1884–Cleveland as “Pa”–Corie Stretton
The 1884 election occurred during the Gilded Age in American history, where there was a series of Presidential elections that were very close in terms of the Electoral College, as well as the popular vote. Though candidates did not campaign in the same way that people today view campaigning, there were certain pieces of rhetoric that were very common for the time. One of the most popular forms of campaign rhetoric was political cartoons, which often directly attacked the candidate’s personal lives. This particular cartoon criticizing the Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland is the perfect example of a typical political cartoon for the late 1800s. The focus of this election quickly turned away from the candidate’s political views and focused mostly on their personal lives and the scandals that ensued.
Entering into the 1884 election, Cleveland was very clearly favored to win. His “reformism” stressed his dedication to hard work and honesty, which made him a very endearing candidate in the eyes of both Democrats and Republicans (“Grover Cleveland (1837-1908)”). He also stood up against Tammany Hall, a Democratic political group from his home state of New York, which worked to promote immigrants into government positions; this move gained a lot of support from the middle class, and added to his positive image in the press. This cartoon, however, worked to completely change how he was viewed.
The story behind this cartoon is known as the Maria Halpin Affair. In July of 1884, rumors began circulating around the country that Cleveland was involved in a sex scandal with Maria Halpin, a widow who supposedly fathered his child out of wedlock about ten years ago. It was also said that he not only abandoned the mother and child, but also placed the child in an orphanage and sent the wife to an insane asylum. Cleveland later admitted to the truthfulness of the accusations made against him, however he denied that Halpin was placed in an asylum, claiming instead that she went to a half-way house due to her alcoholism. He also would add that he had financially supported the mother and son until she was sent to the half-way house, at which point his son was adopted by “a wealthy couple” (“1884: Cleveland v. Blaine”). Because he prided himself on his honesty, Cleveland had no choice but to admit to this behavior, but the Democratic campaign continued to twist the details of the situation to make Cleveland seem more like a responsible adult who was merely looking out for the future of his child.
This cartoon, which was published two months prior to election day in September of 1884, portrays Halpin as a clearly distressed, upset woman holding the son she allegedly had with Cleveland, with the child crying, “I want my Pa!” This soon became the slogan for the Republican party, chanting “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” at Cleveland; the Democratic party, however soon added to the chant to say, “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”. Though much was unknown about Halpin, mostly because no reporters ever interviewed her about the situation, this cartoon chooses to portray her as a well-dressed, sophisticated woman who cannot even look at Cleveland, and is trying to hold her innocent child away from him. Indeed, the fact that the child is dressed in white is also significant, stressing the innocence of the child born out of wedlock. This part of the image works to create even more sympathy for her in this situation, showing her as a woman the public can relate to rather than the alcoholic the Cleveland campaign wanted people to believe she was.
Cleveland, on the other hand, looks unintelligent and unprofessional, standing in an odd way with mismatched clothes and an angry, confused look on his face. This is in direct contrast with how he was normally portrayed, as a moral and honest person. There is even a tag on his jacket that reads “Grover the Good,” emphasizing further that his positive reputation was not well deserved and pointing to the contradiction displayed in this cartoon. The tagline at the bottom of the page reads, “Another voice for Cleveland,” showing the public that there was a previously unheard “voice” calling for Cleveland’s attention, particularly his son born from an extramarital affair. The cartoon is very direct about the message it is trying to send, demonstrating that Cleveland is not as moral as most people may believe, and that he is an incompetent Presidential candidate. Though Blaine was connected to a series of scandals, this particular one that Cleveland admitted to being involved in deeply affected his campaign, with Cleveland only winning the popular vote by 0.3 percent.