“‘A Midsummer-Night's Dream’ Nomination”

July 3, 1880

Thomas Nast

“‘A Midsummer-Night

Analogies, Shakespeare; Presidential Election 1880; Symbols, Columbia; U.S. Economic Policy, Money Question; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

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The Queen of the Fairies (Columbia). "What angel wakes me from my flowery bed? .... Thou art as wise, as thou art beautiful."

Cartoonist Thomas Nast's selection of Shakespeare's fanciful A Midsummer-Night's Dream conveys ridicule mingled with some concern over the 1880 presidential nomination of Congressman James Weaver of Iowa by the Greenback-Labor Party.  Weaver appears as Bottom, the weaver whom Puck has mischievously endowed with the head of an ass.  Columbia, the personification of the United States, fills the role of Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, upon whom Puck has also cast his magic by compelling her to fall in love with Bottom.  She will eventually awaken from the spell, anxiously unsure of the reality of what has transpired.  The cornerstone of the Greenback agenda was to help debt-poor Americans (often farmers) by spurring inflation through expanding the money supply with paper currency ("greenbacks").  Nast warns that while the Greenback message may be seductive, it is ultimately deceptive.

The 1880 presidential race was largely lacking in substantive issues.  The country had returned to the gold standard in January 1879 with minimal protest or disruption, and the economy was generally good after emerging from several years of depression in the mid-1870s.  The divisive issues of Reconstruction had faded from the national spotlight, and civil service reform did not inspire most voters.  

The Republicans and Democrats nominated moderates (James Garfield and Winfield Hancock, respectively) who did not generate much enthusiasm, although the strong party system ensured that nearly 80% of the electorate cast ballots in early November.  The Democratic Party had recovered from its post-Civil War doldrums, so that the presidential election of 1880 was one of the closest in American history.  Factional differences within each of the two major parties were arguably of more importance than ideological distinctions between the parties.

It was the minor parties in 1880 that clearly articulated positions on the issues.  The National Prohibition party stood uncompromisingly for banning the production, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages.  They nominated long-time temperance crusader Neal Dow of Maine for president and Oberlin College president A. H. Thompson for vice president. 

Besides monetary expansion, the Greenback-Labor Party endorsed many reforms in its platform, including an eight-hour workday, industrial health and safety regulation, the abolition of child labor, a graduated income tax, women’s suffrage, and the enforcement of voting rights for blacks.  Their convention was held June 9-11 in Chicago, where they nominated Weaver for president and Benjamin Chambers of Texas for vice president.  

The Greenbackers had been encouraged by the 1878 elections, which saw the largest surge in third-party ballots since the rise of the Republican Party in the mid-1850s.  Voters elected 15 Greenback candidates to Congress that year, including Weaver.  The subsequent return of economic prosperity undercut their support, but third parties can play an important role in close elections, as most political observers expected the 1880 contest to be.

With the collapse of Reconstruction, the Democrats hoped to deliver a "Solid South" for Hancock, while Republicans concentrated their efforts on the rest of the country.  That left the election to be decided in the swing states of New York, with 35 electoral votes, and Indiana, with 15.  Greenback-Labor strategists did not expect to win, but they wanted to do well enough in Indiana and other states in the Midwest, South, and West to send the election into the House of Representatives, where their congressional bloc could exert its influence.  

General Weaver was the first presidential nominee to electioneer personally throughout the entire country for the duration of the campaign, addressing voters on the issues (a practice not fully adopted by the major parties until the early twentieth century).  Although his initial interest focused on currency reform, Weaver began emphasizing fair and equal access to ballots, which attracted Southern blacks to his cause.

In the general election, the Republicans captured both Indiana and New York, allowing Garfield to defeat Hancock 214-155 in the Electoral College and win by a mere one-tenth of a percent, 48.3% to 48.2%, in the popular count.  To the detriment of black Americans, the election result showed that Republicans could win the White House without the South, thus undercutting their political incentive to support civil rights.  Hancock won the South, the Border States, New Jersey, California, and Nevada; Garfield was victorious in the rest of the North and West.  The Republicans also recaptured both houses of Congress by narrow margins.  The Prohibitionist Party’s totals were negligible.  

The Greenback-Labor Party, however, collected 3.4% of the vote (306,867), playing the spoiler in California, Indiana, and New Jersey.  The party's performance had improved since the 1876 election, but was down from the 1878 congressional elections, the result of higher farm prices and a better economy generally.  Weaver remained active in third-party politics.  He lost reelection to Congress in 1882, but reclaimed his seat in 1884 and 1886, before losing it again in 1888.  In 1892, the Populist Party nominated him for president, and he won 9% of the vote.

For more information on the 1880 election, visit HarpWeek's presidential election Website.

Robert C. Kennedy

“‘A Midsummer-Night
November 28, 2023

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