his dramatic double-page cartoon appeared just after delegates to the Republican National Convention selected former senator James Blaine as their standard-bearer. Cartoonist Thomas Nast was among those Republicans who reacted to the nomination by abandoning their party during the campaign. (Those who bolted in 1884 were derisively called "Mugwumps," supposedly from an Algonquin word for chief.) Nast explains their decision in this cartoon, set in ancient Rome.
The image is based on a story from Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius, 59 BC-17 AD) about a corrupt ruler, Appius Claudius, who demands to have sex with the beautiful and virtuous daughter of Virginius. Rather than submit to the tyrannical demand, Virginius chooses "death before dishonor" for his daughter, and kills her with his own hand. For Nast, it is better to kill the Republican party (by leaving it) than to allow its purity to be despoiled by Blaine's corruption. Nast places the guilt for the Mugwump revolt on Blaine, whose nomination forced them to choose what they believed was the lesser of two evils. Behind Blaine stands a soldier carrying the fasces (a Roman symbol of power), labeled "Spoils."
The story of Virginius is retold in "The Physician's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and referenced in Shakepeare's Titus Andronicus (Act V, Scene 3). In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare used the basic plot common to several folk tales of a corrupt judge who presents a virgin woman with the choice between having sex with him in exchange for the freedom of an imprisoned male relative of hers or retaining her purity which would result in the execution of her relative. Today, "Death before Dishonor" is the unofficial motto of the U.S. Marine Corps.