"Any Thing But a 'Pacific Mail' "

March 6, 1875

Thomas Nast

"Any Thing But a

Business Scandals; Charity, Poor Relief; Federal Government Scandals; Postal Service; Symbols, Columbia; U.S. Economic Policy, Business Subsidies; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Matron Columbia. "Children, you must stop putting those dangerous irons in the fire; somebody is sure to have his fingers burned."

This Harperís Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast criticizes federal government subsidies to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and other businesses.

In December 1874, the House Ways and Means Committee initiated an investigation of the possible bribery of government officials by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company during the firmís quest to secure a federal subsidy. The House bookkeeper testified that 60 congressmen had each deposited a thousand-dollar bill in their accounts concurrent with the passage of the Pacific Mail subsidy. House investigators were not anxious to indict their fellow members (or perhaps themselves in some cases), so the bookkeeper was not asked to divulge the names of the depositors.

The hearings, in fact, produced a pattern of witnesses admitting that large amounts of money had changed hands, while disavowing that such acts constituted bribery, and the committee continuing its disinterest in identifying the congressional beneficiaries of the payoffs. One witness, for example, confessed to accepting $56,000 (more than the presidentís salary) from Pacific Mail to persuade a senatorial friend to vote for the subsidy, but the witness denied that the payment was a bride. The investigation also revealed that Pacific Mail had paid a reporter and an editor of the Washington Chronicle to print favorable news stories and editorials about the company. With overwhelming evidence against Pacific Mail, the House voted on January 25, 1875, to repeal the companyís subsidy, and the Senate followed suit on February 23. No congressmen were indicted.

Nastís setting for this cartoon might have been inspired by an editorial in the January 9, 1875, issue of Harperís Weekly. In comparing the activities of Pacific Mail to risky stock investments, editor George William Curtis wrote: "It is often said that if people choose to burn their fingers in stock gambling, it is their own affair and pity for them is wasted. But the consequences of very little misconduct can be strictly confined to the evil-doer." Curtis pointed out that one of Pacific Mailís steamers burned at sea with loss of life at the same time that the company was profligately dispensing its money among various members of Congress.

In this cartoon, Nast portrays Pacific Mail as a bad boy who has burned his fingers on the red-hot iron "subsidies." Other businesses appear as boys who eagerly anticipate grabbing other subsidy irons from the U.S. Treasury fireplace. One boy even tries to cool an ironís heat by blowing on it. Columbia, the matron of the U.S. Almshouse (Congress), chastises the boys for their behavior. In the left-background, Uncle Sam wipes his brow, beaded with sweat from the heat and anxiety, as small boys/businesses begin their reliance on government funding by feeding on pap (soft baby food). Behind Columbia, stands the boy Credit Mobilier, representing the holding company for the Union Pacific Railroad Company, which created a major scandal in 1873 by bribing congressmen to gain federal subsidies. Credit Mobilier snickers to see that Pacific Mail has suffered the same fate that put his arm in a bandage.

Robert C. Kennedy

"Any Thing But a
June 17, 2024

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