“The Tall Sycamore of the Wabash in His Whirligig of Oratory”

April 29, 1882

Thomas Nast

“The Tall Sycamore of the Wabash in His Whirligig of Oratory”

Anglo-American Relations; Congress; Crime and Punishment; Symbols, British Lion; U.S. Foreign Policy;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Great Britain; Ireland;

"The Senate gave him full swing, and he handled the British Lion in a masterly way."--Washington News.

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast presents Senate firebrand Daniel Voorhees of Indiana whirling the British Lion by its tail over the issue of Irish-Americans arrested by the British police.  

The relations between the United States and Great Britain fluctuated over the nineteenth century.  A low point came during the Civil War, when British shipbuilders outfitted Confederate warships and the Union feared the British government would formally recognize the Confederacy (they did not).  Relations began to improve after the Treaty of Washington (1871) resolved outstanding issues from the war, but there were still occasional disputes.

One of the most serious controversies arose in the early 1880s over American support of Irish nationalists.  During the Land War (1879-1882), angry tenant farmers in Ireland boycotted and protested against their British landlords and government officials.  In reaction, the British Parliament enacted a temporary Coercion Act in 1881, which allowed British agents in Ireland to arrest and detain the agitators indefinitely without trial (thus suspending the traditional right of habeas corpus--to be charged with a crime or released).  Under the new law's authority, the British arrested Charles Stewart Parnell, president of the Irish Land League, and several of his colleagues.

Some of those arrested claimed (naturalized) American citizenship, which set off a firestorm of protest in the United States.  Many Irish-Americans contributed their time or money to affiliates of the Land League or similar Irish-nationalist organizations, and their large numbers made them an influential force in American politics.  Secretary of State James Blaine demanded release of the American citizens, but the British refused, fearing such an act would incite further protests and violence.  James Russell Lowell, the U.S. minister to Great Britain, worked behind the scenes for their release, even though he was vilified in the Irish-American and Democratic press.

The issue remained deadlocked for several months until William Gladstone, the British prime minister, decided that it was better to work with the moderate wing of the Irish nationalists, represented by Parnell, than to provoke the extremists.  On April 2-3, 1882, the British released Parnell and all of the prisoners except for three.  Irish-Americans and their political spokesmen, however, were not satisfied.  Frederick Frelinhuysen, the new U.S. secretary of state, criticized the detentions, while Senator Voorhees (pictured in the cartoon) marshaled his renowned oratorical skills against the British policy.  The scene brings to life the phrase "twisting the Lion's tail," which refers to an American tweaking the British government, especially through exaggerated rhetoric

The assassination of high-ranking British officials in Dublin, Ireland, on May 6, 1882 (the "Phoenix Park murders") led to widespread condemnation of the violence means used by some Irish nationalists.  In reaction, the British Parliament enacted the Prevention of Crime Act, which substituted judicial tribunals for jury trials and gave sweeping powers to British authorities in Ireland.  Secretary of State Frelinghuysen denounced the policy as a violation of civil liberties.  The last of the prisoners were set free when the Coercion Act expired in October 1882.  The stance of American politicians on the issue of Irish nationalism would continue to be important through the 1880s, as would British irritation at support among some Irish-Americans for violence resistance in Ireland.

For related cartoons, see the archive for February 28, 1880, "The Herald of Relief from America," and April 28, 1883, "The Balance of Trade with Great Britain Seems to be Still Against Us."

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Tall Sycamore of the Wabash in His Whirligig of Oratory”
June 17, 2024

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