"The Trouble has Commenced - A Tale of Anxiety"

February 27, 1875

Thomas Nast

"The Trouble has Commenced - A Tale of Anxiety"

Black Americans; Congress; Cox, S. S. “Sunset”; Reconstruction;

Blaine, James G.; Butler, Benjamin; Wood, Fernando;

American South;

No caption

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast caricatures verbal sparring which erupted on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives during debate over a proposed civil rights bill.

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts had introduced his civil rights bill in every Congressional session since 1870. The bill would have outlawed racial segregation in all public accommodations regulated by law, such as hotels, public schools, theaters, steamships, and railroads. When Sumner died in March 1874, Republicans like Harper's Weekly editor George William Curtis insisted that the civil rights bill be enacted in his honor.

Reconstruction had already been abandoned in most of the South and racial discrimination against black Americans remained widespread. To the Republicans' dismay, the fall elections of 1874 resulted in a Democrats majority in the House for the first time since before the Civil War. During the lame duck session of the outgoing Congress in the early months of 1875, Republicans worked to pass the civil rights bill. This last-ditch effort of the defeated Republicans provoked a hostile reaction from many Southern Democrats, particularly Congressman John Young Brown of Kentucky.

On February 4, 1875, in the midst of an impassioned debate on the House floor, Speaker of the House James Blaine of Maine, a Republican, interrupted Brown to inquire whether his derogatory remarks were aimed at a member of the House. The Kentucky congressman denied such an intention, but continued with a crescendo of invective: "If I was to desire to express all that was pusillanimous in war, inhuman in peace, forbidding in morals, and infamous in politics, I should call it 'Butlerizing.'"

Brown's slur was aimed at Congressman Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, a maverick Republican (at the time). Butler had infuriated Southerners during the Civil War when he commanded the Union occupation forces in New Orleans. For his allegedly harsh and abusive rule, New Orleans residents called him "Beast" or "Brute" Butler. As a congressman after the war, Butler further angered Southern Democrats with his support of radical Reconstruction and black civil rights, and his determined opposition to President Andrew Johnson. Butler served as the lead House prosecutor at Johnson's removal trial in the Senate, following the president's impeachment.

Brown's personal insult of Butler caused a sensation in the House. Congressman Robert Hale of New York, a Republican, offered a resolution of censure against Brown, while Representative Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, also a Republican, offered a resolution of expulsion. After heated debate, Dawes withdrew his resolution, and the Hale resolution passed. Congressman Brown then stood before the collective body of his silent House colleagues as Speaker Blaine formally censured him. When the speaker finished, Brown replied that he accepted the reprimand and meant no disrespect. After a pregnant pause, he added, "to the House."

In this cartoon, Brown is a wild tiger, whose sharp fangs and claws are poised to tear into the flesh of Congressman Butler, who stands calmly by his desk upon which rests a document: "Very Civil Rights in the House of Representatives." The Brown tiger is prevented from mauling Butler by four of the Kentuckian's fellow Democrats, who have grasp him by the tail. The two identifiable congressmen are: Fernando Wood (back) and Samuel Cox (front), both of New York, and both hopeful of becoming the next speaker of the house for the incoming Congress (neither did).

In the background, Speaker Blaine pounds his gavel and shouts for order, as the recording secretary and parliamentarian cower behind their chairs. The injunction written on the paper in front of Blaine, "Gentlemen you must not let your wild animals loose ..." refers to a hoax perpetrated in late 1874 by James Gordon Bennett Jr., editor of the New York Herald. He fooled many readers into thinking that wild animals had broken free from the Central Park zoo. (For another visual reference to the Central Park animal hoax, see the archive for the Harper's Weekly cartoon of February 6, 1875, "The Biggest Scare and Hoax Yet!")

The outgoing Republican Congress passed Sumner's civil rights bill after removing public schools from the law's protective umbrella. Harper’s Weekly retracted its endorsement of the weakened measure. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law on March 1, 1875. In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. It would be almost 75 years until another civil rights bill would pass Congress and become law.

Robert C. Kennedy

"The Trouble has Commenced - A Tale of Anxiety"
May 29, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to