his front-page Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast was prompted by Benjamin
Butler's endorsement of Winfield Hancock, the Democratic presidential nominee. A
quizzical Hancock inquires as to what the former congressman from Massachusetts
wants in return for the endorsement. Butler was a favorite target of Harper's Weekly, and an editorial in this issue dismisses the endorsement as
Butler’s controversial record as a Union general, party-switcher, and promoter of various reform schemes, in addition to his odd looks, made him one of the more colorful characters of the late-19th century. The “Widow Butler” caricature was based on his boast that he was not a coy maiden in politics, but knew his way around like a widow. The nickname also recalls a character in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Heart of Midlothian. Widow Judith Butler was a poor woman who was fined often for (religious) nonconformity. Applied to Benjamin Butler, it reflects his penchant for changing party affiliation (political nonconformity) as well as begging for political power, place, and patronage.
Here, "Widow Butler" carries her Rag Baby, a symbol of
"soft-money" and inflation, while her pocket is stuffed with a paper
reading "Bay State" (i.e., Massachusetts), which she means to deliver
(in the November election) to Hancock. The posters on the wall allude to
Butler's infamous tenure as commander of the Union occupation forces in New
Orleans during the Civil War. He was so hated by the city's residents that they
called him "Beast Butler." The regulation that most raised their ire
was his "Woman Order," which stipulated that women who insulted Union
soldiers would be treated as prostitutes.
Butler began his political life in Massachusetts as a Democrat, voting for the
Southern Democratic presidential nominee, John Breckinridge, in 1860. As a Union
general, he was a War Democrat, but was elected to Congress as a Republican
(1867-75; 1877-79). In Congress, he endorsed the Radical Republican policies for
Reconstruction and served as House prosecutor at the impeachment trial of
Democratic President Andrew Johnson. Butler ran numerous times unsuccessfully
for governor of Massachusetts, first as a Republican (1871, 1873, 1874), then as
an independent (1878) and a Democrat 1879), before being elected to the
governorship by a Democratic-Greenback coalition (1882). In 1884, he would be
the presidential nominee of the Greenback-Labor and Anti-Monopoly parties.