“The Political Niagara …”

June 27, 1868

Thomas Nast

“The Political Niagara …”

Black Americans; Presidential Election 1868; Voting Rights;

Chase, Salmon P.;

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This postdated cover ran a few weeks before the Democratic National Convention convened in New York City.  It presents the Democratic Party in dire straits, submerged up to its hat in rapids and about to plunge over Niagara Falls.  In desperation, the partisan figure grabs the walking stick offered by Chief Justice Salmon Chase, a leading candidate for the presidential nomination.  The cane is topped by a diminutive head of a black man, symbolizing Chase's commitment to black manhood suffrage, a position that put him at odds with many in his party.  In the background, the guard tower flies Old Glory on which the names of the Republican ticket of Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax appear.  Cartoonist Nast may have intended the spray of lines behind it to be a rainbow.

The 1868 presidential election was the first after the Civil War and occurred in the midst of intense and important debates over Reconstruction policy, including the political status of the recently freed slaves.  In 1867, the Republican-controlled Congress had required the enfranchisement of black men in order for the former Confederate states to gain readmission to the Union.  Seven of those states grudgingly complied and their elected representatives were seated in Congress, but black men still could not vote in most of the Northern and all of the Border States.  In May 1868, delegates to the Republican National Convention strongly endorsed the Congressional mandate of black manhood suffrage in the former Confederacy, while asserting that the issue was up to individual states in the rest of the country.

Any Democratic Party hope of persuading General Grant to become its standard-bearer finally ended with his acceptance of the Republican nomination in May.  In Grant's absence, the leading Democratic candidate was Congressman George Pendleton, the party’s 1864 vice-presidential nominee.  Pendleton, however, faced considerable opposition from influential Eastern Democrats uneasy with his "soft money" views.  As the Republicans began coalescing around Grant in the spring of 1868, Salmon Chase started courting the Democrats and secured the support of influential congressmen like Samuel “Sunset” Cox of New York and Daniel Voorhees of Indiana.  Democrats in his home state of Ohio hated the chief justice, but the main obstacle to his nomination was his insistence on black manhood suffrage and other basic civil rights for black Americans.   

Before the Civil War, Chase became one of the leading antislavery lawyers in the nation, earning the nickname of "the Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves."  In the 1840s, he helped found the Liberty and Free-Soil Parties in Ohio, and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849.  While serving as Ohio's governor in the late 1850s, Chase championed public education, prison reform, and women's rights, while continuing to speak out against slavery and its expansion.  During the Civil War, he served skillfully as Lincoln's secretary of the treasury, creating a national banking system, issuing fiat money, and establishing an internal revenue division within the department.

Chase's real ambition was to be president, and he certainly thought he could do a better job than President Lincoln.  Chase was a constant critic of Lincoln’s policies, inundating the president with unsolicited advice and proffering his resignation four times in fits of anger.  In the winter of 1863-1864, a group of radical Republicans turned to Chase as an alternative to Lincoln as a presidential candidate, but the Chase “boom” collapsed within a few months.  In June 1864, the treasury secretary once again offered the president his resignation, and this time Lincoln accepted it.  

When Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney became fatally ill in the late summer of 1864, Chase hoped that Lincoln would promise him the appointment.  But the president hesitated.  Taking the hint, Chase began campaigning for the president’s reelection.  Taney died in early October and two months later the reelected president appointed Chase to the coveted positionIn one of his first acts as chief justice, Chase authorized John Rock as the first black attorney to argue cases before the Supreme Court.  In March 1868, Chase presided over the removal trial of the impeached President Andrew Johnson in the U.S. Senate. 

From March into June 1868 (when this cartoon appeared), signs for a Chase nomination by the Democrats were positive.  By the time of the convention in early July, though, his star had faded.  Despite dimmed prospects, ardent Chase-backers, led by John Van Buren (President Martin Van Buren’s son) and Kate Chase Sprague (daughter of Chase and wife of Republican Senator William Sprague) worked behind the scenes at the convention for his nomination.  Because of the large field of candidates, though, they decided not to place his name in contention in the early rounds. 

The first ballot confirmed that Pendleton, with 105 votes, was the man to beat, but his count was far from the required two-thirds majority.  Finally, on the 22nd ballot, Horatio Seymour, former New York governor and chair of the convention, was nominated, causing spontaneous cheering and demonstrations of approval.  While Seymour had not been an active candidate and genuinely seemed not to want the nomination, he was widely respected within the party and had the fewest enemies of any of the current contenders. His nomination was quickly made unanimous.  The Democratic Party in 1868 would stand against black manhood suffrage and other Reconstruction policies.  A disappointed Chase continued serving as chief justice, but largely withdrew from partisan politics.

For more information on the election of 1868, visit HarpWeek’s Presidential Elections website

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