“Sound Political Arguments”

July 26, 1884

Thomas Nast

“Sound Political Arguments”

Presidential Election 1884;

Reid, Whitelaw; Wilde, Oscar;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

William Walter Phelps (the Jersey Lily). "I say, my dear boy, is there anything more to be done, after that letter of mine, in Blaine's defense?"

Whitelaw Reid (the New York Daisy). "Oh yes, my dear Bangtry; we must call those who do not PROTECT Mr. Blaine's record, Free-traders, and Britishers, and DUDES, and all that sort of thing, you know."

In this cartoon, artist Thomas Nast mocks two of the top advisors to Republican presidential nominee James Blaine--Whitelaw Reid (right) and William Walter Phelps (left)--as aristocratic, effeminate "dudes."

In 1884, Whitelaw Reid was editor of the New York Tribune and the chief cheerleader in the press for James Blaine.  In 1872, Reid participated in the Liberal-Republican bolt from the Republican Party.  He served as a leading political advisor to his Tribune boss, Horace Greeley, the unsuccessful presidential nominee of the Liberal Republican and Democratic Parties, and replaced the candidate as editor of the newspaper.  In subsequent years, the Tribune became the nation’s leading Republican daily under Reid’s supervision.  Beginning in December 1881, Reid allowed Blaine to place editorials anonymously in the newspaper that criticized President Chester Arthur.

Congressman William Walter Phelps of New Jersey was a close friend and key political advisor of Blaine’s, as well as a New York Tribune stockholder.  He had originally been the candidate’s first choice as a vice-presidential running mate.  During the 1884 campaign, Phelps published in the Tribune a defense of the nominee’s railroad dealings while speaker of the house.  The allegations of graft and conflict of interest against the Republican presidential nominee were a major reason why "Mugwump" Republicans like cartoonist Nast bolted the party in 1884 to support Democrat Grover Cleveland.  Phelps also released Blaine’s “private” letter to him, which attempted to explain away the nominee’s sex scandal (that Mrs. Blaine was pregnant when they married).  Phelps’s published defense of Blaine is mentioned in the cartoon’s dialogue.

Much of the mudslinging during the 1884 campaign involved revelations of real, imagined, or exaggerated sex scandals, including those implicating three presidential nominees:  Blaine; Cleveland for allegedly fathering a child by an unmarried woman, Maria Halpin; and Prohibitionist Party nominee John St. John for supposedly mistreating and abandoning his first wife who divorced him.  Another distinguishing feature of the character assassination in 1884 was the tactic of pointedly questioning the masculinity of one’s political opponents.  For example, George William Curtis, the editor of Harper's Weekly, and other Mugwumps were vilified as effeminate males or helpless women who were unfit for the rough-and-tumble of the masculine world of partisan politics. 

Here, Mugwump cartoonist Thomas Nast responds in kind by associating Blaine’s most prominent supporters, Phelps and Reid, with the effeminacy of British aristocrats, while mocking their similar attacks on the Mugwumps (by calling them free-traders, Britishers, and dudes).  For many Gilded Age Americans, Britain was not the close ally that it would be in the post-World War II era, but rather a country under suspicion.  Having fought against Americans in two wars, and indirectly aided the Confederate effort (via shipbuilding) during the Civil War, Great Britain was more often considered a foe, or at least a rival.  Britain also conjured up images of a class-stratified society, which conflicted with the American ideal of a classless, democratic society.

In this cartoon, Phelps and Reid are presented as “dudes,” dressed in elegant eveningwear:  black swallowtail coat; satin-striped, close-fitting trousers; starched shirts; boutonnieres; and bowed, pointed-toed slippers.  They imitate the leisured life of the British aristocracy, and, in particular, that of the aesthetic movement. 

Aestheticism was a new direction in the arts and literature in the late-nineteenth century that preached the pursuit of beauty as the highest good, rather than at the service of morality; it was “art for art’s sake.”  One of the primary promulgators of aestheticism was Oscar Wilde, who made a well-publicized tour through the United States in 1882.  Wilde and other aesthetes emphasized artifice and transience (like the cultivated flowers picked for their boutonnieres) against the Romantic ideal of untamed nature and the Victorian morality of duty.  In essence, the aesthetes were a type of counterculture in the 1880s. 

Male aesthetes were often considered to be effeminate, although the connotation of homosexuality is debatable. Wilde’s scandal and trial did not occur until the mid-1890s; plus, the term “homosexual” was newly coined in the 1860s and was identified by most who had heard of it as a behavior, not a type of person.  On the other hand, a more modern understanding of homosexuality was developing by the 1880s, and it was merging with the concept of effeminacy.  The side-by-side union of Phelps and Reid’s front feet and other aspects of the cartoon seem suggestive to our eyes today.  Even if Nast did not intend, or most of his audience did not understand, such implications, they would be aware of the negative, effeminate caricature of the two men.

Oscar Wilde was well known for wearing or carrying flowers, especially a sunflower (daisy) or lily.  In similar fashion in this cartoon, flowers are worn by Phelps and Reid, reflected in their nicknames, and appear on the wallpaper (along with dollar signs and fleurs-de-lis, with their lily or iris petals).  Nast nicknames Phelps “the Jersey Lily,” and has Reid refer to his friend as “Bangtry.”  These are allusions to Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), the British-born actress who was called “the Jersey Lily” after her birthplace on the isle of Jersey, off the English coast.  Langtry made a celebrated theatrical tour of America in 1882.  The pun on her name as Reid’s pet name for Phelps--"Bangtry"--derives from the congressman's hair, which he wore in bangs on his forehead, a popular style among fashionable young “dudes” of the time.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Sound Political Arguments”
March 21, 2023

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