his cartoon pokes fun at Senator James Blaine's charismatic, or
"magnetic," personality by depicting him literally as a magnet.
Instead of attracting votes, however, the Republican presidential candidate has
scandals, corrupt practices, and controversial issues bonded to him.
The barrel of money under his head is a symbol that Thomas Nast and other
cartoonists used to represent ill-gotten wealth and slush funds used to buy
votes or political favors. It was particularly associated with Samuel Tilden,
the Democratic presidential nominee in 1876, and William English, the Democratic
vice-presidential nominee in 1880.
The "bloody shirt" was a common campaign tactic used by Republicans to
remind voters of the Democratic party's historic link with secession and the
Confederate cause. Its inclusion in this cartoon is ironic for two reasons: 1)
artist Thomas Nast was one of the most egregious practitioners of "bloody
shirt" symbolism; and 2) it would be Blaine who in the fall of 1880 urged
the Republican party to put aside the "bloody shirt" in favor of
emphasizing the tariff issue.
The Credit Mobilier scandal first came to light in the fall of 1872. Managers of
Credit Mobilier, the holding company for the federally subsidized Union Pacific
Railroad, were accused of siphoning off huge amounts of public money for
personal gain. Trying to cover up their misdeeds and gain leniency in Congress,
the corporation's officers gave key Congressmen bribes in the form of discounted
stock and bonds. Blaine was one of several politicians initially accused, but he
truthfully denied the charges and, as speaker of the house, established a
special committee to investigate the scandal. Nast, however, considered Blaine
to be irredeemably corrupt, so naturally accepted the allegations as accurate.
In 1876, Blaine was the leading presidential candidate for the Republican
presidential nomination until rumors began to circulate that he had used his
influence as speaker of the house to advance legislation favorable to the Fort
Smith and Little Rock Railroad after the company gave him a large cash payment
for nearly worthless bonds. Evidence known as "the Mulligan letters"
seemed to implicate Blaine, and his effort to defend himself was less than
candid. The House, however, took no action against him when it lost jurisdiction
upon his appointment to the U.S. Senate to fill the remaining term of the
retiring Lot Morrill.
Blaine's status as a "spoils" politician who exploited the patronage
system to aggrandize his own power is represented by the leech marked
"Machine Politicians." The other leech, "Grant's Cast Off
Followers," is a rebuke to Blaine's leadership of the moderate
"Half-Breed" wing of the Republican party, which stood opposed to the
pro-Grant "Stalwart" wing. Grant was a hero to Nast, but the artist
was sympathetic to the reform wing of the party, so considered both
"Stalwart" chiefs, like Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York, and
"Half-Breed" kingpins, like Blaine, to be unscrupulous machine
The figures of the Chinese man and Denis Kearney remind viewers of Blaine's
ardent, vocal opposition to Chinese immigration (see "Nativism" in Issues). Kearney was the leader of the anti-Chinese (or Chinese-exclusion)
movement in California. Blaine believed that the Chinese laborers immigrating to
the American West Coast were a servile class of workers, little better than
slaves, who were denigrating the standard of living for all free laborers.
Skeptical critics charged that Blaine was merely trying to gain support on the
West Coast to boost his presidential chances. His stance on the issue, though,
was solidly mainstream at the time and probably gained him little political
capital. (For more information, visit HarpWeek's site on "The Chinese American Experience, 1857-1892.")
The severed silver coin carrying the picture of a duck (instead of the American
eagle) is Nast's mocking symbol of silver coinage generally and the
Bland-Allison Act specifically. Backed by inflationists, Congress enacted the
latter in 1878 as a compromise bill which allowed a limited amount of silver to
be coined annually. The "Money Question" (see "Monetary Policy" in Issues) was most of the most divisive in the late-19th
century. Nast, a hard-money supporter, caricatures silver as devalued money by
slicing off a portion of the coin. Its attachment to Blaine misleadingly reveals
him to be a soft-money advocate.
In fact, Blaine's maiden speech on the floor of the House had been a
denunciation of the inflationist "Ohio Idea" of the unlimited
circulation of greenbacks (not backed by gold). In 1874, Speaker of the House
Blaine almost single-handedly averted a schism in the Republican party over the
money question. Congress had passed an Inflation Bill, which would have
increased the amount of greenbacks and national bank notes in circulation and
consequently stimulate inflation. President Ulysses S. Grant vetoed the measure
as economically unsound, but irate soft-money Republicans, whose debt-ridden
constituents wanted inflation, threatened to join with Democrats to override the
veto. Blaine constructed a compromise inflation bill acceptable to soft-money
Republicans and the president. In 1878, Senator Blaine campaigned for Republican
congressional candidates in the Midwest, where he defended the return to the
gold standard scheduled for January 1879.