"How the Bowery Boys Amuse Themselves"

March 28, 1863

John McLenan

"How the Bowery Boys Amuse Themselves"

Arts and Entertainment; Civil War, Copperheads/Peace Democrats; Irish Americans; New York City, Government/Politics; Wars, American Civil War;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

(Scene.--A Democratic Association.)

Great Copperhead Orator (foaming at the Mouth). "To Arms! to Arms! Let us resist the Laws, and crush the Lincoln Despotism!!"

First Citizen. "Bully for you! He's 'most as good as Forrest."

Second Citizen. "But he can't come up to Booth."

This Harperís Weekly cartoon by John McLenan characterizes speeches given by Peace Democrats during the Civil War as no more than street theater.

During the Civil War, Northern Democrats were divided into two wings: War Democrats who supported the Union military cause, although they sometimes criticized specific policies of the Republican Lincoln administration or Congress; and Peace Democrats who objected to the war as a detriment to the economy and the Constitution, and therefore called for a truce and negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. The term "Copperhead" (from the snake of that name) referred to Confederate sympathizers in the Union states, but was often applied to Peace Democrats by Republicans who saw no ultimate distinction between the two groups.

The Peace Democrats had done well in the 1862 fall elections in New York, electing former mayor Fernando Wood to Congress and Horatio Seymour as governor. The Peace Democrats were appalled when President Lincoln carried through on his promise and issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which they denounced in viciously racist language. On February 6, they organized the Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge, which published antiwar and anti-emancipation pamphlets. Other groups, such as the Democratic Young Menís Association, organized rallies and meetings, where they denounced the war, emancipation, blacks, Lincoln, and the Republicans in terms of class and race warfare. They warned that the Lincoln "dictatorship" was undermining civil liberties, and that the freed slaves would move to New York to take the jobs of white working-class men and marry their daughters.

In this cartoon, a "Copperhead" speaker from a Democratic association passionately delivers an antiwar diatribe to an audience of working-class men in the Bowery, located on the lower-east side of Manhattan. The bíhoys (here, simply "boys") were a distinctive part of the cityís youth culture in the nineteenth-century. They were young, working-class bachelors (sometimes immigrant Germans or Irish), identifiable by their attire (e.g., bright colors, stovetop hats, flared trouser legs, and checked suits); their swaggering, tough-guy attitude; and their habit of frequenting the theaters, saloons, and brothels of the Bowery.

From about 1850 to 1875, the Bowery was the main theater district in New York City.  In this cartoon, the "citizens" amusingly compare the Democratic orator to popular Shakespearean actors Edwin Forrest and Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes Booth, who later assassinated President Lincoln). Others in the crowd, though, are clearly not amused: note the man on the right thumbing his nose at the speaker, and the frowning man on the left, with his arms crossed.

The antiwar movement gained strength over the ensuing months, and erupted in four days of bloody violence in July 1863 (known as the draft riots) when officials tried to implement the new Union draft law. The organization of the Peace Democrats, however, had also activated the pro-Union forces, who established the Union League Club on February 24, 1863. Adopting the tactics of their antiwar rival, the Union League distributed pro-war, pro-administration, pro-emancipation pamphlets and organized mass rallies for the Union military cause.

For more information on the popularity of Shakespeare in nineteenth-century America, see the archive for the cartoon of March 22,1890, p. 228, " The Art of Acting."

Robert C. Kennedy

"How the Bowery Boys Amuse Themselves"
July 14, 2024

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