Witty political cartoon attacking the legacy of the Buchanan Administration

[Michael Angelo] Woolf, OUR NATIONAL BIRD AS IT APPEARED WHEN HANDED TO JAMES BUCHANAN. MARCH. 4. 1857. [:] THE IDENTICAL BIRD AS IT APPEARED. A. D. 1861. “I was murdered i’ the Capitol” Shakespeare. New York: Thomas W. Strong, 1861.
Lithograph, 7 ½”h x13”w at neat line plus margins, uncolored. Hint of mat burn, very minor soiling, minor edge wear, tack holes at lower-left and -right corners. About very good.

An elegantly-vicious political cartoon attacking the damage done by James Buchanan’s ineffectual administration in the years leading up to the Civil War.

The Buchanan Administration (1857-1861) is generally viewed as a disaster. His advocacy of states’ rights, reluctance to wield the power of the Federal Government, and sympathy for southern slaveowners enabled sectional tensions to develop to the breaking point during his years in office. At his inauguration the Union consisted of 31 states; when he ceded the Presidency to Abraham Lincoln the Union was down to 24, the other seven having seceded following Lincoln’s election.

“Among the many severe and savage graphic indictments of Buchanan’s lack of policy was one by Woolf, published by T. W. Strong in 1861. This shows a proud and vigorous eagle… and a poor, dejected, featherless object, with a broken chain about its neck, one leg thrust into a shoe labelled “Anarchy” and the other, a wooden stump, labelled “Secession”…” (Murrell)

The iconic national bird, representing the Union, is strong and healthy at the beginning of Democrat James Buchanan’s administration, but by the time Republican Abraham Lincoln assumed the Presidency, it is gaunt and emaciated reflecting the secession of 11 southern states from the Union. This political cartoon highlights the rising tensions over states’ rights during the antebellum period and the ultimate dissolution of the Union in 1861. The fact that Buchanan’s administration was riddled with corruption and charges of bribery and graft, only worsened the toll that years fighting over slavery and states’ rights had taken on the nation’s vitality. (Digital Commonwealth)

Artist Michael Angelo Woolf (1837-1899), an English-born artist, illustrator, and would-be actor best remembered today for documenting the life of the urban poor.

“Born in London in 1837, Woolf moved to America at a young age and first pursued an acting career in Philadelphia. At the close of the Civil War, he turned his efforts instead to art and went to France for instruction. After returning to America, and beginning in the magazine Wild Oats in the 1870s, Woolf would focus much of his career in cartooning on drawing his then-famous illustrations of “waifs,” a character type that was inspired by New York City street urchins. Returning to the life of the city’s poor time and time again, in a career that spanned some thirty-odd years, Woolf, a generally liberal and sometimes conservative cartoonist, opened up a world of which many of Harper’s Weekly, Judge, and LIFE’s middle class readers had little first-hand knowledge.” (Martin Lund, “Another Other Half: A Look at Michael Angelo Woolf And His “Waifs” (Part 1 of 2)”, posted Oct. 27, 2015 on the web site of the Gotham Center for New York City History)

OCLC 854806747 et al., giving only three institutional holdings as of March 2024, though the print is not nearly so rare. William Murrell, A History of American Graphic Humor, pp. 225-228 (illus. 227). Frank Weitenkampf, Political caricature in the United States in separately published cartoons, p. 125. Not in Bernard F. Reilly, Jr., American Political Prints 1766-1876.