How negative can a campaign get? Thomas Nast’s attacks on Horace Greeley, 1872

Horace Greeley,  pictured by Nast as an out-of-touch nitwit in oversized coat and hat, oblivious to the sea of dead Union solidiers at notorious Andersonville Prison as he tries to  reconcile with the South.  The scrap of paper in his pocket reads “What I know about shaking hands over the bloodiest chasms, by H.G.”  Harpers Weekly, September 21, 1872.

Yes, we’ve seen presidential campaigns get pretty nasty, with the 2004 “Swift Boat” ads turning John Kerry, a decorated war hero, into a virtual traitor, probably representing the low point of recent years.  Negative campaigns have been a staple in America since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.  So, looking forward to the finale of 2012, how low can it go?  Hold on to your seats….

Nast’s fawning view of Grant from 
an 1866 Harper’s Weekly cartoon.

My vote for the meanest ever baseless attack against a presidential candidate goes to Thomas Nast, the brilliant cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly whose satires helped destroy New York City’s notorious Boss Tweed.  (Click here for some of Nast’s famous Tweed cartoons.)  In 1872, Nast, a staunch Republican, turned his pencil against Horace Greeley, the brilliantly eccentric publisher of the New York Tribune who that year had won the presidential nominations both of the Democratic Party and the Liberal Republicans, a splinter group of Republicans who opposed incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant.

The irony, of course, was that Greeley had been an original founder of the Republican Party in 1856, an early abolitionist and harsh critic of rebels during the War, but he bolted in 1872 over Grant-era scandals, Grant’s reconstruction policy against the South, and Greeley’s own unique combination of vanity and  ambition.

Thomas Nast, circa 1870.

Thomas Nast adored Ulysses Grant, considered him a national hero for winning the Civil War, and detested anyone who questioned Grant’s honest.  By 1872, Nast’s fame over helping to topple Boss Tweed had given him an enormous national following.  Senators, Congressmen, and Presidents all courted him, knowing that literally a million Americans could be swayed by a single Nast cartoon.

For Nast, Greeley made an easy target.  Just seven years after the Civil War, resentments ran deep.  They called it “waving the bloody shirt,” and nobody did it better than Tommy Nast.  Over 600,000 soldiers had died in the Civil War,  touching almost every American family North and South, and bitter memories lingered.  By accepting the nomination from Democrats, Greeley had hitched himself to Southern diehards, and Nast had no problem using guilt by association to paint Greeley’s hands bloody.  Greeley himself virtually invited the charge by making reconciliation with the South central to his campaign — “grasping hands across the bloody chasm,” as he put it.  Greeley had also contributed bail money to former Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

Greeley shaking hands with a Confederate murderer stepping on a dead Union soldier.  The dead soldier is identified as from the Massachusetts 6th Regiment, four of whose members were killed in April 1861 by a street mob in Baltimore, the same site as the 1872 Democratic Convention that chose Greeley.  Harper’s Weekly, July 3, 1872.  

Greeley was easy to draw as a cartoon.  His rumpled clothes, wispy beard, wire glasses, and shifting politics all played into Nast’s talent for caricature.  One critic called him “a self-made man who worships his creator.”  What Nast did to Boss Tweed, he now did to Horace Greeley.  

Nast didn’t hesitate to throw in a bit of anti-Semitism.  The Shylock in this cartoon is August Belmont (born Jewish in Germany, though converted to Christianity in the 1840s after settling in the US), who represented the Rothschild banking firm in New York and chaired the Democratic Party during this period.   Harper’s Weekly, July 6, 1872

Greeley lost in a landslide.  (Click here for results.)  Even worse, his wife Mary died just a few days before the vote, on October 30.   The pressure was too much, and Greeley himself passed away on November 29, just three weeks after Election Day.  “I thought I was running for the presidency, not for the penitentiary,” Greeley told friends when asked about the Nast cartoons.  More than a few people pointed fingers at Thomas Nast’s attacks as one factor driving Greeley to the grave.

Thomas Nast’s legacy runs deep in American journalism, his ability to use cutting-edge technology (back then it was mass-produced wookcuts) to drive a hard-edged partisanship of personal attacks.  It’s good that he used this talent to help drive Boss Tweed from office.  But not-so-good that he used it to destroy the reputation of Horace Greeley.  For more Nast cartoons from the 1872 campaign, click here.    

WOUNDED KNEE, part I: The closing frontier.

