“Dulce Et Decorum…”

October 18, 1879

Thomas Nast

“Dulce Et Decorum…”

Analogies, Ancient Greece; Analogies, Ancient Mythology; Analogies, Ancient Rome; New York State, Government/Politics; Presidential Election 1876; State Elections; Tammany Hall, John Kelly;

Tilden, Samuel; Potter, Clarkson N.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

"A vast gulf opened in the" (Democratic) "forum. The seers being consulted, said that the gods forbade this gulf to close till that which Rome" (New York) "held most valuable were thrown into it. Then when the people were asking what this might be, a noble youth, named M. Curtius" (C. N. Potter), "said aloud that Rome's true riches were brave men, that nothing else so worthy could be devoted to the gods. Thus saying, he put on his armor, and mounting his horse, leaped into the gulf; and" -- to be continued after the elections.

The Hon. Clarkson N. Potter acknowledges the receipt of Mr. Jacobs's letter, and says: "I did not seek this nomination. Under ordinary circumstances I should decline it. But at this crisis in the affairs of the party, if it be thought that my name or services can contribute anything to the union or success of the Democracy, I do not feel at liberty to withhold them. I have the honor, therefore, of accepting the nomination tendered me."

This cartoon accurately predicts that Clarkson N. Potter's stoic acceptance of the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 1879 will be the sacrifice of his political career.  In the late 1870s, the Democratic Party in New York state was bitterly divided between Tammany Hall, under boss John Kelly, and a reform wing led by Samuel Tilden, the former governor and presidential nominee in 1876.  Believing that Kelly was too powerful, Tilden and other Democrats had organized themselves into a rival Democratic political machine called Irving Hall.  

At the state convention in September 1879, the Tilden forces won all the positions on the state Democratic slate.  Renominated was Governor Lucius Robinson, who had angered Kelly by opposing Tammany's patronage, local candidates, and favored policies.  Lieutenant Governor William Dorsheimer, a former Tilden man turned Kelly ally, was replaced on the ticket by Potter.  The Tammany delegates reconvened to nominate their own slate of candidates headed by Kelly as the gubernatorial nominee.  In November, the three-way race allowed the Republican ticket, led by gubernatorial nominee Alonzo Cornell, to win.  Potter never again held public office.  

To dramatize Potter's decision, cartoonist Nast merges two classical allusions.  The title is taken from Pericles' famous funeral oration, as recorded (or created) by historian Thucydides, in which the Athenian leader honors those Greeks who died in the first year of the Peloponnesian War.  It translates as:  "It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland."  The image is based on the Roman legend of Marcus Curtius.  It was foretold that a deep pit that had opened in the Roman Forum would not close unless the city's most prized possession was cast into it.  Curtius proclaimed that nothing was more worthy than a courageous citizen, so he donned full armor and rode his horse into the chasm, which immediately closed over him.

Here, Potter appears as Curtius, riding the hobbyhorse of Tilden Reform, for which the cartoonist had little regard, into the chasm that divides the New York Democratic Party.  Tilden supporters stand on the left, while on the right Lieutenant Governor William Dorsheimer, whom Potter replaced on the ticket, confers with Boss Kelly.  The directional arrow labeling the pit "Cipher Alley" refers to the Congressional investigation initiated and headed by Potter that looked into possible election fraud in the Electoral College controversy of 1876-1877.  

Originally designed primarily to embarrass Republicans, Potter was forced to expand the probe to cover press allegations that Tilden's nephew, Colonel William T. Pelton, sent coded ("cipher") telegrams to the election boards in Florida and South Carolina.  Pelton confessed to Congress that he tried to buy the election for his uncle.  Tilden admitted that after quashing a bribery attempt in South Carolina he continued to allow Pelton to live in his home.  Those revelations ended any chance that the Democrats could use the issue of vote fraud and a stolen election against the Republicans in future campaigns.

Clarkson Nott Potter was born in 1825 in Schenectady, New York.  After graduating from Union College (1842) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1843) with a degree in civil engineering, he worked as a surveyor in Wisconsin.  After studying law, he became a member of the New York state bar in 1846 and a practicing attorney in New York City the next year.  

In 1868, Potter was elected as a Democrat to the first of three consecutive terms in Congress (1869-1875), and served as chairman of the Committee on Pacific Railroads.  He declined to seek reelection in 1874, but was elected two years later to a final term (1877-1879).  He retired from Congress at the end of his term in March 1879, but was unexpectedly nominated for lieutenant governor of New York that fall (the subject of this cartoon).  Although he was defeated in the November election, Potter outpolled the other Democrats on the state ticket, losing by only 230 votes.  

As he had since 1862, Potter continued serving as a trustee for Union College, and in 1881 and 1882 was president of the American Bar Association.  When New York's Republican senators, Roscoe Conkling and Thomas Platt, resigned in the summer of 1881, Potter, who was traveling in the American West, was nominated by the Democrats in the state legislature for one of the seats.  He lost to Republican Elbridge Lapham on a party-line vote, 92-42.  

When Potter died a few months later, in January 1882, the Republican Harper's Weekly praised his "courage of convictions" and "manly independence."  The newspaper concluded:  "In his decease the State of New York and the country have lost one of their best and purest characters."

Robert C. Kennedy

“Dulce Et Decorum…”
April 19, 2024

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