The Liberal Republican Movement

 “What I Know about Horace Greeley”
  Source:  Harper’s Weekly
  Date:   January 20, 1872, p. 52

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

Click to see a large version of this cartoon

Complete HarpWeek Explanation:
By late 1871, it seemed increasingly likely that a group of Republican liberals would oppose President Ulysses S. Grant’s reelection for a variety of reasons.  Although the liberals had supported the Reconstruction policies of congressional Republicans in the late 1860s, most opposed continued federal intervention in the South after the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in March 1870.  Republican liberals also criticized what they considered to be the Grant administration’s expansionist, bellicose foreign policy.  Although liberals themselves, cartoonist Thomas Nast and editor George William Curtis of Harper’s Weekly did not join the anti-Grant movement because of their personal loyalty to the president and their disagreement with administration critics’ stance that the federal government had no further role to play in protecting civil rights in the South.

Another issue separating administration detractors and defenders was civil service reform.  In 1871, President Grant had established the first federal Civil Service Commission and appointed Curtis to head it.  The bolting liberals, though, believed that Grant was not committed to civil service reform and that his practice of appointing unqualified, sometimes corrupt cronies contradicted the president’s rhetorical stance in favor of a merit system of public service.  Accordingly, this cartoon may have been Thomas Nast’s response to a Matt Morgan carton in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, which attacked President Grant’s supposed lukewarm support of civil service reform. 

In “What I Know About Horace Greeley,” Greeley “The Traitor” (left panel) bows humbly to Jefferson Davis, presenting bail in a Richmond courtroom. The image forcibly reminded readers of Greeley’s controversial action in May 1867 to secure a bond for the release from federal custody of the former president of the Confederacy.  Meanwhile, Greeley “The Patriot” (right panel) prepares to sling “Tammany Mud” at President Grant who sits on the White House porch, imperturbably puffing his cigar and following the progress of “Civil Service Reform.”  In this and other cartoons, Nast taints Greeley with the corruption of Tammany Hall, the major Democratic machine in New York City.  Nast and Curtis believed that Greeley and the Tribune had been too soft on the Republican faction cooperating with the Tweed Ring before its ouster in late 1871.

Here, Nast presents Grant as concerned for the success of civil service reform. The cartoonist probably assumed he was following the example of his editor in defending the president, but Curtis complained privately to Nast about the personal attack on Greeley. Curtis tried several times (unsuccessfully) to dissuade Nast from ridiculing those dissident liberals the editor considered to be friends and thoughtful men of good will.  On practical grounds, Curtis realized that, whatever the result of the upcoming presidential election, he would need to work with his fellow reformers in the future to secure mutual policy goals.



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