“The Advantage of Being Small and Slippery”

May 19, 1888

William A. Rogers

“The Advantage of Being Small and Slippery”

Alcohol; Gubernatorial Administration, David B. Hill (NY); New York State, Government/Politics; Temperance Reform;

Hill, David B.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

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This cartoon presents Governor David B. Hill of New York, a Democrat, as an eel who slips through the "high license dam" by vetoing the temperance legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Ernest Howard Crosby, a Republican (who peers down at Hill).

Although many politicians in the late-nineteenth century tried to ignore the divisive temperance question as best they could, Ernest Crosby, made it his crusade.  A graduate of Columbia University School of Law, the 31-year-old served the "brownstone" district formerly represented by Theodore Roosevelt, Manhattan's 21st, whose solidly-Republican constituency gave him the political security to be bold on the issue.  Crosby, though, was also following in the footsteps of his father, the Reverend Dr. Howard Crosby, the prominent pastor of the 4th Avenue Presbyterian Church and social reformer.

By the 1880s the Republican Party had become identified with the advocacy of temperance legislation at the state level, even though party leaders shied away from the issue at the national level.  Conversely, the large number of Irish and German members of the Democratic Party meant that Democratic politicians usually opposed temperance legislation.  Although states were the primary battleground for the issue in the 1880s, temperance played a key role in the presidential election of 1884, when the small Prohibition Party concentrated its efforts in upstate New York and managed to take enough votes away from the Republican Party to help give Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland a narrow victory.  

In 1887, Assemblyman Crosby introduced his bill to place a high fee on licenses that liquor merchants acquired from the state of New York; $100-$400 for beer and $500-$2000 for distilled liquor.  Some prohibitionists, however, opposed the proposed legislation on the grounds that it was a half-measure that compromised with the liquor industry or that it would not be enforced effectively.  Harper's Weekly, on the other hand, endorsed the bill because it promoted moderation in alcohol consumption without imposing prohibition, and because it undermined the politically and financially beneficial relationship between the liquor industry and the Democratic Party.  Furthermore, the publication argued, the high license bill would reassert the Republican Party's commitment to temperance and stem the flow of dissatisfied voters to the Prohibition Party. Governor Hill vetoed the Crosby bill.  

While many Republican legislators in New York were inclined to support a high license fee, the Republican State Convention of 1887 refused to take a firm stance on the question.  After condemning Governor David Hill's veto, the Republican delegates overwhelmingly voted down Crosby's resolution favoring a high license fee, and instead endorsed a nearly meaningless resolution for local option. As Harper's Weekly pointed out, to be logically consistent the convention should have openly approved the bill that they explicitly criticized the Democratic governor for vetoing.

At the beginning of the 1888 session of the state legislature, Crosby again introduced his bill, adapting it to answer some of the governor's complaints.  The Republican-controlled legislature again passed the high-license measure, and the Democratic governor again vetoed it (as caricatured in this cartoon).  This time the Republican State Convention not only condemned the governor's veto but also endorsed the legislation sponsored by Crosby (without mentioning him by name).  During Hill's reelection campaign in 1888 against Republican Warner Miller, Harper's Weekly portrayed Hill as the friend of disreputable saloonkeepers.  Despite such ridicule, Hill was reelected, and four years later mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Grover Cleveland for the Democratic presidential nomination.  However, the new Democratic majority in the state legislature elected Hill to a term in the U. S. Senate (1893-1899).

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Advantage of Being Small and Slippery”
June 17, 2024

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