“The Plumed Knight”

June 5, 1880

Thomas Nast

“The Plumed Knight”

Presidential Election 1880;

Blaine, James G.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Mr. Blaine, please "keep your shirt on"--(it's the only thing you have).

At the 1876 Republican National Convention, Robert Ingersoll nominated James Blaine of Maine for president in a rousing speech in which the famed orator designated the former speaker of the house and new senator to be the “Plumed Knight” of American politics.  The term was a compliment to Blaine’s legislative skill and patriotism, as “a man who has preserved in Congress what our soldiers won upon the field” during the Civil War.  Cartoonist Thomas Nast, however, used the epithet to taunt Blaine mercilessly.

In this cartoon, appearing just before the 1880 Republican National Convention, the plumes in the senator’s hat emphasize “gush,” “bluster and brag,” and, incomprehensibly, “communists.”  Blaine wears a “bloody shirt” to indicate that his chief tactic is smearing the Democratic opposition as sympathetic to the former Confederate cause (a stratagem he shared with Nast).  The campaign posters surrounding the candidate are meant either as jabs at Blaine’s ego or his alleged corruption.  The shadow he casts resembles an insect and hides the ominous warning of “defeat sure” in the general election if the Maine senator is nominated by the Republicans.

President Rutherford B. Hayes, fulfilling his 1876 campaign pledge of serving only one term, announced he would not seek the Republican nomination in 1880.  With Hayes out of the picture, the early leading contender was former president Ulysses S. Grant, seeking a (non-consecutive) third-term.  Although his administration had been rife with corruption, the heroism of his previous Civil War leadership and the favorable press coverage of his post-presidential world tour sustained his heroism in the eyes of many Americans.  Yet despite the former president’s personal popularity, many Republicans did not wish to see him renominated, and a stop-Grant movement blossomed amid cries of “Caesarism” (implying a hunger for power, even dictatorship).  In early 1880, several state conventions in the North began throwing their support to other candidates.

The major rival to Grant was Senator Blaine, now leader of the Republican moderates, derided as “Half-Breeds” by their opponents.  Blaine was a smart, articulate, and accomplished politician, whose charismatic personality brought him wide support within the party, but whose reputation for corruption provoked indignant opposition from the reform wing of the party, including the staff of Harper’s Weekly.  To Blaine’s later regret, he angered Treasury Secretary John Sherman of Ohio, a fellow moderate and presidential candidate, by lining up Ohio delegates for himself.

Despite Sherman’s impressive record as senator and treasury secretary, he faced several obstacles besides competition from Blaine.  Although considered a “spoilsman” by some, Sherman’s endorsement of civil service reform seemed too sincere for ardent patronage supporters.  Also, he was rumored to be sympathetic to the Catholic request for funding parochial schools partially with public money; that was a dangerous position to hold on such a bitterly controversial issue.  Finally, he was a dull campaigner with no key interest group backing.

When the Republican National Convention convened in Chicago on June 2, nearly two-thirds of the delegates were pledged to either Grant or Blaine, but securing a majority (370) would prove impossible for either camp.  Working behind the scenes to promote his own candidacy in case of a deadlocked convention was Representative (and Senator-elect) James Garfield of Ohio, Sherman’s campaign manager.  (A circumstance that strikingly reveals the rickety foundation of Sherman’s candidacy.)

Grant bested Blaine on the first ballot, 304 to 284, with Sherman a remote third with 93, and the remaining 75 votes divided among the other nominated candidates.  On the 34th ballot, the tide began to turn in Garfield’s direction.  Sherman’s supporters, angry at Blaine’s previous raid on the Ohio delegation, refused to support the senator from Maine, but found Garfield acceptable.  Ohio joined other state delegations in sweeping Garfield to victory on the 36th ballot with 399 votes.  Blaine, who briefly served as Garfield’s secretary of state (March-December 1881), would return four years later to capture the Republican presidential nomination that he had been seeking for so long.

For more information, visit HarpWeek’s Presidential Elections website.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Plumed Knight”
April 19, 2024

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