“The Heat of the Last Political Campaign”

December 4, 1880

Thomas Nast

“The Heat of the Last Political Campaign”

Analogies, Circus; Chinese Americans; Presidential Election 1880;

Barnum, William; Garfield, James; Hewitt, Abram;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

The Innocent Hewitt Always Gets Hold of the Wrong End.

During the presidential campaign of 1880, Republicans emphasized the lack of political experience of the Democratic nominee, Winfield S. Hancock.  The Democrats stayed with the strategy of mudslinging against the Republican nominee, James A. Garfield.  The most damaging slander was the forged “Chinese letter” (on the top-left in the cartoon), as the newspapers labeled it,  in which Garfield supposedly endorsed unlimited Chinese immigration, and attacked the rights of American workers.  It was published in Tammany Hall’s newspaper, The Truth, a few weeks before the election and hit the West Coast, where Chinese immigration was vehemently opposed, like an earthquake.  The “Chinese letter” probably cost the Republicans a senate seat in California and may have undermined support for Garfield in the Far West.  He lost California and Nevada by slim margins, narrowly captured Oregon, and won the national vote by only one-tenth of a percent.

In the November 13 issue of Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis blamed Senator William Barnum of Connecticut, chairman of the Democratic National Convention, for approving the release of the “Chinese letter,” even if he thought it was true at the time.  “He was wholly unfit for his position if he did not know that every such disclosure upon the eve of election is presumptively false, and that as an honorable man he could not adopt it until he had taken pains to verify it.”  The featured cartoon announces “Barnum’s Fraud Show” (top-right), associating the chairman with both the forged letter and the hoaxes perpetrated by his distant cousin, showman P. T. Barnum.  William Barnum is dressed in a clown’s outfit, with his back to viewers, reading the “Chinese letter.”  The line “Morey the Myth” refers to the alleged recipient of the letter. 

Despite Barnum’s leadership position, Republican ire soon focused on Abram Hewitt, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former (and newly elected) congressman from New York.  Although Garfield had immediately issued a strong denial of authorship, Hewitt connected the Republican candidate to the “Chinese letter” in campaign speeches.  A few days after the election, Hewitt joined the rest of the Democratic National Committee in announcing that Garfield’s word, without other evidence, was not sufficient to prove a forgery.  Alone among the committee members, Hewitt went even further by refusing to accept Garfield’s denial unless the president-elect swore to it “on the witness stand, and subjected to cross-examination.”  Therefore, by the December 4 issue, editor Curtis was holding Hewitt “chiefly responsible for the circulation of this foul calumny.”  Hewitt, also appearing as a clown, is the central figure in the featured cartoon, and the artist has written, “Hewitt endorsed this letter” at the bottom of the forgery being read by Barnum.

In addition, Nast incorporates references to Hewitt’s involvement in the Electoral College controversy of 1876-1877 when the New York congressman was chairman of the Democratic National Committee.  Hewitt’s claims that the Democratic presidential nominee, Samuel J. Tilden, won the Oregon electoral vote and the national election appear on signs in the upper-left.  Nast implicitly links Hewitt to that election’s “cipher telegram” scandal by depicting the script of the 1880 “Chinese letter,” being read by Barnum, in the hieroglyphics the cartoonist used to mock the coded telegrams sent between Tilden’s corrupt nephew, Colonel William Pelton, and election officials he was trying to bribe in order to buy the election for his uncle.  After Congress had attained confessions from the guilty parties in early 1879, Hewitt delivered a public address in which he defended Tilden and the Democratic Party, downplaying the crime as “the mistaken zeal of some of his [Tilden’s] indiscreet friends to secure his just rights by wrong methods.”

Abram Stevens Hewitt was born on July 31, 1822 in Haverstraw, New York.  He attended public school in New York City until 13 years old, when he transferred to the Grammar School of Columbia College.  Three years later he entered Columbia College on a scholarship, graduating first in the class of 1842.  Next, he worked as an instructor of mathematics at the Grammar School, while studying law.  In 1844, he and a student-companion, Edward Cooper, the son of wealthy industrialist Peter Cooper, were briefly shipwrecked on their return voyage from Europe.  The next year, the elder Cooper backed his son and Hewitt’s founding of the Trenton Iron Works.  In 1855, Hewitt married Peter Cooper’s only daughter.

During the Civil War, Hewitt was a War Democrat whose iron foundry sold gun barrels to the Union government at just above production cost.  In 1867, he served as one of ten scientific commissioners representing the United States at the Paris Exhibition, after which he wrote a well-received government report on European iron and steel production.  He then introduced the open-hearth method at his own steel plant.  In 1871, Hewitt joined Tilden and other prominent New York Democrats to oust the corrupt Tweed Ring from the Tammany Hall political machine and help bring them to justice. 

Three years later, Hewitt was elected to the first of two consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (March 1875-March 1879), where he sponsored legislation creating the U.S. Geological Survey and lobbied unsuccessfully for lower tariffs.  He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during Tilden’s 1876 presidential race, during which his father-in-law, Peter Cooper, ran for president on the Greenback ticket.  A dispute with Tammany Hall’s new boss, John Kelly , led to Hewitt’s defeat for renomination to Congress in 1878.  In reaction to the rift, Hewitt and other Democrats established a rival organization, the County Democracy, and he was reelected to the first of three consecutive terms in Congress in November 1880, a few weeks before this cartoon was published.

Hewitt resigned from Congress in 1886 to run for mayor of New York City, defeating Republican Theodore Roosevelt and independent Henry George.  During his term Hewitt angered many voters by fighting Tammany Hall over patronage, trying to enforce the Sunday closing law on saloons, and refusing to participate in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.  His accomplishments included initiating plans for an underground mass transit system and promoting small neighborhood parks, but he lost a bid for reelection in 1888 to the Tammany candidate, Hugh Grant.  Thereafter, Hewitt turned his attention to public charities, particularly devoting much time to Cooper Union, a tuition-free college for the city’s working class, founded by his father-in-law in 1859.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Heat of the Last Political Campaign”
June 17, 2024

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