“Go South, Young Man”

December 2, 1876

Thomas Nast

“Go South, Young Man”

Journalists/Journalism; Presidential Election 1876;

Barnum, William; Hewitt, Abram; Hoffman, John;

American South;

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During the disputed presidential election of 1876, both parties sent officials to the Southern states with contested results in order to prevent the other party from committing (more) fraud and to ensure that their party won the count.  This cartoon by Republican Thomas Nast lampoons the Democrats for sending their partisans south.  The cartoon’s title, “Go South, Young Man,” is a play on the words of advice associated with the late Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and 1872 Democratic/Liberal Republican presidential nominee:  “Go West, young man.”

The first returns on election day, Tuesday, November 7, 1876, indicated a clear victory for the Democratic presidential nominee, Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York, over his Republican opponent, Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio.  However, as the evening wore on, it became apparent that the outcome of the presidential election was uncertain.  When the dust settled, Tilden had won the popular vote, with 4,284,020 (51%) to Hayes’s 4,036,572 (48%), a margin of less than 250,000.  The only thing that mattered, though, was the Electoral College count, and there, Tilden’s 184 electoral votes were one short of a majority, while Hayes’s 165 electoral votes left him 20 ballots shy of the presidency.   The remaining 20 electoral votes were in dispute:  one from Oregon and 19 from the three Southern states which still retained Reconstruction governments—Florida (4), Louisiana (8), and South Carolina (7). 

In the three Southern states, both parties were claiming victory in close elections and charging the other party with vote fraud.  As the party in power in those states, the Republicans had a majority on the returning boards, which would certify the election results.  They threw out enough Democratic votes to give the election in their states to Hayes and the Republican gubernatorial candidates.  In Louisiana and South Carolina, Democrats declared their gubernatorial candidates elected, established rival state administrations, and certified Tilden the winner in their states.  In Florida, the state supreme court ruled in favor of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, but let Hayes’s margin of victory stand.  The new Florida governor, however, promptly appointed a Democratic returning board, which announced that Tilden had carried the state.  In Oregon, Democrats disputed a Republican elector on a technicality. 

In the featured cartoon, Democratic national chairman, Congressman Abram Hewitt of New York, has dispatched John Hoffman, former New York governor, who sprints southward while carrying orders for himself and Senator William Barnum of Connecticut to buy or count one more electoral vote for Democrat Tilden.  The identification of Hoffman as the “counted in Governor 1868” refers to his gubernatorial victory in that year, which was alleged to have occurred because the chairman of the state Democratic party, none other than Samuel Tilden, knowingly allowed New York Democrats to engage in vote fraud. The charges were never substantiated.

The figure in the right-background is John Morrissey, former champion prizefighter and head of the Irving Hall political machine in New York City. Morrissey was a longtime supporter of Tilden. Since Morrissey’s former machine affiliation, Tammany Hall, represented the epitome of political corruption to cartoonist Thomas Nast, the artist continued to associate Morrissey with both Tammany Hall and Tilden in order to connect the Democratic nominee to Tammany Hall. The linkage with corrupt machine politics is further emphasized by the poster in the background which claims that Tammany Hall’s notorious former boss, William Tweed, who died in 1875, was also “going South” (perhaps also a metaphor for Hell). The mention in the other poster of betting pools on the presidential race is an allusion to Morrissey’s ownership of several successful gambling houses. 

In fact, members of both parties were susceptible to charges of corruption.  The head of Louisiana’s returning board, James Madison Wells, tried to sell the state’s electoral votes locally at a price of $200,000 for each Republican board member, but both parties rejected the corrupt deal.  However, Tilden’s nephew, Colonel William Pelton, did negotiate with Wells and with Republicans in Florida in an attempt to buy an Electoral College victory for his uncle, allegedly without the nominee’s knowledge, even though he lived in his uncle’s house.  The negotiations lasted too long to produce results, except for a series of incriminating coded telegrams, which were later used as evidence in a Congressional investigation in 1878.


Since the United States Constitution did not provide for the unprecedented situation, Congress appointed select House and Senate committees, which proposed establishing a bipartisan, multi-institutional commission to decide the legitimacy of the disputed electoral votes.  Congress enacted the Electoral Commission Act in late January 1877, and appointed 5 members each from the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the House.  The membership was divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats until the lone independent, Justice David Davis, resigned to accept election to the Senate.  His replacement was Justice Joseph Bradley, a Republican.  Meeting throughout February, the Electoral Commission awarded, on a party-line vote (8-7), all the disputed 20 votes to the Republicans.  After heated debate, Congress accepted the commission’s results on March 2, and on Monday, March 5, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in publicly as president of the United States.


For more cartoons and information, see HarpWeek’s Website on the Electoral College Controversy.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Go South, Young Man”
April 19, 2024

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