“U. S. Circus”

April 2, 1881

Thomas Nast

“U. S. Circus”

Analogies, Circus; Congress;

Davis, David;

American South; Virginia;

Wm. Mahone (to Bourbon Hill). "Now stop your slashing around, and let the Elephant appear."

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast presents the confusion of an evenly-divided U. S. Senate as a circus.

As Reconstruction ended in the 1870s, Democrats regained political dominance in the South.  In the rest of the country, elections were competitive between the two major parties.  In the extremely close presidential election of 1880, the Republican ticket showed surprising strength (although losing) in the Southern states of Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.  That encouraged the new president, James Garfield, to work for a political realignment in the region by focusing on economic issues to attract Southern industrialists and businessmen to the Republican party.

The most likely leader for such a coalition of Republicans and disgruntled Democrats in the South was Senator William Mahone of Virginia.  (In the cartoon, he is the short, long-bearded man standing on the Virginia pedestal.)  Mahone had made his fortune in railroads and served as a major general in the Confederate army.  During the economic depression of the 1870s, Mahone became angry at his state's political leadership, whom he blamed for his railroad's bankruptcy, and broke with the Democrats to form the "Readjuster" movement.  The Readjuster platform called for shifting one-third of the state debt to West Virginia (which split off from Virginia in 1863), refinancing the rest of the debt at lower interest rates, repealing the poll tax, reducing property taxes, and increasing funding to public education and state charities.

In 1877, Mahone ran unsuccessfully for governor, but in 1879, the Readjusters won a majority in the Virginia legislature and elected Mahone to the U. S. Senate.  When Congress convened in special session on March 4, 1881, the new Senate contained 37 Democrats, 37 Republicans, and two independents--Mahone and David Davis of Illinois.  

Davis had been a Supreme Court justice and an unsuccessful candidate for the Liberal Republican presidential nomination in 1872.  His election to the Senate in January 1877 by a Democratic-Greenback coalition was important in the Electoral College controversy of that year.  In March 1881, Davis announced that he would vote on organizational matters (committee appointments and Senate officers) with the Democrats, but would otherwise be independent of party.  Nast, however, portrays Davis as a clown who leans on the Democratic whip, Senator Benjamin Hill of Georgia (appearing as a whip-bearing ringmaster), while reading from his book of indecision ("wiggle waggle"; "From the Supreme Bench to the Fence").

Meanwhile, Mahone declared that he was "in every sense a free man," and rejected Hill's efforts to make him toe the Democratic line.  Mahone's vote, plus Vice President Chester Arthur's tie-breaking ballot, allowed the Republicans to elect the Senate's committee chairmen.  In return, the Republicans named Mahone as chairman of the important Agriculture Committee, shared federal patronage with him in Virginia, and attempted to have his candidates elected to the Senate offices of secretary and sergeant of arms. 

Infuriated Democrats could do nothing about the first two moves, but balked at the third by using stalling tactics to block the entire confirmation process.  On May 4, a frustrated President Garfield removed the Mahone protégés from consideration as Senate officers.  Democrats promptly ended their filibuster and allowed the other administration nominees to be voted on.  The special session, which normally would have lasted less than two weeks, ended on May 20, 1881, eleven weeks after it began.

When Congress reconvened in another special session in October 1881, following the death of President Garfield, David Davis was elected president pro tempore of the Senate.  In the absence of a vice president, he was next in line for the presidency.  The new U.S. president, Chester Arthur, attempted to replicate the Virginia model of a Republican-Readjuster coalition across the rest of the South.  Although the early 1880s were the high point of cooperation in the region between Republicans and independents, Republicans were unable to repeat the brief success of the Mahone Readjuster movement.

Robert C. Kennedy

“U. S. Circus”
June 17, 2024

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