“The Third-Term Panic"

November 7, 1874

Thomas Nast

“The Third-Term Panic"

Analogies, Fables; Journalists/Journalism; Presidential Administration, Ulysses S. Grant; Presidential Election 1876; Shakespearean Controversy; State Elections; Symbols, Republican Elephant;

Bennett, James Gordon, Jr.; Grant, Ulysses S.;

Indiana; Ohio;

"An Ass, having put on the Lion's skin, roamed about in the Forest, and amused himself by frightening all the foolish Animals he met with in his wanderings."--Shakespeare or Bacon

In this cartoon, artist Thomas Nast reacts to a series of editorials in the New York Herald criticizing what Herald owner/editor James Gordon Bennett Jr. considered to be President Ulysses S. Grant’s bid for an unprecedented third term.  There was no constitutional limit on the number of presidential terms until ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951, but the tradition of serving no more than two terms, set by President George Washington, carried a strong stigma against anyone who attempted to violate it.  To Bennett and others long dissatisfied with the policies and scandals of the Grant administration, any possibility that the former general would seek a third term was condemned as “Caesarism”—an undemocratic attempt to wield imperial power.  Grant declined to pursue the Republican nomination actively in 1876, but was a candidate in 1880, when the deadlocked convention selected Congressman James Garfield, instead.

The image of the featured cartoon was inspired by, and the text taken from, one of Aesop’s fables, “The Ass in the Lion’s Skin.”  The rest of the fable reads:  “At last coming upon a fox, he [the ass] tried to frighten him also, but the fox no sooner heard the sound of his voice than he exclaimed, ‘I might possibly have been frightened myself, if I had not hear your bray.’”  The moral of the fable is that although a fool may disguise his appearance, his words will reveal his true nature.  To Nast, the New York Herald is not a roaring lion to be feared, but a braying ass to be ridiculed.  The reference in the citation to “Shakespeare or Bacon” is a jibe at Bennett’s contention that Shakespeare’s works were actually written by Sir Francis Bacon.

Here, the New York Herald appears as an ass in a lion’s skin, whose ferocious presence frightens the “foolish animals” of the press, including The New York Times (unicorn), the New York Tribune (giraffe), and the New York World (owl).  A skittish fox, representing the Democratic Party, has edged onto a reform plank near a gaping pit, by which the trumpeting elephant, symbolizing the Republican vote, lumbers.  Since this issue of Harper’s Weekly went to press shortly before the congressional elections of November 3, 1874, the artist was uncertain which party would tumble into the pit, but early results boded ill for the Republicans.  

Thus, the elephant’s foreleg is raised precariously over the chasm, the “Ohio” and “Indiana” geese squawk about Democratic victories in those pivotal states, and the ostrich with its head in the ground alludes to temperance Republicans who nominated their own slate of candidates in New York.  On November 3, the Democrats did win control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since before the Civil War, and Nast drew a sequel to this featured cartoon entitled “Caught In A Trap—The Third-Term Hoax” (November 21, 1874), in which the Republican Elephant has tumbled into the pit. 

It is often mistakenly assumed that the image in the featured cartoon of stampeding animals was based on a hoax concocted by one of Bennett's editors at the Herald in the fall of 1874.  On November 9, the New York Herald reported in bold headlines that wild animals had broken loose in Central Park, causing “Terrible Scenes of Mutilation.”  However, the postdated November 7 issue of Harper’s Weekly, which includes "The Third-Term Panic," was published in late October, over a week before the hoax. 

There is no evidence that either Nast knew about the hoax before it was perpetrated (which seems unlikely) or that the Herald was inspired by his cartoon (although it is an intriguing possibility).  Soon after the incident, Nast craftily incorporated visual and textual references to the hoax in several cartoons over the ensuing months to mock Bennett and his journalistic colleagues.  The postdated November 21 sequel, “Caught in a Trap,” was also probably drawn before the hoax, although the cartoonist had time before publication to add a subtitle referring to it:  “The Result of the Third-Term Hoax.” 

The featured November 7 cartoon is one of Thomas Nast’s most important because it marks the first notable appearance of the Republican Elephant, which the cartoonist would develop over the next few years into the universally recognized symbol for the Republican Party.  An elephant had been associated twice before with the Republican Party, once in President Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 campaign sheet, Father Abraham , (not The Rail-Splitter of 1860, as often cited), and once in Harper’s Weekly to depict the Liberal Republicans of 1872.  However, in neither case did the caricature have a lasting impact on other political cartoonists or the public as a symbol for the Republican Party.

Nast’s first use of an animal symbol for the Republican Party came in 1871.  Like the featured cartoon, he employed an Aesop’s allusion to warn Republicans, depicted as a bloodied lion and bear, that their continued intra-party fighting might allow the Democrat Party (as a fox) to capture the presidency the next year.  During the rest of the 1870s, Nast associated various animals with the Republican Party—bull, eagle, fish, fox, horse, lamb, rooster, and sheep (beleaguered Southern Republicans).  Beginning with “The Third-Term Panic” of November 7, 1874, Nast used the elephant seven times over the following 18 months to represent the “Republican Vote.” 

However, Nast’s cartoon of April 29, 1876, indicates that the animal was not yet exclusively the symbol of the Republican Party.  In that prophetic image, “The Political Situation,” a two-headed elephant, upon which sits a perplexed Uncle Sam, is “The Vote of the People,” with one head facing “The Democratic Road” and the other toward “The Republican Road.”  Nast did not use the symbol again during the 1876 presidential campaign until his election-eve cartoon of October 28, "The Elephant Walk Around," in which the “Republican Vote” appears as a massive elephant crushing a two-headed Democratic Tiger.  The uncertain outcome of the Electoral College controversy of 1876-1877 prompted the cartoonist to contribute two drawings during February 1877 of a two-tailed elephant (with no head), labeled the “Republican What-Is-It,” modeled after P. T. Barnum’s hoax.

When the Electoral College Commission decided the presidency in favor of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, Nast no doubt captured the feeling of many by portraying a badly wounded elephant at the grave of the Democratic Tiger.  Entitled "Another Such Victory And I Am Undone," it was the first time that the elephant’s name was not qualified by “Vote” or another designation, but represented the entire Republican Party.  Thereafter, Nast continued using the Republican Elephant symbol, and after 1879 stopped associating any other animal with the Republican Party except for one cartoon in 1886 in which Republican spoilsmen were depicted as vultures.  By the 1880 presidential election, cartoonists for other publications had incorporated the elephant symbol into their own work, and by March 1884 Nast could refer to the image he had created for the Republican Party as “The Sacred Elephant.” 

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Third-Term Panic"
July 14, 2024

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