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“Probabilities"

May 4, 1878


Thomas Nast

“Probabilities"
 

Civil War, Remembrance; Congress; U.S. Economic Policy, Southern Claims;
 

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.
 

American South;


Washington.--Frequent Southerly breezes, occasionally growing stronger, and at times threatening to become a perfect hurricane. In the present state of the atmosphere these squalls may be constantly expected.


In this Harper's Weekly cartoon, artist Thomas Nast lampoons long-winded Southern Democrats who are extending the Congressional session by incessant speeches in favor of "Southern claims."

In 1864, Congress authorized the payment of war debts to loyal citizens, but excluded those from states in rebellion.  In 1871, Congress created the Southern Claims Commission, and expanded coverage of war debts to loyal citizens from the former Confederate states.  Several offices of the federal governments played a role in the settlement process.  The Southern Claims Commission did not possess final authority, but sent their recommendations to Congress for the appropriation of funds.

In 1873, Congress established the Committee on War Claims to deal with any legal claim against the United States government for the loss of property during any American war or military engagement.  Most of its business in the late-nineteenth century consisted of settling claims against the federal government by Southern individuals or corporations for losses incurred during the Civil War.  The appropriation bills reported to the full Congress by the committee were usually for private legislation (i.e., related to a single claimant), but were sometimes for general legislation (i.e., related to a class of claimants).  Over the years, there were nearly 23,000 Southern claims, asking for a total of over $60 million.  While only about 5000 of the claims were rejected outright by the commissioners, Congress allocated less than $5 million to the remaining claimants.

President Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, had called the 45th Congress into special session on October 5, 1877, because the previous Congress had adjourned without appropriating funds for the armed forces, which had gone unpaid since June 30.  Hayes had originally planned to call the special session earlier, but decided to let Democratic tempers cool from the results of the Electoral College controversy and allow Republicans to accept his new Southern policy, which removed the federal troops from political duty.  The president's tour through the South convinced him that Southerners were ready to accept civil rights for blacks and that a new Republican coalition based on economic interests could be build in the region.  He was wrong on all counts.

The special session of the 45th Congress lasted until March 3, 1879, just before the newly elected Congress was sworn into office.  Before that time, the 45th Congress continued debating numerous issues, including Southern claims, as this cartoon indicates.  In it, the delay in adjourning the session is ridiculed, with blame assigned to the Democrats, particularly Southerners.  A sign hangs from the visitors' gallery reading:  "Petition from the PEOPLE:  PUT UP YOUR SHUTTERS.  Go Home."  (The figure above the banner may be Uncle Sam.)  

The long-windedness of the Congressmen is communicated by drawing their heads as bellows, placing a weather vane in front of the main speaker, and by the sub-caption's weather report warning of "Southerly breezes" approaching hurricane force.  The featured interlocutor fits Nast's stereotype of a Southern Democrat:  a man with long hair, goatee, and pointed boots, who carries a bullwhip, gun, and knife in his pockets (the latter three signifying rebellion and anti-black violence).  He also has an alcohol bottle in his pocket labeled "cold tea," which emphasizes his hypocrisy.

Harper's Weekly criticized Southern claims as largely fraudulent and fiscally irresponsible.  The newspaper made it a campaign issue during the Congressional elections of 1878.  In this cartoon, the alleged extravagance of the Southern claims is conveyed by the dollar sign on the South arrow of the weather vane, as well as by the use of the phrase "fatted calves" and an exaggerated $200 million number on the papers on the desk.  

The term "doorkeeper" on one of the papers refers to the partisan battle to elect a doorkeeper for the House of Representatives.  Republicans had nominated James Shield, a veteran Union general, but he lost to Charles Field, a veteran Confederate general and choice of the majority Democrats.  The Democratic congressman on the left is Charles Dana, editor of the New York Sun.  The congressman on the right of the speaker may be from New Jersey (Nast's dyslexia may account for the backward J).

Robert C. Kennedy




“Probabilities"
December 15, 2017







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