“The Coming Man’s Presidential Career—a la Blondin”

August 25, 1860

possibly Jacob Dallas

“The Coming Man’s Presidential Career—a la Blondin”

Analogies, Circus; Black Americans; Civil War, Elections; Civil War, Prelude; Presidential Election 1860; Sports and Recreation; Wars, American Civil War;

Lincoln, Abraham;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Motto.--Don't Give up the Ship.

For the cartoonist, the divisive issue of slavery is a weight on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican presidential nominee in 1860, which has to be balanced by adherence to the U.S. Constitution, or all will topple into the deadly whirlpool below.  Lincoln mimics the exploits of Charles Blondin (Jean François Gravelet, 1824-1897), a French-born acrobat who became famous in the late 1850s for his daring tightrope walks over Niagara Falls.  

Most white Southerners were convinced that Lincoln was a secret abolitionist, and supported their case by pointing to his "House Divided" speech in which he argued that a house divided against itself could not stand; that the country could not continue being half-slave and half-free, but would eventually become all one or all the other.  To pro-slavery advocates such rhetoric meant the forced abolition of slavery in the South.

In fact, Lincoln was not an abolitionist, but a "free-soil" advocate, who desired to prohibit the expansion of slavery into the Western territories and thereby contain it in the South.  During the 1860 campaign, however, he refused to alleviate Southern fears or to elaborate on his position.  The Republican nominee simply pointed to his previous statements that slavery was immoral; he hoped it would end someday; and he would not disturb it where it already existed (i.e., in the South).

The stunt that Lincoln performs in this Harper’s Weekly cartoon recreates the time when Blondin carried his 136-pound agent, Henry Colcord, on his back while crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  The image may also allude to a crossing in which Blondin appeared as an enchained Liberian slave. 

Blondin repeated the Niagara Falls crossing several times while performing various stunts, such as drinking a bottle of wine, eating a meal, standing on his head, standing on one foot, walking blindfolded, hanging by his feet, pushing a wheelbarrow, lying down, and walking on stilts (the latter accomplished before an audience that included Edward, Prince of Wales).  The daredevil made other challenging tightrope walks, including crossing the Montmorenci Fall in Quebec, which is wider and deeper than Niagara Falls, and the Genesee River at Rochester, New York.  In 1861, the British Home Office prohibited him from pushing prizefighter Tom Sayers in a wheelbarrow across a tight rope suspended from the Crystal Palace.

By depicting Lincoln performing the dangerous feats of Blondin, the cartoonist promotes caution on the slavery issue, which was a perspective in line with the editorial stance of the newspaper at the time.  Before the Civil War, Harper’s Weekly tried to avoid publishing discussions or images of slavery whenever possible, and to calm anxiety and tempers when compelled to confront it.  That editorial inclination was grounded in both the conservative political principles of the Harper brothers and their financial self-interest not to alienate readers in any area of the country.  Once the Civil War began, Harper’s Weekly took a firm Unionist stance.  

It was not until the last half of 1862, however, that the newspaper shifted its policy to strong support of emancipation and black civil rights.  That transition was due to the hiring in August of cartoonist Thomas Nast and the appointment in December of columnist George William Curtis as editorial writer.  Over the next several decades, those two men were a potent force agitating for the equal rights of black Americans, and castigating the prejudice and violence perpetrated against them.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Coming Man’s Presidential Career—a la Blondin”
July 23, 2024

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