“The Self-Made Party”

August 30, 1884

Thomas Nast

“The Self-Made Party”

Presidential Election 1884;

Butler, Benjamin;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

The Party that Butler belongs to, and the Party that he serves.

At the Democratic National Convention in July 1884, Benjamin Butler not only failed to win the presidential nomination, but also received no votes.  The next month, however, the former Republican congressman accepted the presidential nomination of the Greenback and Anti-Monopoly Parties (which merged into the Greenback-Labor Party).  This cartoon by Thomas Nast interprets Butler’s penchant for changing parties as a self-serving, calculated effort to secure political power for his own ends, rather than for the public good.  The poster on the upper-left announces Butler's Greenback-Labor candidacy as a confidence game (swindle), and plays on the word “fusion” (meaning a coalition of political groups agreeing to back a single candidate or slate) by adding “confusion.”  In reality, though, the candidate’s articulated political principles were fairly consistent over time.

Butler began his political life in Massachusetts as a Democrat, voting for the Southern Democratic presidential nominee, John Breckinridge, in 1860.  As a Union general during the Civil War, he was a War Democrat, but was elected to Congress as a Republican (1867-75; 1877-79).  In Congress, he endorsed the Radical Republican policies for Reconstruction and served as one of the House prosecutors at the removal trial of impeached Democratic president, Andrew Johnson.  (For more information, visit HarpWeek's Website on the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.)  Butler ran unsuccessfully numerous times for governor of Massachusetts, first as a Republican (1871, 1873, 1874), and then as an independent (1878) and a Democrat (1879), before being elected to the governorship by a Democratic-Greenback coalition (1882). 

Butler's ardent advocacy of labor reform and soft-money made him popular with working-class voters.  For this reason, the Democratic Party tried to induce him not to enter the 1884 race, while the Republican Party helped finance his campaign.  Butler traveled by train across the North, speaking to enthusiastic crowds.  Democrats, angry at his third-party candidacy, criticized the hypocrisy of the purported laboring man's candidate riding in a plush railroad car, and threw spoons at him to mock his nickname.  Despite the positive popular reaction he encountered, Butler headed a loose coalition of various interests, not a well-organized, well-financed political party.  In the November election, he received only 1.8% of the popular vote, and thereafter retired from politics.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Self-Made Party”
December 9, 2022

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