II-A) Mainstream Political Culture in the Gilded Age

If Carl Schurz's liberal independence was the predominant ideology of the Gilded Age, there would have been no need for a popular satirical magazine like Puck. However, the mainstream political scene was seedy, superficial, and doggedly partisan-- but folks loved it. "Despite the lack of issues," writes Morton Keller, "balloting-- and straight ticket voting-- in the 1870s and 1880s was at or near the highest level in American history" [1]. Policy had become subordinate to "the sumptuous display" of parades, bonfires, and pep rallies [2]. This extravagant and expensive culture depended upon an unethical system of patronage and spoils to remain vital, and consequently political corruption became one of defining traits of the era.

Although "the spoils system. . . had grown with democracy" and the extension of suffrage to all white men [3], the rapid and massive inflation of the federal government required to manage the country after the Civil War transformed political contests into a veritable gold rush for patronage. What was once the prize of a few hundred appointments to be doled out to loyal party boosters at the victor's discretion had mushroomed into a plunder of many thousands of positions, open to anyone with connections to the reigning party. In 1871 the number of civil service employees numbered 51,000, and by 1881 there were 100,000 individuals listed on the federal payroll [4]. With thousands of men clamoring for jobs as seemingly inconsequential as the postmaster of a remote Northwestern territory or a manager of an Indian reservation, the power of appointment was for the most part passed off to Senators and other regional politicians [5]. This had the effect of weakening the Executive Branch while adding to Congress' muscle; election to the Senate meant that a clever organizational politician would have "access to the jobs and money dispensed by the federal government" like the New York custom house, which "employed thousands of staffers who in fact worked for the party" and by extension the local machine [6]. Regardless of its depravity, machine politics became ensconced in the cultural landscape because it existed in a symbiotic relationship with the masses: the machine exchanged entertainment and employment for votes and party fealty.

After the death of Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant was thrust into the role of Republican figurehead. "Unconditional Surrender" retained a vise-like hold on the people's imagination, for "he embodied the central event in their lives, the Civil War" [7]; as such, he became many things to many men, usually without justification. The pragmatic populist had even captured the hopes of Liberals like Carl Schurz, for he had made vague statements regarding civil service reform during his campaign; The Nation predicted that "efficiency and morality" would be restored to a government newly freed of "party charlatans" [8]. Once the new president took office, however, he defied these expectations by surrounding himself with old Army buddies. When many of these trusted advisors resigned in the wake of scandal, inveterate spoilsmen like Roscoe Conkling, Simon Cameron, and Benjamin Butler took their place [9]. These men sought to manipulate Grant by using his official power and vast popular following to augment their personal fortunes as well as the power of their regional machines.

After four years many reform-minded individuals could no longer tolerate the General's occupation of the White House. Carl Schurz had "spent months of hard work organizing opposition" to the incumbent administration and led the first substantial protest against the corrupted hegemony in "that chimera of 1872", the Liberal Republican Convention [10]. Unfortunately the group he had attracted to the Cincinnati assembly hall stood for such a diverse and often conflicting set of issues that they ended up nominating New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. Not only did many reformers find him an unacceptable candidate from an ideological perspective, but the diminutive and eccentric bookworm "was widely regarded as intrinsically unfit for the presidency" [11]. The candidate became the victim of "a sustained and coruscating attack" from Thomas Nast and other hard-core GOP boosters, as can be seen in the detail from "Satan, Don't Get Thee Behind Me!" [12]; this and other statements against Greeley became even less tasteful when he died only a few weeks after his overwhelming defeat by Grant and his Stalwart supporters.

