“King Andy"

November 3, 1866

Thomas Nast

“King Andy"

Alabama Claims; Analogies, Royalty; Assassination; Civil War, Remembrance; Congress; Congressional Elections; Journalists/Journalism; Presidential Administration, Andrew Johnson; Reconstruction; Symbols, King Neptune; Symbols, Liberty; Women, Symbolic;

Butler, Benjamin; Greeley, Horace; Johnson, Andrew; Logan, John; Seward, William Henry; Sumner, Charles;

American South;

How He Will Look And What He Will Do

This cartoon appeared shortly before the 1866 congressional elections, and illustrates the fierce conflict between President Andrew Johnson and radical Republicans over Reconstruction policy.  Cartoonist Thomas Nast portrays President Johnson as King Andy, with Secretary of State William Henry Seward as his prime minister, pointing to the president’s radical Republican critics in line for the chopping block.  On the left is Navy Secretary Gideon Welles as King Neptune; on the right sits Lady Liberty in chains. 

In the struggle over Reconstruction, rumors spread among Republicans that the Democratic president had monarchical designs.  The notion was reinforced by Secretary Seward’s speech in St. Louis in which he compared his relationship with the president to that between a king and his prime minister.  The circular inset depicts Seward in profile, revealing scars from the attempt on his life the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  The pose may seem insensitive, but it was a potent reminder that one should not talk loosely about the serious business of execution and assassination.  The line underneath the image—“Do you want Andrew Johnson president or king?”—was falsely attributed to Seward after Democratic victories in Ohio’s October elections. 

Following the assassination of Republican President Abraham Lincoln, the task of reconstructing the Union after the Civil War fell to Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat.  The new president’s Reconstruction policy was lenient, allowing the former Confederate states to return quickly to the Union, and leaving the civil rights of most newly freed slaves in the hands of their former owners.  Shocked congressional Republicans refused to recognize the state governments established under Johnson’s program and began passing their own Reconstruction legislation.  The president angered and radicalized Republicans even more by vetoing the Freedmen’s Bureau Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, although Congress overrode the vetoes.

On August 14-16, 1866, Johnson’s supporters met at the National Union Convention in Philadelphia, which kicked off the president’s campaign that fall to elect congressmen favorable to his Reconstruction policy and to defeat those radical Republicans opposed to it.  From August 28 to September 15, 1866, Johnson, joined by key administration figures, embarked on a campaign speaking tour across the nation.  The itinerary took the president north from Washington, D.C., to New York, west to Chicago, south to St. Louis, and east through the Ohio River valley back to the nation’s capital, and was therefore called the “swing around the circle.”  Rumors circulated widely that the president delivered his speeches while drunk.  At various stops, Johnson blamed Congress (as they blamed him) for the recent race riot in New Orleans.  In response to a question from the audience, the president sarcastically suggested the execution of leading radical Republicans, thus inspiring the featured Nast cartoon. 

Here, the man with his head on the chopping block is Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Massachusetts, the radical Republican who was the president’s chief adversary in the House of Representatives.  Behind Stevens are:  abolitionist and civil rights advocate Wendell Phillips; publisher John W. Forney; Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Johnson’s main foe in the Senate; Congressman Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts; renowned public speaker Anna Elizabeth Dickinson; New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley; Congressman John Logan of Illinois; and, at the very end, Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast himself, with a sketchbook under his arm.

Johnson’s Order of the Dead Ducks medallion refers to a remark the president made regarding one of his leading opponents in the press, John W. Forney.  In February 1866, Johnson declined to comment on Forney’s criticism, remarking, “I don’t waste my fire on dead ducks.”  Cartoonist Nast seized the term and turned it against Johnson on several occasions, usually contrasting the moribund image against the president’s illusions of grandeur.  The symbol also extends the metaphor of “lame duck,” a term for an outgoing officeholder’s lack of political clout, to its logical extreme:  Johnson was not merely a lame-duck president; with talk of impending impeachment, he was a dead duck.

The “290” medallion worn by Navy Secretary Welles is the original shipyard number for the Alabama, the British-built cruiser under the command of Confederate admiral Raphael Semmes, which destroyed or captured 69 Union ships between September 1862 and June 1864.  British outfitting of Confederate ships continued to undermine the improvement of U.S.-British relations in the post-war period.

President Johnson’s “swing around the circle” speaking tour was a public-relations fiasco, further undermining popular and congressional support for the president.  The November elections brought Republicans a sweeping victory.  They gained enough congressional seats to allow them a two-thirds majority to override any presidential vetoes.  Although congressional Republicans were thereafter in control of Reconstruction, Johnson’s continued intransigence in implementing their policies was a major reason for Republican efforts to impeach and remove the president from office.

Robert C. Kennedy

“King Andy"
March 4, 2024

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