By Devin Scott–Political Cartoons in the 1860 Presidential Campaign: Visual Depictions of Presidential Candidates as Performers
The Presidential race of 1860 was a hard fought contest that was engaged in on all fronts available to the campaigners and their Parties. One such front was political cartoons; cartoons were widely printed and distributed. As such, political cartoonists’ representations of the presidential candidates are a rich area for study. In this post, I compare and contrast two cartoons that depict the four presidential hopefuls in a contest for the presidency. The first cartoon, “The Great Political Juggle,” which was printed in the (Cincinnati) Rail Splitter, depicts the four candidates as performers who juggle Electoral College electors, to varying degrees of success. The second cartoon I analyze is Louis Maurer’s “The Political Gymnasium,” which depicts the presidential hopefuls demonstrating their athletic prowess for the public.
In “The Great Political Juggle,” the audience views (from left to right) John C. Breckenridge, Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and John Bell engaged in a Juggling contest for the Presidency. The artist depicted Lincoln as the winner of the most states, followed by Bell and Breckenridge, with Douglas in last place. This rendering is accompanied with an explanatory caption that dictates Lincoln’s overwhelming victory in the Free States and Bell and Breckenridge’s splitting of the southern States. Douglas is humorously depicted as having fallen down under the weight of “squatter sovereignty,” a “Black Pill” he was unsuccessful in convincing the country to swallow. Besides predicting Lincoln as the winner of the election, the cartoonist also predicts that it will be a battle not for popular vote, but rather for electoral votes. This distinction makes the campaign primarily about state to state popularity rather than national popularity. The other political cartoon, “The Political Gymnasium” also favors Lincoln, but stops short of predicting the outcome of the election.
In “The Political Gymnasium” the audience again watches the various candidates performing, only this time they showcase their athletic prowess, rather than their skillful juggling of the Electoral College. The cartoon portrays Constitutional Union Party Presidential candidate, John Bell as a barbell being held up by his running mate Edward Everett, demonstrating his lack of athletic prowess in relation to the other candidates, all of whom are depicted in much more active poses. Abraham Lincoln is shown upon a balance beam apparently supported by his Republican Party nomination, while Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge, the Democratic nominees for President, box each other for control of their Party. Douglas asserts that he will make Breckenridge cry before taking “a round with the rest of them,” while Breckenridge’s character implies that he will garner enough Democratic support to prevent Douglas from seriously challenging Lincoln for the Presidency.
More interesting than the two political cartoons’ individual depictions of the contest for the presidency is the dominant commonality the two share; both cartoons depict the candidates as performers. “The Political Gymnasium” shows the candidates as gymnasts who are seeking to showcase their athleticism to the American public. This is not a direct contest where the candidates battle each other with a clear winner, despite the depiction of a boxing match between Douglas and Breckenridge. Instead, it is a performance for the public. Are Everett and Bell’s demonstration of Strength more entertaining than Lincoln’s mounting of the balance beam, or is one of the boxers’, Breckenridge and Douglas, performance most enticing? Despite the inevitability of a victor, the candidates and their Parties are shown as independent performers in the quest for the presidency, not direct competitors.
“The Great Political Juggle” provides a more obvious representation of the candidates as performers rather than direct competitors. Instead of depicting the candidates in a race or contest for votes, the Cincinnati Rail Splitter depicts the candidates as individual jugglers performing their act for the American public, with the winner being the candidate who successfully juggles the most Electoral College votes. Again, the candidates are not shown competing directly; instead, each candidate attempt to individually win the most States through their juggling performance. Once the theme of Presidential candidates as performers rather than competitors is recognized, its prevalence in the two cartoons is abundantly apparent.
What are the wider implications of these political cartoons and their decision to highlight candidates and their performances over candidates and their issues?
One possible explanation is that these political cartoons are overtly about the presidential race itself, but are actually critiques of the characters and Party politics that defined the 1860 presidential campaign. The cartoons may speak to a view of the presidential campaigns as primarily performative, rather than direct contests where the best candidate wins; the campaigners are shown as mere performers that compete on the grounds of character and Party, rather than on issues. These cartoons may be subtle critiques of the lack of issue based campaigning and the reliance of the candidates upon personality and Party to elect them. If this explanation holds true, these cartoons provide a powerful, yet subtle, critique of character and Party based campaigns, at the expense of issue based campaigns.
In other words, we might wonder, if these political cartoons are clever, prescient, critiques of “Man over Measure” politics?
“The Great Political Juggle”: http://elections.harpweek.com/1860/cartoons/RSCN0801600003d5w.jpg
“The Political Gymnasium”: http://elections.harpweek.com/1860/cartoons/PolGym12w.jpg