“The Tramp’s Millennium"

November 8, 1879

Thomas Nast

“The Tramp’s Millennium"

Crime and Punishment; National Liberal League;

Ingersoll, Robert;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Tramp. "Well, by gosh! Yere's the Party I've been a-trampin' the country after for fifteen year. That 'ere's the sound doctrine! Down with the parasites every time!"

In this cartoon, a tramp praises a plank in the 1879 platform of the National Liberal League, which characterizes anti-vagrancy laws to be unconstitutional and inhuman and calls for their repeal.  To further underline the unwholesome views of the organization dedicated to protection of civil liberties and the establishment of a complete separation of church and state, cartoonist Nast lists two other planks that the stereotypical tramp would favor:  the repeal of laws requiring the Sunday closing of businesses (including taverns, dance halls, and theaters) and banning alcohol sales. 

In reality, vagrancy laws were often applied to poor black Americans to restrict their mobility.  This cartoon appeared in the midst of a time in the late 1870s and early 1880s when tens of thousands of black Americans were moving from the South to the lower Midwest and Great Plains (particularly Kansas).  Vagrancy laws were used either to keep them in place and working at low-paying jobs in the South, or keep them out of areas in the Midwest and West where few blacks lived.  Nast supported black civil rights and the exodus from the South, but failed to recognize how vagrancy laws could be antagonistic to both. 

The National Liberal League, which is the target of the featured cartoon, was founded in 1876 to champion civil liberties and a completely secular government.  The latter goal meant an end to laws mandating business closings on Sundays, proclamations of days of prayer or thanksgiving, religious worship in any public government building or forum (e.g., prayers opening Congress and state legislatures), and the use and teaching of the Bible (or any sacred text) in public (i.e., state-funded) schools.  The organization endorsed universal suffrage, universal education, and equal rights.  In 1877, Robert Ingersoll, a well-known Republican orator, nationally prominent lawyer, and proselytizing agnostic, was elected vice-president (not president, as the cartoon states) of the National Liberal League.

Over the next several years, the National Liberal League became so bitterly divided that it soon collapsed.  The point of contention was how the organization should react to the federal Comstock Act and laws mimicking it at the state and local levels.  Enacted in 1873 and amended in 1876, the Comstock Act strengthened previous federal laws (1865, 1872) that prohibited the use of the U.S. postal service for sending obscene materials across state lines.  The Comstock Act did not define obscenity, but the courts gave federal officials wide discretion to confiscate materials and arrest distributors.  The arrest and prosecution of Ezra Haywood, a “free-love” (i.e., anti-marriage) advocate, and D. M. Bennett, a freethinker who distributed Haywood’s tracts, prompted the National Liberal League to take up the issue. 

A majority of the National Liberal League wanted the association to condemn the prosecutions and call for the repeal of the Comstock Act.  However, an influential minority, led by Ingersoll and President Elizur Wright, only wanted the statute modified so that it defined obscenity and protected civil liberties of those expressing unpopular (but not obscene) opinions.  Was the distribution of obscene publications a civil liberty?  A majority in the association said “yes,” but Ingersoll and a minority said “no.”  In 1878, delegates at the annual convention had a heated debate on the subject, but tabled a decision.

Another issue dividing the National Liberal League concerned its involvement in partisan politics.  Ingersoll proposed the establishment of the National Liberal Party, which would endorse candidates from any political party who would support the organization’s platform.  Others wanted the National Liberal Party to run its own slate of candidates, and thus become a full-fledged political party.  Ingersoll believed such a strategy was impractical, but he also wanted to keep the free-lovers out of the party.  When asked whether the organization should take a stance on the controversial public question of Mormon polygamy, he asked, “Why should that ulcer be solved by us?”

As chairman of the resolutions committee at the 1879 convention, Ingersoll saw to it that his idea for the National Liberal Party was endorsed.  He also proposed an ingenious, if temporary, compromise on the obscenity issue through his resolution urging the Comstock Act be applied to the Bible; delegates unanimously approved the measure.  Bennett, though, had been rearrested, and the issue continued to cleave the National Liberal League.  Ingersoll, who upheld traditional morality even as he questioned religion and criticized its entanglement in public affairs, became even more opposed to supporting Bennett when it was revealed that the jailed freethinker was an adulterer.

At the 1880 convention of the National Liberal League, resolutions were passed for the National Liberal Party to nominate its own candidates; for Congress to repeal the Comstock Act; and for the League to support those (like Bennett) prosecuted under it.  An acrimonious debate erupted over the latter two resolutions.  After their passage, Ingersoll resigned and walked out of the convention with a contingent of delegates.  His departure dealt a blow to the National Liberal League from which it would not recover.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Tramp’s Millennium"
August 12, 2022

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