“A Tail Praising Its Head”

August 21, 1880

Thomas Nast

“A Tail Praising Its Head”

Presidential Election 1880;

Hancock, Winfield S.; English, William;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Governor's Island Swarming with (Democ)rats.

In 1880, the Democratic National Convention selected William English, a wealthy banker from Indianapolis, to be the vice-presidential running mate of General Winfield Hancock.  Because Hancock was a well-respected hero of Gettysburg and other Civil War battles, the pro-Republican press (like Harper's Weekly) generally left his character unquestioned.  Instead, they vilified the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in caricature and print.  

The Democratic delegates chose English because he was from the crucial swing state of Indiana, but, more importantly, because they expected him to bankroll much of the campaign with his personal funds.  English, however, adamantly refused to spend his own money on the contest, despite earnest requests and pressure from Hancock and other influential Democrats.  As a result, Democrats criticized him, and Republicans ridiculed him, as a miser.  

In this cartoon, Thomas Nast portrays Hancock as a stately lion guarding Governor’s Island, where the general was stationed as commander of the U.S. Army’s Atlantic Division. Hancock frowns at his running mate, stuck on the tip of his tail, who holds a document reading “Praise but No Money.”  The phrase contrasts English’s stinginess with his letter of acceptance in which he effusively praised Hancock's virtues.  In an age when attacks on political opponents were unapologetically direct, rather than subliminal, Nast caricatures the Democratic ticket as besieged by “(Democ)RATS” scurrying to find morsels of political patronage and government largesse.  

William English was born in Lexington, Indiana, in 1822, and later studied law for three years at Hanover College (Indiana) before being admitted to the Indiana bar in 1840 at the age of 18.  That same year, he was selected as a delegate to the Democratic Party’s state convention.  English was appointed Lexington’s postmaster by President John Tyler, then elected clerk of Indiana’s House of Representatives in 1843, followed by a position in the U.S. Treasury Department from 1844-1849, and as clerk of the U. S. Senate Committee on Claims in 1850.  Returning to Indiana, he served as secretary of the 1851 state constitutional convention and as speaker of the Indiana State House of Representatives.

In 1852, English was elected to Congress, where he voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which opened the Western territories to slavery based on “popular sovereignty.”  He was reelected for three additional terms.  In the late 1850s, he joined Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas in opposing statehood for Kansas under the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, the document crafted by a rump legislature and ratified in a vote boycotted by anti-slavery men.  English played a key role in fashioning a compromise that bore his name, the English Bill.  The law allowed for a fair vote on ratification of the Lecompton Constitution, which the Kansas electorate rejected.

In 1860, English decided not to run for reelection.  Before his term ended, he spoke out on the floor of the House, imploring his congressional colleagues from the South not to support secession.  When the Civil War started, he declined an offer from Indiana’s governor to be a regiment commander, but backed the Union cause and opposed Confederate sympathizers in Indiana.  In 1863, he moved to Indianapolis and opened the First National Bank, serving as its president until 1877.  He was one of the city’s key business leaders, and eventually became a millionaire.

English not only failed to open his purse strings in 1880, but his unpopularity in his home state seriously hampered the Democratic campaign there.  Both parties pulled out all the stops in order to generate enthusiasm for their candidates in that must-win stateEven though Democrats had won every state election in Indiana since 1870, the better-organized Republicans were able to win by a small margin in 1880.  Nationally, the Republican ticket of James Garfield and Chester Arthur defeated the Democratic ticket of Hancock and English, 214-155 in the Electoral College and by a mere one-tenth of a percent, 48.3% to 48.2%, in the popular vote.

After the election, English returned to his banking interests in Indiana.  Long interested in science and history, English had served as a regent for the Smithsonian Institute while he was in Congress, and later as president of the Indiana Historical Society.  He authored a two-volume set on the early history of the Northwest Territory, Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783, and Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark; published the same year he died, 1896. 

For more on the presidential election of 1880, visit HarpWeek's Presidential Election Website.

Robert C. Kennedy

“A Tail Praising Its Head”
September 19, 2021

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