“Be Sound in Mind and Body”

December 13, 1879

Thomas Nast

“Be Sound in Mind and Body”

Symbols, Uncle Sam; U.S. Economic Policy, Money Question;

Sherman, John;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Uncle Sam. "As long as I keep these outstanding notes on my mind, which I am well able to pay, I am violating the laws of my constitution; and how can I expect my body to recover when my mind is not at ease?"

The “money question” was one of the major issues of American politics in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.  Both parties divided on whether the nation’s money should be “hard money”—gold coins—or “soft money”—paper currency called “greenbacks” that were unredeemable in gold, or an unlimited supply of silver coins (“free silver”).  In January 1875, Congress passed the Specie Resumption Act, declaring that the nation would return to the gold standard in January 1879.  The advocates of an inflationary currency were unsuccessful in their efforts to overturn the Specie Resumption Act, but they did manage to enact legislation reintroducing silver coins in 1878.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast, a hard-money backer of the gold standard, criticizes the silver supporters by depicting Uncle Sam’s leg swelling (inflating) from being caught in the silver trap.  The national symbol argues that the silver trap is bad for his constitution, a literal reference to his physical well being which the artist uses to imply that silver coinage is contrary to the U.S. Constitution.  In the background are signs attesting to silver coins being worth only 83 cents to the gold dollar.  Standing over Uncle Sam is a concerned John Sherman, the federal treasury secretary and an important figure in late-nineteenth century finance and politics in general.

John Sherman was born on May 10, 1823, in Lancaster, Ohio, the son of a state supreme court judge.  His father died when Sherman was six, forcing him and his 10 siblings to be raised by various relatives.  (One of his older brothers was William Tecumseh Sherman, who later became a famous Union general during the Civil War.)  John Sherman dropped out of school at the age of 14 and apprenticed for two years with civil engineers working on river improvements.  In 1840, he began studying law and was admitted to the state bar four years later when he was 21.

Sherman began his political life as a Whig, but was elected to Congress in 1854 by a coalition of Ohio Whigs, Democrats, and Free-Soilers opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the Western territories.  He helped to found the Republican Party in Ohio, and became a House leader of Republican moderates who opposed the expansion of slavery but pledged not to interfere with it in the South.  In 1859, after election to his third consecutive term, Sherman became a candidate for speaker of the house, but soon withdrew from that bitter contest. Instead, he was selected as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, beginning a decades-long involvement in federal financial and monetary affairs. 

In 1860, Sherman was elected to a fourth term and expected to be chosen the new speaker, but in early 1861 was chosen by the Ohio State Legislature to replace Salmon P. Chase (who became treasury secretary) in the U.S. Senate.  As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Sherman supported Chase’s wartime policies of printing greenbacks, taxing wealthy incomes, and establishing a national banking system.  In 1866, Sherman was reelected to a second term in the Senate.  The policies of President Andrew Johnson and the actions of former Confederates drove Sherman and other moderates to support the Reconstruction agenda of the Radical Republicans.  In fact, Sherman helped draft the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which placed the former Confederate states under the authority of the federal government and army.  The next year, the Ohio senator voted to remove President Johnson from office (an attempt which was defeated).

In 1867, Sherman assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, and became a major voice in the nation’s monetary and fiscal policies.  He was a moderate hard-money advocate, calling for the resumption of gold payments and opposing the circulation of silver coins, but favoring bringing greenbacks on par with gold dollars, rather than removing the paper currency from circulation.  In 1873, he steered through the Senate legislation that removed (“demonetized”) silver as legal tender, which became particularly controversial after the onset of an economic depression the next year.  In 1875, Sherman’s leadership convinced Congress to adopt the Specie Resumption Act, which retained $300 million of greenbacks in circulation, but which backed them by gold beginning on January 1, 1879.

In March 1877, Sherman resigned from the Senate to become secretary of the treasury under President Rutherford B. Hayes, a fellow Ohio Republican.  Sherman’s policies prepared the way for the resumption of the gold standard, but he also had to compromise with the silver forces.  In 1877, the House enacted unlimited silver coinage, so Sherman lobbied the Senate to pass a bill that set monthly limits on the amount coined.  The revised measure, the Bland-Allison Act, passed both houses in 1878.  Uncle Sam reacts to the effects of that law in the featured cartoon.

Sherman was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination three times in the 1880s.  In 1880, Sherman ran a distant third to front-runners Ulysses S. Grant, the former president seeking a third term, and Senator James G. Blaine.  The deadlocked convention eventually turned to Sherman’s campaign manager, Congressman James A. Garfield.  However, the Ohio legislature did return the treasury secretary to a fourth term in the U.S. Senate that year.  Sherman fared even worse, though, at the 1884 Republican National Convention, placing fifth on the first ballot and losing to his rival, Blaine.  Reelected to the Senate in 1886, the Ohio senator believed that Republican delegates would finally be receptive to his candidacy at the next presidential convention.  In the crowded field of 14 candidates in 1888, Sherman’s first-ballot tally was more than twice than of his nearest challenger, but only one-quarter of the total needed to win the nomination.  Delegates then began migrating to the banner of Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, who surpassed Sherman on the seventh ballot to win the nomination.

Although his presidential ambition had been thwarted, Sherman remained a powerhouse in the U.S. Senate.  In 1890, Congress enacted two major pieces of legislation that bore his name:  the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.  The former authorized the government to purchase most of the nation’s production of silver without increasing the government’s coinage of the metal.  The latter law was the first federal attempt to regulate large business corporations, and remains an important guide in today’s anti-trust decision making.  In 1888, Sherman faced a tough challenge to his Senate seat from fellow Republican Joseph Foraker, but managed to win reelection.  As an economic depression began in 1893, Sherman backed the repeal of the Silver Purchase Act, a law that he had promoted earlier only to conciliate Western silver interests within the Republican Party.

In 1897, President William McKinley appointed Sherman as secretary of state, but he served only one year, resigning after the U.S. declared war on Spain in April 1898.  Sherman lent his name to the anti-imperialist movement, but did not play an active role.  He died in Washington, D.C., in 1900.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Be Sound in Mind and Body”
June 17, 2024

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