“Stranger Things Have Happened”

December 27, 1879

Thomas Nast

“Stranger Things Have Happened”

Presidential Election 1880; Symbols, Democratic Donkey; Symbols, Republican Elephant; U.S. Economic Policy, Money Question;

Bayard, Thomas; Sherman, John;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Hold on, and you may walk over the sluggish animal up there yet.

The featured cartoon suggests a scenario by which the Democratic Party in 1880 might win the presidency (a feat they had not accomplished since 1856).  Senator Thomas Bayard’s firm position in favor of the gold standard could pull the Democratic Donkey away from the chasm of “financial chaos” into which it was toppling because of its desire for inflationary money—paper currency (“greenbacks”) or silver.  In the background, a glum Treasury Secretary John Sherman, a leading contender for the Republican nomination, holds a document labeled “83 Cents Resumption,” while the Republican Elephant lies unconscious by a boulder reading “Let Well Enough Alone.”  The image is critical of Sherman’s acceptance of the reintroduction of silver coins in 1878 (worth 83 cents to the gold dollar), which, according to cartoonist Thomas Nast, undermined the resumption of the gold standard in January 1879.  By contrast, Bayard is praised for his congressional resolutions (which appear in his hat) to repeal the legal tender notes issued by the Treasury.  In the lead editorial of the same Harper’s Weekly issue, George William Curtis called Bayard’s resolutions a “prompt and courageous act,” which would help define the position of the two parties on the money question.

Thomas Francis Bayard Sr. was born on October 29, 1828, the son and grandson (and, later, father) of U.S. senators.  In his youth, Bayard received a private-school education.  At the age of 15, he began working for a mercantile house in New York, where the family had moved temporarily, and then labored in Philadelphia during 1846-1847.  In lieu of college, he began reading law in 1850 in Wilmington, Delaware, passing the bar the next year.  He became a successful real-estate lawyer in Wilmington and Philadelphia, and served as U.S. district attorney for Delaware in 1853-1854.  During the Civil War, he was a Peace Democrat, opposing both Confederate secession and the Union military effort as unconstitutional.  In 1869, the Delaware legislature elected Bayard to succeed his father, James A. Bayard Jr., as U.S. senator.  An advocate of limited government, the new senator opposed the Reconstruction program of the Republicans, subsidies and grants to railroad and shipbuilding companies, and high protective tariffs.  He endorsed civil service reform, tariff reform (lower rates), and resumption of the gold standard.  He became well respected and liked on both sides of the aisle, and in 1877 was chosen as a member of the Electoral Commission, which decided the contested presidential election of 1876. 

In 1880, Bayard was, as this cartoon suggests, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.  He was hurt by his strong support of the gold standard, which alienated many Democrats who favored inflationary greenbacks or silver.  His peace stance during the Civil War would make him a weaker candidate against the Republican nominee, James Garfield, who was a former Union general.  The electoral insignificance of his tiny home state of Delaware further undermined his chances for the nomination.  Finally, Bayard’s participation in the Electoral Commission of 1877, despite casting his votes for Democrat Samuel Tilden, meant that he would not get the endorsement of Tilden, the acknowledged spiritual leader of the party.  Still, Bayard managed to finish second on the first ballot, less than twenty votes behind the frontrunner, General Winfield S. Hancock, who won on the second ballot.  In 1884, Bayard again finished second on the first ballot, but that time his tally was far behind frontrunner Grover Cleveland, the governor of New York, who was nominated on the second ballot.

In March 1885, President Cleveland appointed Bayard as his secretary of state.  Serving in the first Democratic administration since before the Civil War, Secretary Bayard was flooded with requests for office, but largely abided by his civil service principles to make appointments based on merit, instead of partisanship.  Much of his time was taken negotiating with Great Britain concerning a longstanding dispute over fishing rights.  In February 1888, Bayard and the British colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, signed a treaty defining which Canadian waters would be open to American fishermen.  The Republican-controlled senate, however, rejected the Bayard-Chamberlain treaty in August, a few months before the fall elections.  Although Bayard failed to get an agreement with Britain to curtail its seal-hunting practices, which were threatening the herd with extinction, his efforts set the stage for a future treaty (1893).  Likewise, his negotiations regarding a conflict between Germany, Britain, and the United States over Samoa laid the groundwork for a future settlement. 

When Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, were attacked in 1885, killing 28, the Chinese government demanded that monetary damages be awarded by the American government.  Bayard denied the federal government’s legal responsibility for the acts of private citizens, but said that the president could make such a request of Congress as an act of generosity.  The American government paid the Chinese an indemnity, and Bayard negotiated a treaty banning the importation of Chinese workers for 20 years.  The Chinese government refused to ratify the treaty, so the American Congress responded with the Scott Act of 1888, which unilaterally enacted the terms of the treaty (and extended the terms of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act).

Following Cleveland’s loss of the 1888 presidential election, Bayard resumed his law practice in Wilmington.  After Cleveland won reelection to a nonconsecutive term in 1892, he named Bayard as the first U.S. ambassador to Great Britain (previous appointments having held the title of minister).  In that position, Bayard strove diligently to improve Anglo-American relations.  However, he caused controversy when he denounced publicly the American government’s policy of trade protectionism as a form of state socialism.  Infuriated Republican congressmen called for his impeachment, but soon settled on official censure from the House of Representatives.  In his last year in office, Bayard’s health began to decline.  He left office at the end of the Cleveland administration in March 1897, and died on September 28, 1898, at his daughter’s home in Massachusetts.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Stranger Things Have Happened”
June 17, 2024

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