of the Republican Party. He was elected to the Maine legislature and then to the U.S. Congress, where he was Speaker of the House from 1869 to 1875, before being elected to the Senate in 1876, and appointed Secretary of State in 1881. Blaine had lost contests for his party’s presidential nomination in both 1876 and 1880, but 1884 appeared to be his “turn.”
While Blaine was the very image of a 19th-century political standard bearer—acclaimed as the “Magnetic Man” and “Plumed Knight” by his Republican supporters--accusations of corruption and self-dealing followed him throughout his career. Although Thomas Nast launched the most sustained attacks on Blaine in 1884, he was not alone. The most telling single blow struck against Blaine was Bernhard Gillam’s cartoon, “Phryne Before the Chicago Tribunal,” in Puck (centerspread of the 4 June 1884 issue) Drawing upon Phryne before the Areopagus, an 1861 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, in which Phryne’s innocence is proved by her great beauty, Gillam showed Blaine as a nude model revealed to an audience of “Mugwumps” and other Republican reformers as the “tattooed man”—covered with the indelible marks and blemishes of his shady past.
Puck was the most popular illustrated humor magazine of its day and it featured chromolithographs—several cartoons in each issue appeared in full color. The illustrated humor magazines struck many shrewd blows during the 1884 campaign, but most cartoonists were equal-opportunity satirists, while Nast continued to batter a single target, the “Plumed Knight.”
Nast took the opportunity to link Blaine with another of his favorite targets, Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts, a notoriously corrupt political opportunist who in 1884 was the presidential candidate of the populist Greenback Party. Butler’s candidacy was seen by many, including Nast, as a ploy to siphon votes from Grover Cleveland, the Democratic Party candidate.
New York Governor Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate for president, had broad support as a civil service reformer, and had worked across party lines with likeminded Republican reformers such as young Theodore Roosevelt. He gained the support of the Mugwumps, but he had alienated elements of the Democratic Party political machine. In the middle of the campaign, he also became mired in personal scandal, accused of being the neglectful father of an illegitimate child.
On 4 November 1884, Cleveland won the national popular vote by a narrow margin, but after an extraordinarily close election in New York, there were days of counting and recounting more than 1,160,000 ballots cast. In the final tally, Cleveland defeated Blaine in New York by only 1,049 votes, but because New York had the largest number of electoral votes (36), that won him the national electoral vote, 219-182.
There were many people and political organizations who shared credit for Cleveland’s victory and blame for Blaine’s loss in New York (including bad weather on Election Day), but in the celebrations that followed Cleveland’s victory, Thomas Nast was acclaimed as “the man who made a president.” Whatever credit Nast deserves, it appears to have been more a matter of “unmaking” the presidential ambitions of James G. Blaine, rather than forwarding the candidacy of Grover Cleveland.
The Massachusetts Historical Society’s new online exhibition, “Who Counts?” illustrates how cartoonists, including Thomas Nast, helped to tell the story of voting rights in the United States. The exhibition includes many examples of Nast’s cartoons in Harper’s Weekly, showing his advocacy for Black civil rights, including voting rights, and his epic battle against Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall depicting how political corruption was a threat to free and fair elections.
To accompany the Massachusetts Historical Society’s online exhibition of political cartoons, the MHS commissioned Boston-area graphic artists to create a cartoon biography of Thomas Nast. The biography consists of panels that illustrate episodes from Nast’s life, based upon his cartoons, drawings, and paintings. While the exhibit does not specifically address the 1884 presidential campaign, it provides context for Nast’s role through depictions of events in his early career and the later decline of his influence before his death in 1902.
Fischer, Roger A. “Mugwump’s Monkey,” in Them Damned Pictures: Explorations in American Political Cartoon Art. New Haven: Archon Books, 1996, 25-43.
Halloran, Fiona Dean. Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Harper's Weekly. Volume 28, 1884.
Digital presentation of volume 28 is available within HaithiTrust Digital Library.
Kahn, Michael A. and Richard S. West. What Fools These Mortals Be! The Story of Puck, America’s First and Most Influential Magazine of Color Political Cartoons. San Diego: IDW Publishing for the Library of American Comics, 2014.
Keller, Morton. The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Muzzey, David S. James G. Blaine: A Political Idol of Other Days. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1934.
Paine, Albert B. Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures. New introduction by Morton Keller. New York: Chelsea House, 1980.
Originally published as: Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures. New York: Macmillan, 1904.
Rolde, Neil. Continental Liar from the State of Maine: James G. Blaine. Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House Publishers, 2007.
Summers, Mark W. Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion: the Making of a President, 1884. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.