In spite of the Liberal Republican fiasco, a precedent had been set at Cincinnati: those dissatisfied with the status quo in government and disillusioned with the capabilities of both major political parties had organized on a national level. Although the motley crew of 1872 united solely on the basis of their low opinion of the current system, the party of dissent would refine its platform over the next decade to present a cohesive ideological coalition. By the presidential election of 1884 they would be at their height of their power, and ensure Grover Cleveland's victory over James G. Blaine; unfortunately, even this triumph faded quickly as another Republican war-horse, General Benjamin Harrison, would defeat Cleveland in 1888. The Mugwumps, as the Liberals came to be known, are often perceived as a group of people deserving of approbation because they opposed the governance of patronage and corruption; in their own day, however, they failed to be enduring players in national affairs. Given the fact that organizational politics depended on the masses for survival, it would seem that the Mugwumps' lack of success lay in their inability to wrest public opinion away from the spoilsmen. An examination of their personal backgrounds, as well as their political strategy, indicates that this was in fact the case.

II-B) The Mugwumps

So who were these Mugwumps? Gerald W. McFarland points out that the name itself was not associated with the men it came to describe until they bolted the Republican Convention of 1884. Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun dug up the Algonquin word, meaning "great men"-- "thus implying that the bolters were rather too proud of themselves" [13]. The aristocratic nature of the Mugwumps as a social entity will become evident later on, but should be noted here because it emphasizes a major source of their political impotence right from the start. In contrast to this somewhat pejorative term, John G. Sproat has come up with a less concretely historical nickname which the Mugwumps themselves would have surely found to be more agreeable: the "Best Men" [14]. These were "men of breeding and intelligence, of taste and substance" [15]; for the most part they belonged to an emerging professional class of lawyers, bankers scholars, and other scientific or literary types. Primarily natives of New York and New England, the majority sprang from old established families to whom wealth and prestige were concomitant inheritances.

The Best Men were all of a roughly similar age, and had pledged similar ideological allegiances throughout their lives. Before the war they joined the original Republican Party, but their dispassionate and inherently conservative nature inclined them to be "free-soilers rather than abolitionists" [16]. These formative years shaped the perspectives of many gentlemen who would identify with the Mugwump label; from the words of Sumner on the Senate floor to Lincoln on the fields of Gettysburg, "the power of words and ideas" became central to their mindset [17]. The impact of these antebellum figures, as well as ethical and philosophical ties to the heroes of the Revolutionary period, led them to believe that politics was "the serious responsibility of unselfish patriots" [18]. There could not be greater disparity between these views and those of their contemporary political leaders.

The most progressive cause that the Mugwumps championed was that of civil service reform. While their support of this issue has often been interpreted as a heroic stand against the ethical morass of the day, some critics have found more than a few personal impulses behind their supposedly altruistic efforts. Ari Hoogenboom has pointed out that the Mugwumps constituted a demographic group which had historically controlled public life, but had been displaced by both the system of patronage attributed to Andrew Jackson's regime as well as the local machines that grew out of it. Taking a line from one of the ultimate Gilded Age opportunists, Benjamin Butler, the cause of civil service reform presented itself as a classic case of the "outs" versus the "ins", in which a rational and morally elevated political platform acted as a cloak to conceal a simple drive to reclaim power. [19]

While their motivations did include personal interests, intellect and education comprised the Mugwumps' most accurate common denominator. They were the Best Men because they trained at the University, and continued to exercise their minds well beyond their school days. For instance, the leadership of the New York Civil Service Reform League was "exceptionally well educated", generally possessing a Harvard diploma and not infrequently an advanced degree as well [20]; McFarland's composite biography of the 1884 New York City Mugwumps indicates 78% had been to college, as compared to 46% of registered Republicans [21]. The desire of the Best Men to be "in" thus seems to originate in their erudition: weighing their intellectual achievement against mediocre West Point cadet Grant and other ruling politicians, the Mugwumps convinced themselves that they alone possessed the qualifications for leadership.

