“Compromise with the South”

September 3, 1864

Thomas Nast

“Compromise with the South”

Black Americans; Civil War, Copperheads/Peace Democrats; Civil War, Elections; Civil War, Union Military; Presidential Election 1864; Symbols, Columbia; U.S. Military; Wars, American Civil War; Women, Symbolic;

Davis, Jefferson;


Dedicated to the Chicago Convention.

This is one of Thomas Nast’s most powerful and effective political cartoons, and one of his personal favorites, drawn when the artist was not quite 24 years old.  It is a harsh criticism of the dominant influence of Peace Democrats ("Copperheads") at the Democratic National Convention, which was meeting in Chicago in late August 1864 at the time this post-dated cartoon went to press.

Throughout his administration, President Abraham Lincoln faced a continual barrage of criticism aimed at his policies and leadership, particularly against emancipation, the military draft, and his management of the Union war effort.  Early in 1864, there had been talk of replacing him at the head of the Republican ticket.  However, by the time his party's national convention met on June 7-8, the president's deputies had stifled rebellions and shored up support so that he was renominated on the first ballot.  The stagnant performance of the Union military during the summer, though, bode ill for the president and the war effort itself.

With Union military prospects appearing dim, the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago in late August 1864.  The dismal military situation strengthened the party's Peace wing ("Copperheads"), led by Congressmen Clement Vallandigham of Ohio and Fernando Wood of New York.  Their proposal for a cease-fire and negotiated settlement with the Confederacy was ratified by the delegates, with only four dissenting votes, and incorporated into the official party platform.  Confusing the issue, though, the Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Union General George B. McClellan, a War Democrat, to become their presidential nominee over two peace candidates, Governor Horatio Seymour of New York and Thomas Seymour, the former governor of Connecticut. 

In this cartoon, the Democratic "Chicago Convention" is viewed as a betrayal of everything for which Union soldiers were fighting, as well as a betrayal of black Americans.  On the left, a defeated and disabled Union soldier, his face hidden in shame, extends a feeble hand of surrender to a triumphant Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.  Davis stands with one boot disrespectfully on the grave of another Union soldier, while Columbia kneels mournfully.  In the upper-left, the American flag is hung upside down as a sign of distress.  Nast’s message is clear:  if compromise with the Confederacy is pursued, then Union servicemen will have sacrificed their limbs and lives in vain, and black Americans will be returned to slavery (as in the cartoon's background; note also that the black man is a Union soldier).

In accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, however, McClellan rejected the peace plank of the party platform, vowing instead to prosecute the war with more skill and vigor than Lincoln.  In the late summer, Lincoln despaired of his chance for reelection and feared that, despite McClellan’s assurance, the momentum of a Democratic victory would fortify the Peace faction and force the general to retract his campaign promise.  Lincoln, therefore, made his cabinet sign a pledge, sight unseen, to cooperate with president-elect McClellan during the interim period to ensure a speedy Union conquest of the Confederacy before the general’s inauguration.  

However, a few days after McClellan’s nomination, the military tide began to turn in the Union’s favor.  On September 2, Atlanta fell to the Union forces commanded by General William Tecumseh Sherman.  Combined with a previous victory by Admiral David Farragut at Mobile Bay on August 5, and subsequent military success by General Philip Sheridan in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley on September 19 and 22, McClellan's star began to fade and the president's to rise.  The publication of Nast's cartoon came in the midst of this military turnaround, and Lincoln's campaign managers blanketed the country with posters made from it.  The cartoon was widely considered to be a significant propaganda factor aiding Lincoln's reelection. 

With 78% of the Union electorate casting ballots, Lincoln won in an Electoral College landslide, 212-21.  The 55% popular vote for the president was the third largest in the nineteenth century, surpassed only by Jackson’s first victory in 1828 and Grant’s reelection in 1872.  McClellan won only New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky. It has been estimated that Lincoln received 78% of the vote of Union servicemen. While that number was not necessary for his reelection, it may have been the margin of victory in a few close states and, more importantly, was of great symbolic value.  Republicans also gained seats in the Congress to retain unassailable control, 149 to 42 in the House and 42 to 10 in the Senate; took back several state legislatures; and only lost one gubernatorial race, in New Jersey.

The Democrats, though, remained a viable party.  McClellan captured 48% of the vote in a bloc of states stretching from Connecticut to Illinois, and Republican totals declined over 1860 in several key states, such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. The two-party system was sound, and the Democrats were well positioned to challenge the Republicans in future contests.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Compromise with the South”
June 17, 2024

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