“The Return of (Liberal) Fenton”

October 30, 1875

Thomas Nast

“The Return of (Liberal) Fenton”

New York State, Government/Politics; Symbols, New York State; Women, Symbolic;

Fenton, Reuben;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

N. Y. "I'm so glad you've come back!"

Reuben Fenton was a U.S. senator (1869-1875) and a key member of the Liberal Republican movement of 1872.  Unlike many other Liberal Republicans, Fenton did not resume active involvement in the Republican Party at the end of the 1872 campaign, even though he continued to identify himself as a Republican.  In early 1875, the Democratically controlled state legislature of New York elected Democrat Francis Kernan to replace him in the U.S. senate.  In this cartoon, Fenton bows deeply before the female personification of New York, whose upturned nose communicates the sarcasm of her words welcoming him back to the New York Republican State Committee.  Thereafter, Fenton did not play a role in partisan politics.

Reuben Eaton Fenton was born in 1819 in Chautauqua County, New York, to Elsie Owen Fenton and George W. Fenton, who were farmers and storekeepers.  He received an education at local academies, and then began teaching school while studying law at a law firm.  In 1837, he and a brother took over management of their father’s store and assumed its debt.  A more astute businessman than his father, Rueben Fenton’s investments in land and lumber brought him great wealth. 

Fenton entered politics in 1846 with his election as town supervisor for Carroll, New York, serving in that position for eight years.  In 1852, he ran for Congress as a Free-Soil Democrat.  Although his district was predominantly Whig, enough anti-slavery Whigs bolted their party to elect him as their representative.  In the U.S. House he was relatively quiet, concentrating on constituent concerns, until the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which opened the Western territories to slavery) provoked his vociferous denunciation.  

The breakup of the party system in the 1850s weakened Fenton politically, and he lost his reelection bid in 1854 to a Know-Nothing candidate.  He then joined the new Republican Party and was elected presiding officer of the first New York State Republican Convention in 1855.  Fenton ran for Congress again in 1856, this time winning an easy victory in what was now a firmly Republican district. 

Fenton served in the U.S. House until he resigned in 1864 to run for governor of New York.  He defeated Horatio Seymour, the Democratic incumbent, by a slim margin of less than one percent of the vote.  Once in office, though, Fenton was able to use the governorship to make himself into the political “boss” of New York Republicans.  He and the Republican legislature instituted a series of reforms, including the initiation of free public education, the founding of Cornell University, the opening of teacher-training colleges, the implementation of health and housing standards, and the creation of a professional fire department in New York City.

In 1869, the state legislature sent Fenton to the U.S. Senate, but Senator Roscoe Conkling soon outmaneuvered him for control of the New York Republican Party.  A critic of the Grant administration, Fenton joined the Liberal Republican movement in 1872 and backed Horace Greeley in the presidential election.  During that campaign, cartoonist Nast portrayed the New York senator as one of Greeley’s earliest and most trusted advisors.  With Greeley’s loss, Fenton’s political influence continued to erode over the years.  In 1875, he retired from politics, and became a banker.  In 1878, he was appointed chair of the American delegation to the International Monetary Conference in Paris.  Reuben Fenton died in 1885.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Return of (Liberal) Fenton”
December 6, 2023

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