Unfortunately, this intellectual achievement prompted them to fight their unlettered leaders with the least appropriate tools conceivable under the circumstances. The simple fact of life-long immersions in the humanities meant that the Mugwumps were comfortable with writing and reading complex essays and editorials; as a result they placed these rhetorical vehicles at the vanguard of their assault on the political system. Although some "dutiful readers ploughed through the heavy prose" of these articles [22], it is unlikely that the less cultivated middle- or working-class mind would understand them to any degree sufficient for persuasion. The majority of voters responded to bluster and spectacle, yet the Best Men gave them lengthy treatises on tariff reform. Thus for all of their "cold, shrewd objectivity", the Mugwumps' attempts at capturing "that sovereign Public Opinion" were trapped inside their own university-oriented world [23].

The really disappointing thing about this mental prison is that, as evidenced by their social and personal activities, none of the Mugwumps really wanted to leave. Most belonged to the Union League Club and other such selective organizations which reduced their contact with the common folk to its barest minimum. Simply put, these clubs were out-and-out elitist sanctuaries; gentlemen could go there to spend free time away from public restaurants or taverns, those distasteful rooms "where they rubbed elbows with 'all sorts'" [24]. Men with more cerebral pretensions took a cue from the early groups to form societies like the Century Club in 1847, the American Social Science Association in 1865, and the various Civil Service Reform Leagues that popped up in the early 1880s. Typical formal activities at a literary club included prepared lectures or speeches; the Reform Leagues also convened meetings in which sparse attendees reviewed progress reports and future plans. On other occasions, paying members could drop by to read through the various magazines or newspapers, browse through whatever hardcover library might be available, or check the latest financial reports from the ubiquitous stock ticker. Regardless of the specific nature of their distractions, there is no doubt that a disdain of the general public motivated the formation of social and literary clubs.

In addition to their scholarly articles and exclusive societies, another clue to the Mugwumps' aristocratic and textual orientation can be found in the thousands of letters and other documents circulated amongst themselves. The most recent edition of The Letters of Henry Adams (1982) runs to six volumes, E.L. Godkin's Life and Letters (1907) consists of two volumes. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz (1907) is three volumes long. No comprehensive collection of George W. Curtis' letters have been published, but his Orations and Addresses is three volumes whose individual speeches average thirty pages apiece. The massive amount of written material is a testament to the insular nature of an erudite coterie: the Mugwumps related best to each other when they were writing or reading, and when they were not doing so they had trouble relating to anyone.

All of this intellectual business done behind closed doors indicates that the Mugwumps "possessed neither the inclination to 'get down' among the masses of voters nor the proper equipment for reaching them" [25]. Although many of these educated gentlemen complained bitterly about the state of America's political culture hardly any of the precious few who tried could get in touch with the people, get elected, and thus foster the reformist agenda. Sproat writes that the average Liberal "recoiled from the disagreeable everyday activities of a political system that became more complex and seemingly more unmanageable every year" [26]; the entrenchment of machine politics dictated that anyone who wanted change would have to work within the de facto rules of pageantry and patronage, not around them as most Mugwumps wished to do. As a consequence many of the Best Men conceded defeat and parroted the rationalizations of Henry Adams, who felt that his self-appointed role as a "political gadfly" was "the only role possible for an independent intellectual unwilling to compromise his principles" [27]; this lofty position seems to have had greatest utility in that it protected gentlemen like Adams from having to 'rub shoulders' with the common man.

The Mugwumps were fed up with the decades of government fueled by dirty money and controlled by uncultivated opportunists; however, the reformers' haughty aristocratic nature prevented them from attacking the spoilsmen at the source of their power-- the people. Although the Mugwumps engaged with the dominant political system, they fatally restricted this engagement to complex matters of policy that did nothing to sway the opinions of a public which voted with their hearts and not their minds. The Mugwumps needed a forum to convey their ideas in an appealing fashion, one that would not be dismissed by the general populace as yet another pretentious and verbose attempt to get back "in". Puck would be this medium.

Go Back | Go On

Introduction | A Brief History of Cartoons | Mainstream & Elite Political Culture | A Popular Medium
"Our National Dog Show" | The Campaign Against Grant | Caricature and the Carte-de-Viste | "Inspecting the Democratic Curiosity Shop"
End Notes | Cartoon Archive | Bibliography