“The Cincinnati Convention, In A Pickwickian Sense”

April 13, 1872

Thomas Nast

“The Cincinnati Convention, In A Pickwickian Sense”

Analogies, Literature; Conventions, Political; Presidential Election 1872;

Davis, David; Davis, Jefferson; Fenton, Reuben; Greeley, Horace; Johnson, Andrew; Schurz, Carl; Seymour, Horatio; Wood, Fernando;


Horace Pickwick. "Men and Brethren! A new leaf must be turned over, or there are breakers ahead. The Cincinnati Convention may prove a fiasco, or it may name the next President.

In this Harper’s Weekly cartoon, Thomas Nast mocks the upcoming Liberal Republican convention, which was set to convene in Cincinnati on May 1, 1872.  The cartoonist presents a careful parody of illustrator Robert Seymour’s celebrated initial plate to Charles Dickens’s novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Better known as The Pickwick Papers, this comic tale was first published serially in 1836-1837. 

As the story begins, the pompous Mr. Samuel Pickwick, Esq., has just presented a paper entitled "Speculations on the Source of Hamstead Ponds, with some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats."  The novel's spoofing of the learned societies of the day harmonizes nicely with cartoonist Nast's relentless ridiculing of New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley's pretensions to expertise on numerous subjects.  In 1871, Greeley, who lived on a farm near Chappaqua, New York, authored a book called What I Know About Farming.  In a series of cartoons, Nast places in Greeley's coat pocket a paper with the book's title, replacing "Farming" with each cartoon's topic (here, in the coat hanging on the wall, it is "conventions").

As a leader of the Liberal Republican bolt against President Ulysses S. Grant, Greeley appears as the title character, who "mounted into the Windsor Chair on which he had previously been seated, and addressed the club he himself had founded."  In place of the fifteen individuals represented in Seymour’s steel-plate etching, Nast’s Greeley-Pickwick is surrounded by an ill-matched group of Liberal Republicans, Democrats, and mavericks, each with his own agenda.  The banner overhead aptly begins, "Extremes Meet Here." The cartoon's subtitle, with its mixed metaphors, is taken verbatim from Greeley’s Tribune editorial of January 29, 1872.

The placards on the walls range from "The Millennium Has Come" to "After This—Peace" (on the drapery valence), the latter being a reference to Greeley’s appeal for universal amnesty of former Confederates. The alleged hypocrisy of the Liberal Republican Convention is emphasized by juxtaposing posters proclaiming liberal high-mindedness—"The Liberal Infallibles" (an allusion to the 1869 decree of Papal infallibility)—with signs promoting political expediency—"Anything to Beat Grant"; and by placards pointing out the contradictory nature of the convention-goers: free-traders and protectionists, Democratic Republicans and Republican Democrats. 

Although this cartoon features Greeley, the poster on the left-back wall, reading (in part) "For Vice Pres. A Protectionist," puts Nast in line with most political observers who expected Greeley, a trade protectionist, to be selected as the convention’s vice-presidential nominee.  In fact, Greeley's operatives won him the presidential nomination, which was also endorsed by the Democratic National Convention a month later.

The "club" members are (clockwise from the editor’s left): Frank Blair, 1868 Democratic vice-presidential nominee; Senator Carl Schurz, organizer of the Liberal Republicans of Missouri; Governor B. Gratz Brown of Missouri, soon to be the vice-presidential nominee; former Confederate president Jefferson Davis; Horatio Seymour, 1868 Democratic nominee for president; former president Andrew Johnson; Fernando Wood, Democratic congressman and former mayor of New York City; Liberal Republican Senator Thomas Tipton of Nebraska; Supreme Court justice David Davis, nominated for president in February by the Labor Reform Convention at Columbus, and understood to be available for both the Liberal Republican and Democratic nominations; George Francis Train, eccentric author, lecturer, and quasi-politician; as well as Liberal Republican senators Reuben Fenton of New York and Lyman Trumbull of Illinois. Notice that in contrast to the fourteen others, the temperance-minded Greeley has a glass of water to drink.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Cincinnati Convention, In A Pickwickian Sense”
July 14, 2024

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