Lakota Lake, Black Hills, South Dakota.
Click here for other parts of this series:
Wounded Knee is a stark, remote place in western South Dakota with freezing winters, blazing hot summers, and hard, rocky ground tough for raising crops.  Wounded Knee Creek itself is a narrow, shallow, twisting stream  — barely 100 miles start to finish — that snakes across the barren landscape through today’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation before vanishing into another stream just south of Badlands National Park.  
This creek never held much appeal for the Lakota Sioux Indians.  But just north sat something much better, the Black Hills, a natural wonder of peaks and streams, lush grasslands and deep forests, rich with game — bison, deer, and bighorn sheep.  This was land worth fighting for.   The Sioux — a loose confederation of tribes — had already dominated the North American plains for two centuries by the 1770s when they first moved into this area, captured it from the Cheyennes, and made it central to their culture, religion, and survival.  
By the time white settlers began reaching this area in the early 1800s, they found Sioux tribes — Lakota, Oglala, and others — covering vast stretches from Minnesota to the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and as far west as Montana and Wyoming.  (Note: This wasn’t all their land; Sioux constantly fought with other tribes and permanent borders or settlements had little meaning on this frontier.)   At first, relations between Indians and this handful of white settlers were calm.  Tribes signed dozens of treaties with settlers during the 1820s and 1830s, setting vague boundaries and promising friendships.   But as the trickle of settlers began to grow, demands for land increased.  In 1851, the US government agreed to pay the Lakota Sioux $1.6 million for the entire Iowa territory plus large chunks of Minnesota in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.  (Click here for full text.)   Many Sioux objected to this rich deal — ceding 24 million acres in one stroke — but tribal chiefs insisted. 
Red Cloud’s War

The surge of white settlers after the Civil War — prompted in part by gold discoveries in Montana — finally pushed tensions over the edge.  Red Cloud was chief of the Oglala Lakota Sioux in Montana when he joined with Cheyennes and Arapaho in 1866 in a two-year wave of strikes against settlers and cavalry throughout Montana and Wyoming.   It was a bloody guerilla war and culminated in the Battle of the Hundred Slain (or “Fetterman Massacre” to the cavalrymen) when Red Cloud’s warriors managed to wipe out an entire 81-man detachment from Fort Kearny led by a Captain William J. Fetterman.  Red Cloud had used a decoy — the already prominent Crazy Horse — to lure the cavalrymen into a massive ambush. 

Battle of the Hundred Slain (Fetterman Massacre) — by artist Harold von Schmidt.

After this, the US government sought peace and signed the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie click here for full text.  This treaty gave Red Cloud’s Lakota Sioux perpetual rights of “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” covering a swath of land — far too big to call simply a “reservation” – that included not just the Black Hills but virtually all western South Dakota.  For the foreseeable future, so long as both sides kept promises, it seemed to create a workable peace — enough good land for the Sioux, and enough good land for the settlers.   

The great Sioux War

Contemporary 1875 cartoon of Red Cloud turning
down Grant’s offer of meaningless trinkets.

But it wasn’t good enough.   In 1874, prospectors found gold in the Black Hills, bringing yet another new wave of settlers into Sioux territory.  By now, the mid-1870s, migration from the East had become a torrent. Over 120,000 white settlers would move into the Dakotas during the 1870s, plus hundreds of thousands more into the nearby new states of Iowa and Nebraska.  These settlers, in turn, were followed by over 50,000 miles of new railroad track laid across the west between 1865 and 1875.  The great herds of buffalo — staple food for the Sioux – began to disappear and cavalry forts dotted the landscape.  

Red Cloud himself led a delegation of Sioux leaders to Washington, DC, in 1875 to meet President Ulysses Grant and ask him to keep the US government’s 1868 treaty promises.  Instead, they received an ultimatum from the US Congress — a draft treaty demanding they leave the Dakotas in exchange for a one-time payment of $25,000 and the right to resettle in “Indian Territory” (today’s Oklahoma).   Red Cloud and the others refused to sign it.
This was this spark that led to the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, climaxed by its signature battle in which warriors under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse annihilated General George Armstrong Custer and much of his Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.  (More on this later.)  
The roundup
Winning this battle and killing Custer ultimately meant doom for the Sioux.  The American public, shocked by the Little Bighorn massacre, rallied around the fallen cavalrymen and turning General Custer into a martyred hero.  They found totally unacceptable the whole idea of armed, hostile frontier tribesmen killing soldiers and settlers while blocking national expansion.  The warring Sioux had to be disarmed and neutralized — immediately.  Within weeks after Little Bighorn, the US government forced Sioux chiefs to sign a new treaty (click here for text) drastically cutting back the size of Red Cloud’s reservation, stripping it of the Black Hills and Badlands, requiring it be crossed by roads, and making most aspects of Indian daily life totally dependent on largesse from the US government.  At the same time, the US Cavalry began a concerted effort to round up in all the remaining nomadic tribes.  

