"A Fable - With a Modern Application"

March 25, 1882

Thomas Nast

"A Fable - With a Modern Application"

Analogies, Fables; Business Scandals; Federal Government Scandals; Postal Service; Symbols, Democratic Donkey;

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One day the Lion went out in search of some thievish animals that had been making depredations on his domain. On the way he fell in with the Fox, and as the latter acted in a suspicious manner, the Lion accused him of being one of the rascals he was looking for. The Fox, thinking to divert the Lion's attention, protested that he was no worse than others, and hypocritically pleaded that he did not know he had been doing anything wrong. "That is no excuse," said the Lion; "I shall not permit you to escape punishment; and will deal with your confederates also according to their deserts, whenever they fall into my power."

Attorney-General Brewster. "The uttermost penny lawlessly received and taken from the public treasury must be recovered."

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast portrays the Star Route scandal through the style and imagery of an Aesop’s fable.

By the 1870s most of the mail in the United States was transported by railroad or steamship. In isolated area of the South and West, though, the federal government offered lucrative contracts to private carriers who delivered the post via horse, stagecoach, or wagon. These federal contracts used asterisks ("stars") in place of the words "certainty, celerity, and security." Some contractors colluded to submit absurdly low bids, sometimes for non-existent routes, which Post Office officials accepted, then negotiated much higher payments from Congress and pocketed the profits. By 1880, there were nearly 10,000 star routes, costing the federal government nearly $6 million a year to maintain.

In 1880, Congress learned that some members of both parties were involved in the Post Office contract fraud. President-elect James Garfield was informed of the matter, and shortly after his inauguration in March 1881, the Republican president ordered his new postmaster general, Thomas James, to investigate. Evidence soon pointed to corruption, in Garfield’s words, "of a very gross and extensive kind." In April, the president forced the resignation of Thomas Brady, the second assistant postmaster general. In June, a clerk of Senator Stephen Dorsey of Arkansas, chairman of the Republican National Committee, admitted wrongdoing and incriminated Dorsey and members of the senator’s family. President Garfield insisted that investigators "Go ahead regardless of where and whom you hit," and encouraged prosecutors to move more swiftly.

After Garfield’s death by an assassin’s bullet in September 1881, President Chester Arthur removed more implicated Post Office officials, and vowed to carry the investigation through "with the utmost vigor of the law." On March 4, 1882, Brady, Dorsey, and seven other men were indicted by a grand jury for fraud. Various reasons, including stalling tactics by defense attorney Robert Ingersoll, delayed the trial until June. Nearly 150 witnesses were heard and 3,600 documents placed into evidence, but only Dorsey’s clerk and another minor defendant were found guilty.

When the jury foreman claimed an attempt had been made to bribe him, a retrial was set. In the meantime, President Arthur fired five federal officials who expressed sympathy with the defendants. The second trial ran from December 1882 until June 1883, with even more testimony and documents than the first one. This time, despite more evidence and a stronger charge to the jury from the judge, all the defendants were found not guilty. Local cases continued, but only resulted in the conviction of two minor defendants.

This cartoon appeared after the indictments but before the first trial began. The lion stands for the federal government prosecutors and the fox represents the Star Route perpetrators. The donkey peering out of the pit is David Key, the former postmaster general (1877-1880) under whose watch most of the frauds were executed. Key was a former Democratic senator from Tennessee who joined the cabinet of Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes as part of a political understanding which helped resolve the Electoral College controversy of 1876-1877.

Robert C. Kennedy

"A Fable - With a Modern Application"
June 17, 2024

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