“‘Why We Laugh’ Pro Tem”

June 3, 1876

Thomas Nast

“‘Why We Laugh’ Pro Tem”

American Indians; Business Scandals; Business, Trading Posts; Congress; Federal Government Scandals; Impeachment; Presidential Administration, Ulysses S. Grant;

Cox, S. S. “Sunset”; Grant, Ulysses S.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

The second term of President Ulysses S. Grant was plagued by corruption.  When this cartoon appeared, the Grant administration had already undergone the embarrassment of a slew of scandals—Credit Mobilier, Sanborn Contracts, Whiskey Ring, Navy Contracts, Emma Silver Mine, and others—and the Senate was trying Grant’s secretary of war, William Belknap, who had been impeached by the House in March.  Realizing their opportunity to gain political capital for the fall 1876 elections, the Democrats expanded the investigations against the Republican administration.  As House Speaker Michael Kerr told the New York Graphic on June 1, “We must have plenty of it to turn out this party.”  The Democratic strategy included an attempt to impeach the president.

William Belknap was a lawyer who had served as a Union general during the Civil War and as an Internal Revenue collector after the war until President Grant named him to head the War Department in 1869.  Allegations surfaced in 1872 of bribery by merchants to gain preferential access to Indian trading posts that were administered by the War Department.  The Republican-controlled House Military Committee quashed the investigation, and the War Department announced superficial reforms.  Once the Democrats gained control of the House following the 1874 elections, the new chairman of the subcommittee for War Department expenditures, Hiester Clymer of Pennsylvania, reopened the investigation.  One of the traders had been sending cash payments to Belknap’s wife, Amanda, which the war secretary apparently assumed were dividends on investments she inherited from her first husband.  In March 1876, the subpoenaed trader informed Belknap otherwise.  The distraught war secretary tearfully informed Grant of the revelations that Congress would soon hear and tendered his resignation, which the president immediately accepted.

The House Judiciary Committee drew up articles of impeachment against Secretary Belknap, and after a brief debate on the permissibility of impeaching an official who had resigned, the House voted in favor of his impeachment.  Congressman Clymer headed a committee of five that was assigned to present the impeachment articles to the Senate.  The June 3 issue of Harper’s Weekly in which this cartoon appears also reported that the Senate was debating the issue of their jurisdiction over a resigned cabinet officer.    On May 29, a majority of eight decided in favor of jurisdiction, and Belknap’s trial in the Senate began.  On August 1, 1876, a majority of the senators voted for conviction on the three articles of impeachment, but the tally was short of the necessary two-thirds.  Consequently, Belknap was not officially removed from an office from which he had already resigned.  Most of those voting in the negative announced that they did so because they concluded that the Senate did not have proper jurisdiction.

At the same time that the Senate was deciding whether to try Belknap, Democrats went forward with their desire to impeach the president himself.  Grant’s personal secretary had been forced to resign because of his role in the Whiskey Ring, and his wife’s relatives were implicated in the Navy Department scandal, but no evidence incriminated the president.  He seemed to be an island of innocence in a sea of corruption.  Democrats publicized charges that Grant had illegally used public monies for his reelection campaign in 1872, but quickly backed off when their source was revealed to have escaped from an insane asylum.  Thus, on the right side of the cartoon a book is labeled “Bill to Let the Insane Asylum Loose to Catch Grant,” the title of which also refers to a previous hoax perpetrated by the Democratic New York Herald.

Subsequently, in the desperate hope of wresting the popular president from office, or at least making him endure the political punishment of impeachment proceedings, the Democrats latched onto the feeble issue of the number of days that Grant had been absent from the White House.  Congressman Joseph Blackburn, who served on the Belknap impeachment committee, introduced the Grant impeachment resolution in the House, and in the cartoon reads Grant’s response.  Nast ridicules the Democratic tactic by portraying piles of fictional impeachment documents against previous presidents, listing their lengthy absences, on the desk of the House Speaker.  The artist further emphasizes the silliness of the ploy but calling his cartoon, “Why We Laugh,” the title of a humorous book written by S. S. Cox, the Speaker Pro Tempore pictured here.  The impeachment resolution against Grant never gained sufficient support to start proceedings, and the Democrats finally tabled it when Congress reconvened in December 1876 after the fall elections.

Robert C. Kennedy

“‘Why We Laugh’ Pro Tem”
February 22, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

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