This cartoon mocks three potential candidates for the 1896 Republican presidential nomination—(left-right) Congressman Thomas B. Reed of Maine, ex-President Benjamin Harrison, and Senator James Cameron of Pennsylvania—for foolishly casting for votes in the shallow “Populist Pond.” Specifically, the image refers to the former two’s waffling on the money question and the latter’s embrace of free silver, a key doctrine of the Populist agenda. In the background, Senator William Peffer of Kansas, a Populist, tosses votes in the form of dead fish into the water. The term “suckers” is a double entendre for a type of fish and for people who are hoodwinked.
Over the years, Harper's Weekly had consistently backed the gold standard. In 1895, editor Carl Schurz registered disgust with the lack of principle on the money question demonstrated by Republicans considering the presidency in 1896. In the lead editorial of the April 13, 1895 issue, Schurz reminded readers that, as president, Harrison had “showed himself capable of extremely dangerous wobbling” on the issue, including his role in the Silver Purchase Act (which increased the amount of silver coins in circulation). The former president simply could not be trusted on the money question, on which he currently “maintains a discreet silence…”
Schurz lamented that Reed would have been the surest of all politicians to protect “the financial honor of the country” until his recent flirtation with bimetallism. The editor argued that for Reed “the glittering prize of the Presidency dangling before his eyes confused his virtue.” The shift in opinion, though, won him no silver supporters, while costing him the confidence of “sound-money men.” In the July 20, 1895 issue, the editor claimed that Senator James Cameron of Pennsylvania was seeking the Republican presidential nomination on a free-silver platform.
Schurz was so uncertain that Republicans would stand firm for the gold standard in 1896 that he suggested nominating an independent ticket if both major parties acceded to silver demands.