Benjamin Butler


 “Our Friends, The Enemy”
  Cartoonist:  Thomas Nast
  Source:  Harper's Weekly
  Date:   September 13, 1884, p. 591

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Complete HarpWeek Explanation:
The Greenback-Labor (or People's) party nominated Benjamin Butler for president. His popularity with Irish Americans and workers made him a threat to draw away votes from the Democratic party. Democratic leaders offered him promises of patronage and a possible cabinet position if he turned down the nomination. Butler could not abide the views of Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland, so he rejected Democratic overtures. The Republicans, on the other hand, wanted Butler to enter the presidential race and offered to support his campaign with $5,000 per week until the election. In August, Butler accepted the Republican offer and the Greenback-Labor nomination, then set out on the campaign trail where he attracted large, enthusiastic crowds. He asked for more money from the Republicans, but they refused.

In this cover-cartoon for Harper's Weekly, artist Thomas Nast presents Butler (center) as a "charming widow" who is being wooed by New York Sun editor Charles Dana (left) and New York Tribune editor Whitelaw Reid (right). The Sun was the leading Democratic newspaper in New York, but Dana broke party ranks to endorse Butler over Cleveland. As a result, the newspaper lost half of its circulation. The Tribune was the leading Republican daily in New York, and Reid was Republican nominee James Blaine's most vocal supporter in the press. His courting of Butler represents the Republican desire to keep the Greenback-Labor candidate in the presidential contest. The flowers associate Reid with (British) aestheticism. (see "Sound Political Arguments" for a more complete discussion).

The "Widow Butler" caricature was based on the candidate's 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 popular 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 habit of changing party affiliation (political nonconformity) as well as begging for political power, place, and patronage. The Rag Baby he cradles symbolize Butler's advocacy of "soft money" inflation, or the expansion of the money supply by the printing of paper currency ("greenbacks") not redeemable in gold. The spoon he holds refers to his controversial command of New Orleans for the Union during the Civil War. He was hated by many residents, who circulated rumors that he stole silverware from the city's mansions, and therefore nicknamed him "Spoons."













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