“Cold Water Comfort”

October 25, 1884

Thomas Nast

“Cold Water Comfort”

Alcohol; Presidential Election 1884; State Elections; Temperance Reform;

Blaine, James G.; Saint John, John P.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

St. John, "I shall neither withdraw form the canvass nor assume a neutral position."

In this cartoon, the Prohibitionist Party nominee for president, John St. John, pours a bucket of cold water on James G. Blaine, the Republican nominee, and the notion that the temperance candidate will withdraw from the race.  On his knees in supplication, Blaine grasps at "An Appeal to the Prohibitionists:  Mr. St. John, please dodge out of the pres[idential race]."  St. John's resolute refusal in the caption is depicted comically in the illustrated scene.

The 1884 presidential election was accurately predicted to be as close as the 1880 contest had been.  The narrow margin of victory enhanced the importance of minor parties, like the Prohibition Party, which drew most of its voters from Republican ranks.  As the Republican standard-bearer, Blaine did not want to alienate either temperance advocates or their opponents, many of who were from German or Irish immigrant families.  Therefore, he and other Republicans insisted that prohibition was a local issue.  When a proposed state constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol appeared on the ballot in his home state of Maine in September 1884, Blaine did not vote on the issue.  The reference in the cartoon to "dodge" is a dig at the Republican nominee for dodging the temperance issue.  That the name of Blaine's campaign biographer was Mary Abigail Dodge (his wife's cousin) was a happy coincidence.

In 1884, St. John, the former governor of Kansas, was the most well-known and articulate candidate that the Prohibition Party had ever fielded.  Worried Republican operatives tried to convince St. John to drop out of the race.  When he refused, they engaged in a smear campaign against him.  St. John had married at 19 years of age, fathered a child, and then divorced at his wife’s request.  Each of the St. Johns married someone else shortly afterward.  John St. John paid for his boy’s education, provided lodging in his home when the young man read law, and secured him a government position.  During the 1884 campaign, however, Republicans claimed that St. John had ill-treated his first wife, and then abandoned her.  Blaine partisans also tried to bribe the Prohibition candidate to drop out of the race.  

A furious St. John not only continued campaigning, but concentrated his efforts in upstate New York, an area of the key electoral state where Blaine was vulnerable on the temperance issue.  The Democratic Party secretly funded the Prohibition Party’s campaign there.  (The Republicans were clandestinely financing the campaign of Benjamin Butler, the Greenback-Labor candidate, hoping he would draw votes away from the Democratic nominee, Grover Cleveland.)  As the presidential campaign heated up in the late summer and early fall, artist Nast contributed three cartoons to Harper's Weekly, including the featured one, focusing on the Blaine-St. John struggle.  

In the November election, the Prohibition vote in New York proved to be one of the leading factors in Blaine’s slim loss to Democrat Grover Cleveland. Prohibitionist St. John received over 25,000 votes, most of which were probably from wayward Republicans, and the Democratic candidate carried New York by a slim plurality of 1,149 votes.  New York’s 35 electoral votes proved to be the Democrat’s margin of victory in the Electoral College tally of Cleveland's 219 over Blaine's 182.

John Pierce St. John was born in 1833 in Franklin County, Indiana, the son of an alcoholic farmer.  Young St. John received little formal education and, beginning when he was twelve years old, had to work to support himself.  He labored in several occupations over the next 14 years until he was admitted to the Illinois bar.  During the Civil War, he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Illinois 143rd Regiment of the Union Army.  After the war, he practiced law in Independence, Missouri, before moving to Olathe, Kansas, in 1869.

St. John served as a Republican in the Kansas Senate during the 1873-1874 term.  A supporter of women’s rights and an avid advocate of the government restriction of alcohol, he was elected governor of Kansas in 1878 as a Republican.  During his first administration (1879-1881), he used his oratorical skills and political stature to persuade voters to adopt an amendment to the state constitution that banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol for consumption.  St. John won reelection in 1880 and spent his second term trying primarily to ensure an effective enforcement of the prohibition on alcohol.  Kansas voters denied him a third term in 1882 because of traditional opposition to third terms, reaction against prohibition in some quarters, controversy over his alleged support of railroad corporations, and opposition from political foes.  Prohibition, however, remained the law in Kansas.

Animosity over St. John’s defeat--the first for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Kansas--led to his split with the Republican Party.  Thereafter, he dedicated himself to promoting the cause of prohibition on the lecture circuit.  As seen in this cartoon, the National Prohibition Party nominated him in 1884 for president of the United States.  St. John ended his affiliation with the Prohibition Party in 1896, although he remained a temperance advocate for the rest of his life.  After retiring from the political arena, his financial speculations in mines and real estate were unsuccessful.  In his final years, he once again became popular as a spokesman for prohibition, having regained the respect of the Kansas public.  He died in Olathe in 1916.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Cold Water Comfort”
December 3, 2023

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