Greeley's Campaign Falters

 “Drowning Men Catch At Straws”
  Source:  Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
  Date:   October 19, 1872, p. 96

Click to see a large version of this cartoon...

Click to see a large version of this cartoon

Complete HarpWeek Explanation:
“Tidal Wave:  We Are on the Home Stretch!”  (dated October 26; published October 16), the first major epitaph on the Greeley candidacy, was in the hands of readers eight days after Republican victories in pivotal state elections in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana on October 8.  It depicts a portent of impending popular will as a raw force of nature that dooms the campaign flotilla of Horace Greeley and company.  On October 9, The New York Times, a strong backer of Grant, declared the 1872 presidential race over in an exultant report introduced by a towering stack of 17 headlines beginning with “EXIT GREELEY.”  Much of the mainstream press agreed with that verdict.

Naturally, Greeley’s New York Tribune (October 9) emphatically disagreed.  In an astounding triumph of high hope over cold reality, acting editor Whitelaw Reid presented a state-by-state assessment that predicted 173 electoral votes for Greeley, 120 for Grant, and the remaining 63 “seriously contested.”  Reid concluded, “Friends!  In spite of fraud, we are on the home stretch, with every prospect of success.”  Thomas Nast had all the ammunition for which he could possibly have prayed.  He preserved a clipping from the October 10 New York Times that expressed the hope:  “As for that ‘home stretch,’ we wish Mr. Nast would draw a picture of it.”  It seems likely that the “Tidal Wave:  We Are on the Home Stretch!” cartoon was well under way before the twin titles came into view upon reading Reid’s editorial on the morning of October 9.  By that time, the finished drawing could even have been in the hands of the engravers.

The inspiration for Nast’s “Tidal Wave” probably had a couple of sources.  For months, Nast had been fighting a pictorial dual with cartoonist Matt Morgan of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, so the Harper’s caricaturist carefully examined his rival’s newspaper and work.  Therefore, Nast would have noticed a Morgan biblical extravaganza in Leslie’s August 24 issue in which Senator Charles Sumner is cast as Moses commanding the Red Sea to close over “Pharaoh” Ulysses S. Grant and his pursuing legions.  An editorial in the September 7 issue of Leslie’s characterized Grant as a drowning man grasping for straws, an image used by Morgan in an October 19 cartoon of Grant facing inundation by a huge wave.  (As stated before, the final drawing of Nast’s “Tidal Wave” was probably completed by October 9.)

The principal inspiration, though, for the catastrophic mishap of “Tidal Wave” may have been the collision of the steamer Metis and the schooner Nettie Cushing in turbulent seas off Rhode Island around 4 a.m. on August 30, 1872.  The Metis sank almost immediately, with heavy loss of life, and the incident grabbed headlines across the country.  In Nast’s cartoon, the ill-fated ships became the Liberal and the Democrat.  Although the skyline of Washington, D.C., appears in the background (left), the rocky coastline approximates that of Watch Hill, where bodies from the Metis collision washed ashore.  Also in the cartoon’s background, the victorious clipper U.S. Grant is passing the stump of the unfinished Washington Monument and proceeding in calm waters toward the Capitol, silhouetted against the sunrise. 

Of the many figures in the cartoon, Tribune managing editor Whitelaw Reid and his organ float in the left foreground; Greeley with his Gratz Brown tag is partly submerged in the center foreground; and Senator Carl Schurz in the right foreground (beside Greeley) finds the German vote has slipped from his grasp. 



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