Ben Butler Re-Turns


 “The Widow’s Wants”
  Cartoonist:  Thomas Nast
  Source:  Harper's Weekly
  Date:   September 11, 1880, p. 577

Click to see a large version of this cartoon...

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Complete HarpWeek Explanation:
This 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 inconsequential.

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.













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