“Our Royal Rulers (By Divine Right) in Secret Session”

April 3, 1886

Thomas Nast

“Our Royal Rulers (By Divine Right) in Secret Session”

Analogies, British History; Analogies, Royalty; Civil Service Reform/Patronage; Congress; Presidential Administration, Grover Cleveland;

Cleveland, Grover; Edmunds, George; Logan, John; Sherman, John;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

While cartoonist Thomas Nast was a long-time, loyal Republican, he had responded favorably to Grover Cleveland’s gubernatorial administration of New York, and in 1884 joined a group of reform-minded Republicans ("Mugwumps") who endorsed the Democrat for president. Although some of the Mugwumps later criticized Cleveland during his struggle with the Senate over the appointment power, Nast supported the president in several cartoons, including this one.

Here, Nast employs an analogy from English history to condemn Republican senators for usurping the appointment power of Democratic president Grover Cleveland.  The autocratic King Charles I (1625-1649) had dismissed Parliament and used the Star Chamber, an ancient court of law, to impose his will, believing that his authority was derived from God ("the Divine Right of Kings").  Nast, however, reverses the roles to portray the legislators (the senators) as the absolute monarchs and, by implication, the executive (the president) as the victim of an illegitimate infringement on his authority.  The dominating presence in the Senate/Star Chamber is Senator George Edmunds of Vermont as King Charles I; Senator John Sherman of Ohio presides as Senate president pro tempore; Senator Williams Evarts of New York sits between them; and, Senator John Logan of Illinois crouches in the shadow (left).  

Throughout the nineteenth century, presidential power was usually inferior to that of Congress, in both theory and practice.  During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln enhanced presidential authority as commander in chief, but otherwise left domestic policy largely for Congress to shape.  The battle between his successor, Andrew Johnson, and Congress over Reconstruction policy weakened the power and prestige of the presidency.  

In order to stop Johnson's interference with Reconstruction, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867.  The law added to the constitutional requirement of Senate confirmation for high-ranking presidential appointments by also prohibiting a president from removing such officials without Senate approval.  Johnson's violation of the Tenure of Office Act, by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, led to the president's impeachment in 1868.  The law was modified the next year, once Republican Ulysses S. Grant was in office, but it still left the Senate with strict supervisory authority over the composition of administration personnel.  

Subsequent presidents tried to exert some independence from Congress on the issue of federal patronage, but it was an uphill battle.  When the 49th Congress convened in December 1885, the Republican-controlled Senate faced the first Democratic president since Johnson, Grover Cleveland, and they therefore sought to expand the scope of the Tenure of Office Act.  They also hoped to show that the president was not dedicated to civil service reform (merit over partisan appointments).  Senate Republicans met in caucus and agreed not to approve Cleveland's sub-cabinet appointments unless he provided complete documentation on the suspension of current (Republican) officeholders.  President Cleveland considered this an infringement of presidential authority and instructed his cabinet not to comply.

Senator Edmunds, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, found a test case in the dismissal of a Republican district attorney in Alabama and his replacement by a Democrat.  Following Cleveland's orders, Attorney General Augustus Garland submitted papers to the Senate on the appointment, but not on the removal.  On January 25, 1886, the Senate passed Edmunds's resolution demanding that the administration hand over the documents.  The battle line was drawn between the Senate and the president not only over the appointment power, but also regarding the control of presidential papers and the extent of the Senate's investigatory power.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recommended censuring Attorney General Garland and withholding confirmation of all further presidential nominations.  On March 1, President Cleveland sent a message to Congress justifying his position on constitutional and legal grounds.  While refusing to admit the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act, he denied that the Senate's current actions were legally permissible under the scope of the 1869 revision.  If the Senate believed that the president was unfaithful to his duties, Cleveland boldly pointed out that they could begin impeachment proceedings.

Cleveland's firm and well-argued stance gained him substantial backing among the press and public.  Senator Edmunds, on the other hand, was personally offended by the president's message, and redoubled his efforts.  Other Republicans, though, began distancing themselves from the confrontation when they realized that public support was with the president.  The test case became moot when it was revealed that the term of the dismissed official had expired.  The Senate confirmed Cleveland's choice for district attorney and other positions, and stopped requesting documents related to removals.  

In December 1886, Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts, a Republican and devout constitutionalist, drafted a bill to repeal the Tenure of Office Act, which a satisfied President Cleveland signed into law on March 3, 1887.  Cleveland thereafter took a relatively more active role in public policy, notably by issuing a record number of vetoes (482), more than twice as many as his 21 predecessors combined.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Our Royal Rulers (By Divine Right) in Secret Session”
July 14, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to