Over the next few years, as more and more Indians were crowded into the reservations and circumstances grew desperate, many Indians began looking for salvation through a cult called the Ghost Dance,which alarmed many white settlers and soldiers.  Cult followers believed they were bulletproof during the dance, and new violence seemed inevitable. 

Things reached a head in December 1890.  By this time, Crazy Horse had been killed by soldiers, Sitting Bull had recently been killed during an arrest, and Red Cloud, still on the reservation, was growing increasing frustrated trying to negotiate with Washington.  One day that month, after a brutal winter storm,  soldiers from the Seventh Cavalry happened to come across a group of about 350 Sioux wandering near the Dakota Badlands, led by a chief named Spotted Elk.  All but about 120 of the Indians were women and children.  

The cavalrymen, under Major Samuel Whitside, decided to escort the indians to the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation — a small southern carveout from the original 1868 treaty lands.  Rather than try to disarm the Indians immediately, Major Whitside decided to wait for reinforements.  He ordered his cavalrymen to march together with the Indians for about five miles, then camp by Wounded Knee Creek.  

Later that night, a heavily armed column of cavalrymen under Colonel James Forsyth joined Whitside, bringing the cavalry total to some 500 men, including four Hotchkiss guns (similar to Gattling machine guns) which they mounted around the Indian encampment.  The next morning, December 29, they planned to disarm the Indians and deliver them to the reservation.

It would not be peaceful.

Portraits: President Grant’s inaugural ball, March 1869

I love the way that old 1800s tabloids like Harper’s Weekly, Leslie’s Illustrated, and the others, long before photographs could be copied on newsprint, used artist’s sketches to capture dazzling visual scenes. The process was primitive and tedious by modern standards. Artists literally had to take their pencil drawings and carve them by hand onto wooden block or steel plates for the ink-slathered printing machines. But the results could be breath-taking, the first time many American’s in their lifetimes ever saw the faces of famous people, the insides of well-known buildings, or glimpses of how the other half lived.

Here’s a nice one: A full-page panorama of the great gala inaugural ball thrown for Ulysses Grant, newly elected president of the United States, in the great chandeliered hall of the Treasury Department in March 1869. It appeared in Leslie’s Illustrated on March 20th that year, drawn by a young artist named James E. Taylor who earned his wings sketching battle scenes during the Civil War.

Click on the photo to see it full size. Look at the detail, the faces, the clothes, the room, and imagine the hours of labor it took to capture each line and nuance. The drawing is so accurate that you can make out individual faces in the crowd, not just President Grant and his wife Julia but also House Speaker James G. Blaine (standing behind Mrs. Grant’s shoulder), Senator Carl Schurz (over to the right), and several Civil War generals.

Photographs and videos are fine, but some of these artist sketches are true Pop Art masterpieces. Hope you like it.

Thomas Nast on Wall Street

This week, in honor of the Dow Jones Average hitting its lowest point in twelve years, I though it fitting to pull out Thomas Nast’s famous 1869 cartoon tribute to Wall Street following that year’s front-page financial debacle. It was in September 1869 that young Jay Gould and James Fisk Jr. perpetrated perhaps the single most audatious financial play in American history, their attempt to corner the national gold supply.
Gould and Fisk almost pulled it off after bribing dozens of government officials and buying over $100 million in gold calls. The bubble burst on Black Friday, September 24, when gold prices collapsed from 160 to 130 in about ten minutes. The result was a cascade of ruin, dozens of bankruptcies, panic in the stock market, frozen trade and credit, and the first major scandal for the new administration of President Ulysses Grant.
Of course, when Fisk and Gould attempted their corner back in 1869, it was decades before the invention of our modern system of financial regulation. There was no SEC, no CFTC, no Federal Reserve, no effective bank regulators, no honest court system (Boss Tweed still ran tings in NYC), and the rest.
Today, 140 years later, what’s our excuse?
Read more about the Fisk-Gould corner in my book THE GOLD RING.
Meanwhile, I hope your money (or whateverr part of it you have left) is safe. –KenA