A rare and astonishingly complex cartoon attacking American political corruption during the Election of 1872. No names are named, but the villainous “Big Politician” is surely a stand in for Boss Tweed, the Grant Administration, or more likely both.
This is one of three or four cartoons produced in 1872 by Thomas Albert Davies, a successful New York businessman and former brigadier general in the Union Army. Davies’ motive is unclear, though the prior owner of this cartoon argued that Davies was laying the groundwork for a quixotic run for the Presidency.
While Davies produced this cartoon to address the issues of his day, the subject matter remains remarkably topical. The basic premise is that the political system has been designed as a complex machine designed to defraud the taxpayer, but “the people,” hitherto passive, have risen up and captured it from the corrupt political class:
“War! War! War! To the knife on political corruption. Politicians surprised—capture by the people of their artillery, machinery and secret papers; also one Big Politician, one telescope Man, five Shepherds, forty-seven Candidates, and a Procession.”
The American Antiquarian Society, which holds the only other impression I have located, summarizes the image as follows:
“Image of an elephant “Constitution” holding the weight of “primary, caucus, convention, public meetings” and a politician on his back. The elephant says “They will have me down.” Tied to his feet are ropes, which he runs the “political hopper” with. Behind him is a donkey “Reflection” and a man sits on his back feeding money onto a conveyer belt which runs through the political hopper and up to thepolitical press seen at top right. The donkey states “Help yourselves gentlemen, plenty more coming” as men beneath him take bags of money. The “telescope man” sits atop the political press and dilutes the news from below: “Sprinkle a little honesty – Easeup on tariff and taxes — Screw down on rebellion — Oaths useless — Come the pious heavy — Down on corruption- see they pay for it — Steady- something isup — Whist! The people are moving.” Below the press are crowds of men, one holding a banner “1872 platform candidates oath and pledges.””
Davies’ observations on the role of the press are particularly interesting:
“That crank which works the whole affair is turned by a vagrant sort of fellow called Public Opinion, and he sometimes gets on an awful drunk…. You will find it very difficult to run this apparatus without the Political Press. We mould the public opinion and look out that things don’t get crosswise… We sometimes have hard work to convince you that you don’t want that which you say you do want, and to show you that you do want that which you say you don’t want, but we can always succeed.”
Thomas Alfred Davies (1808-1899) and T. L. Smart (fl. ca. 1870-1883)
Davies was born in St. Lawrence County, New York and graduated with Robert E. Lee in the West Point Class of 1829. After brief service the Army he resigned his commission and moved to New York City, where he worked first as a civil engineer and then as a merchant. He joined the Union Army in 1861 with the rank of colonel, commanding a regiment at First Bull Run and in the defenses of Washington, D.C. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1862 and spent the rest of the war in the Western Theatre.
After the War he retired from the Army and returned to New York City to devote himself to business, achieving wealth as a real estate investor and author. At least one of his publications addressed secular matters (How to Make Money, and How to Keep It) but most were theological, “with the general design and purpose of refuting theories advanced by the materialistic school of philosophy and of maintaining the text of the Bible to be authentic and inspired.” (“Gen. Thomas Alfred Davies,” New York Times, Sunday, Aug. 20, 1899, p. 7) His works included titles such as Cosmogony, or The Mystery of Creation; Genesis Disclosed; and Answer to Hugh Miller and Theoretical Geologists.
The elusive T. L. Smart was a wood engraver and illustrator active in the United States and Canada. He may have been English or Scottish, and may have relocated to Ontario in the 1860s or 1870s. Most of his work addresses Ontario subjects, but he, along with one R. M. Smart, is identified as one of the engravers for John Russell Young’s Around the World with General Grant (1879).
Davies issued at least two other large and intricate anti-establishment cartoons in 1872, both engraved by Smart: Political Ladder[:] His Name Is Dear People and The People Changing Front[:] Things as they should be: sovereigns directing their servants [:] Things as they are: servants leading sovereigns with rings in their noses. Like Political Smash-Up, both emphasized the corruption of the political class and the passivity of the electorate. An advertisement in the New York Daily Herald for Feb. 22, 1872 offers these for sale at 10 cents apiece “by all News Companies in New York” or by mail from printer E.H. Coffin at 49 John Street. The ad also lists a fourth cartoon, Portrait of the Next President—(If he gets Votes enough), but I have been unable to find any impressions on line or in institutional collections.
In all, a rare and striking political cartoon, whose language and populist tone are reminiscent of a recent candidate’s attacks on “fake news” and calls to “drain the swamp.”
Library of Congress, Broadside Collection, Port. 237-13. OCLC 656456203 (AAS only, June 2019). Weitenkampf, Political caricature in the United States in separately published cartoons, p. 165 (giving an example at the New York Historical Society). I find a black-and-white photocopy on the Library of Congress web site (Broadside Coll. Port. 237-13), but it is not clear whether they hold the original.