“The Ass and the Charger”

January 25, 1879

Thomas Nast

“The Ass and the Charger”

Analogies, Fables; Congress; Symbols, Democratic Donkey; U.S. Military;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

A Fable - An Ass congratulated a Horse on being so ungrudgingly and carefully provided for, while he himself had scarcely enough to eat, nor even that without hard work. But when war broke out, and the heavy armed soldier mounted the Horse, and riding him to the charge, rushed into the very midst of the enemy, and the Horse, being wounded, fell dead on the battle-field, then the Ass, seeing all these things, changes his mind, and commiserated the Horse.

Moral - When the battle was over, the Ass was the same old Ass.

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast is a criticism of the reduction in military appropriations by the Democratically-controlled Congress. The issue involved not only the obvious debate over what was the appropriate level of federal expenditures for the American military, but partisan struggles for control of city, state, and federal governments and the broader political question of federal policy in the post-Reconstruction South.

After the disputed presidential election of 1876 was settled in favor of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, the new president removed federal troops from guarding the statehouses in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The immediate result was the replacement of the biracial Republican governments with white-only Democratic governments, thus formally ending Reconstruction.

Many Democrats resented the U.S. Army for its role in implementing federal Reconstruction policy, and wanted to make sure that it did not intervene in Southern politics in the future. During the Hayes administration (1877-1881), the Democratically-controlled House cut back drastically on military spending and delayed passing military appropriation bills. The U.S. Army consisted of only 25,000 men, stationed primarily across the West to subdue the Native Americans and otherwise maintain order.

The situation came to a head in the first half of 1879. On March 3, the 45th Congress adjourned without approving money for the military or civil service. On March 18, after the 46th Congress was sworn in, President Hayes called them into special session to enact the funding bills. The Democrats, now in control of both houses of Congress, passed the appropriation bills, but added riders (amendments) which repealed Reconstruction era laws which allowed federal troops to keep the peace at polling places and permitted the federal courts to appoint and pay supervisors to police congressional elections in cities with populations over 20,000.

Without federal supervision, Democrats could more easily control the electoral outcome across the South and in urban centers, both areas forming the base of their political support. In the South, the repeals would effectively mean the disfranchisement of black men, who overwhelmingly voted Republican. The more far-reaching result would be, the Democrats hoped, to allow them to regain the White House in the upcoming 1880 election.

The Democrats, however, miscalculated the resolve of President Hayes, who galvanized the minority Republican party by vetoing four appropriations bills, over the next few months of the special session, which included repeal of the laws for federal supervision of congressional elections. The Democratic congress was unable to muster the requisite votes to override the vetoes.

Hayes’s veto messages emphasized the federal obligation to prevent political intimidation and fraud, implying that such was the Democratic goal. Realizing that they had lost this round, the Democratic Congress finally passed military and civil service appropriation bills in mid-June, which President Hayes signed into law.

Thomas Nast drew numerous cartoons for Harper’s Weekly during the Hayes administration which condemned the Democratic congresses for reducing military spending, sometimes using a skeleton to portray the army. In this cartoon, he does not explicitly connect military retrenchment with the Democratic desire to control Northern city governments and the post-Reconstruction South. Instead, he chooses a fable of “The Ass and the Charger” to highlight the foolish, callous, and ultimately dangerous policy of underfunding the army.

The scene of the cartoon is a snowy fort in the American West, where vultures circle overhead, signifying death. The Democratic donkey is protected from the inclement weather by a heavy coat and umbrella. He holds behind his back the army bill which will “reduce the pay, food, clothes—in fact every thing” for the servicemen who serve the nation. The ass ignorantly compliments the army, symbolized as a charger (horse), for its many provisions, which the poor ass claims not to have. After the army horse is killed in battle, the ass hypocritically praises his heroism.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Ass and the Charger”
June 17, 2024

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