hitelaw Reid (right) was editor of the New York Tribune and the chief cheerleader in the press for Republican presidential nominee James Blaine. In 1872, Reid himself participated in the Liberal-Republican bolt from the Republican party. He served as a leading advisor to unsuccessful presidential nominee Horace Greeley, and replaced the candidate as editor of that newspaper. In subsequent years, the Tribune became the nation's leading Republican daily under Reid's supervision. After Blaine resigned as secretary of state in December 1881, he secretly used the journal to undermine the political clout of President Chester Arthur.
Congressman William Walter Phelps of New Jersey (left) was a close friend and key political advisor of Blaine's, as well as a New York Tribune stockholder. He had originally been the candidate's first choice as a vice-presidential running mate. During the 1884 campaign, Phelps published in the Tribune a defense of the nominee's railroad dealings while speaker of the house. The congressman also released Blaine's "private" letter to him, which attempted to explain away the nominee's
. Phelps's published defense of Blaine is mentioned in the cartoon's dialogue.
Much of the mudslinging during the 1884 campaign involved revelations of real, imagined, or exaggerated sex scandals, including those implicating three presidential nominees: Blaine, Democrat Grover Cleveland, and Prohibitionist John St. John. Another distinguishing feature of the character assassination in 1884 was the tactic of pointedly questioning the masculinity of one's political opponents. The Mugwumps, for example, were vilified as effeminate males or helpless women who were unfit for the rough-and-tumble of the masculine preserve of partisan politics.
Here, Mugwump cartoonist Thomas Nast responds in kind by associating Blaine's most prominent supporters, Phelps and Reid, with the effeminacy of British aristocracy, while mocking their similar attacks on the Mugwumps. For many Gilded Age Americans, Britain was not the close ally that it would be in the post-World War II era, but rather a country under suspicion. Having fought against Americans in two wars, and indirectly aided the Confederate effort (via shipbuilding) during the Civil War, Great Britain was more often considered a foe, or at least a rival. Britain also conjured up images of a class-stratified society, which conflicted with the American ideal of a classless, democratic society.
In this cartoon, Phelps and Reid are presented as "dudes," dressed in elegant evening wear: black swallowtail coat; satin-striped, close-fitting trousers; starched shirts; boutonnieres; and bowed, pointed-toed slippers. They imitate the leisured life of the British aristocracy, and, in particular, that of the aesthetic movement.
Aestheticism was a new direction in the arts and literature in the late-19th century which preached the pursuit of beauty as the highest good, rather than at the service of morality; it was "art for art's sake." One of the primary promulgators of aestheticism was Oscar Wilde, who made a well-publicized tour through the United States in 1882. Wilde and other aesthetes emphasized artifice and transience (like flowers) against the Romantic ideal of nature and the Victorian morality of duty, and, as such, constituted a type of counterculture.
Male aesthetes were often considered to be effeminate, although the connotation of homosexuality is debatable. Wilde's scandal and trial did not occur until the mid-1890s; plus, the term "homosexual" was newly coined in the 1860s and did not yet denote a type of person so much as a trait. On the other hand, the side-by-side union of Phelps and Reid's front feet seems suggestive to our eyes today. Even if Nast did not intend, or most of his audience did not understand, such implications, they would be aware of the negative, effeminate caricature of the two men.
Wilde was well-known for wearing or carrying flowers, especially a sunflower or daisy. In a similar fashion, flowers are worn by Phelps and Reid, reflected in their nicknames, and appear on the wallpaper (along with dollar signs and fleurs-de-lis, with their lily or iris petals). Nast nicknames Phelps "the Jersey Lily," and has Reid refer to his friend as "Bangtry." These are allusions to Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), the British-born actress who was called "the Jersey Lily" after her birthplace on the isle of Jersey, off the English coast. Langtry made a celebrated theatrical tour of America in 1882. The pun on her name as Reid's pet-name for Phelps derives from his hair, which he wore in bangs on his forehead, a popular style among fashionable young "dudes" of the time.