"The Biggest Scare and Hoax Yet!"

February 6, 1875

Thomas Nast

"The Biggest Scare and Hoax Yet!"

Journalists/Journalism; Presidential Administration, Ulysses S. Grant; Reconstruction;

Grant, Ulysses S.;

American South; Louisiana;

The wild animals let loose again by the zoomorphism press!

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast is a counterattack on press criticisms of the Reconstruction policies of President Ulysses S. Grant.  The Grant administration (1869-1877) had the difficult task of enforcing the Reconstruction legislation of the Republican Congress in the face of an often hostile white population in the South and an increasingly disinterested one in the North. 

As the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union, the states' biracial Republican governments, established during Reconstruction, were replaced by white-only Democratic governments.  By 1874, only four Southern states--Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina--retained Republican governments.  While corruption existed in both parties, paramilitary groups associated with the Democratic party (e.g., the Ku Klux Klan) used intimidation and violence to prevent black and white Republicans from voting in the South.

The onset of an economic depression, the white public's impatience with Reconstruction, Congressional scandals, and talk of a third-term for President Grant, all combined to give the Democratic party a decisive victory in the 1874 elections.  Democrats regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since before the Civil War, along with several Northern state governments.  In the South, the Republican party virtually collapsed, electing only 17 of the region's 106 congressmen.

In December 1874, President Grant's annual message to Congress argued forcefully that federal intervention against political violence was necessary to allow the 15th Amendment (barring racial discrimination in voting rights) and Reconstruction legislation to work.  The inset cartoons on the upper-right and upper-left depict reaction to Grant's message, which was called "another outrage."  Grant is a courageous, though dismayed, lion who (on the left) drops his presidential-message knife of truth into the slimy, poisonous tangle of copperhead snakes ("copperhead" was a nickname for Confederate sympathizers); while (on the right) he stuffs his presidential message and "The Truth/Facts" into the mouths of the Democratic donkeys.

The central cartoon refers to the volatile political situation in Louisiana, where both political parties were claiming victory after a campaign and election rife with corruption.  Republicans asserted that they had rightfully elected William Pitt Kellogg as governor and retained control of both houses of the state legislature, but Democrats said that they had successfully gained both states chambers and the governorship for John McEnery.  

On January 4, 1875, Democrats prevented Republicans from organizing the state legislature, and (a fact soon forgotten in the public discourse) requested reinforcement from federal troops.  President Grant did dispatch Philip Sheridan, commanding general of the U.S. Army, to keep the peace, but ordered the general to ensure that the Republican government was duly installed.  

Newspapers and Democratic politicians from across the country assailed Grant and Sheridan for imposing "bayonet rule," or military dictatorship, on the South.  Grant was accused of "Caesarism" amid calls for his resignation.  Many Republicans worried that the administration's Louisiana policy was a political liability.  Liberal Republican Carl Schurz wondered how long it would be before troops marched into Northern statehouses or the U.S. Congress.  Even the president's cabinet was divided over the appropriateness of the response.

Lost among all the hysteria against federal intervention (besides the fact that the Louisiana Democrats had requested it first) was the fact of massive corruption, intimidation, and violence perpetrated by white Democrats in the state, and their attempt to circumvent the democratic process.  

On January 13, President Grant responded to criticisms in a message to the U.S. Senate.  While admitting that both parties were guilty of corruption, the president chastised the Democrats for inexcusably resorting to terrorism to achieve their political goals.  Employing impassioned language, Grant detailed Louisiana's record of past violence against black and white Republicans.

President Grant's strong statement of moral principle, however, was used by other Republicans merely to limit political damage from the affair.  Congressional Republicans agreed to a compromise which gave the lower house of the Louisiana legislature to the Democrats, while the Republicans retained the upper chamber and the governorship.

The 1874 elections were a turning point for Reconstruction policy.  Significant civil rights legislation would not be passed or enforced by the new Democratic house, and the notion was reinforced among Republicans that Reconstruction was best abandoned if the party wanted to stay in power.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast had long been committed to both black civil rights and President Grant, who was one of his great heroes.  Here, the main cartoon lampoons those in the press critical of Grant's Louisiana policy; they are wild animals, blinded by bayonets on their heads, who have escaped from the Central Park zoo.  The latter is a reference to a hoax perpetrated by James Gordon Bennett Jr., publisher of the New York Herald.  

In late 1874, Bennett reported in bold headlines that wild animals had broken loose in Central Park, causing "Terrible Scenes of Mutilation."  Many readers were hoodwinked by the sensational hoax.  Nast used the image in several cartoons over the ensuing months, including this one which mocks Bennett and his journalistic colleagues.  The cartoonist's message is clear:  charges against the Grant administration of military despotism are the equivalent of a public hoax, and the offending journalists are blinded by their own prejudiced rhetoric.

Robert C. Kennedy

"The Biggest Scare and Hoax Yet!"
June 17, 2024

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