Podcast: The Power of Political Cartoons

podcastlogoThe 1884 presidential election may be forgotten today, but its divisiveness provided ample material for political cartoonists. For the 73rd episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to guests Harlen Makemson and Flora Khoo about the influence of political cartoons in this era.

Harlen Makemson is a professor of Communication Design at Elon University. He is the author of “A ‘Dude and Pharisee’: Cartoon Attacks on Harper’s Weekly Editor George William Curtis and the Mugwumps in the Presidential Campaign of 1884” in volume 29 (2004) of Journalism History. Flora Khoo is a post-doctoral fellow in the School of Communication & the Arts at Regent University. She is the author of “The Ideological Influence of Political Cartoons on the 1884 U.S. Presidential Race” in volume 37 (2020) of American Journalism.

This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.


Harlen Makemson:  Thanks in large part to Nast’s work, cartoons have become hugely important and influential in this country.

Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman and I research media coverage of women in politics.

Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon and I research the history of New York sports.

Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.

Although forgotten today, the 1884 presidential election was a fascinating time in American history.


As Republican James Blaine ran against Democrat Grover Cleveland, the Republican Party splintered with many unable to support Blaine. What makes this time so interesting for journalism history was the prominence and influence of political cartoons, which we’ll be talking about today with two guests who both study the role of cartoons in the 1884 election. Our first guest, Harlen Makemson of Elon University, will discuss his research, “A ‘Dude and Pharisee’: Cartoon Attacks on Harper’s Weekly Editor George William Curtis and the Mugwumps in the Presidential Campaign of 1884.” Later in the show we’ll hear from post-doctoral fellow Flora Khoo about her work, “The Ideological Influence of Political Cartoons on the 1884 U.S. Presidential Race.”

Harlen, welcome to the show. What interested you in studying political cartoons?

Harlen Makemson: Well, it was anything but a straight line. I had been a journalist for a dozen years.


Started off as a reporter, then copy editing, then did graphic design, typography work with newspapers, and I went back to graduate school and — UNC Chapel Hill — for my Ph.D. and knew I wanted to study history as my research area, and I started looking into telegraph and how it changed how news was delivered, thought it was a nice tie to what was happening to the internet at the time. I quickly realized that that had already been done and quite well, so [laughs] I was kinda stuck.

And I, so I kept reading about that general period and I stumbled across this election that allegedly had been decided by political cartooning, and the journalist in me perked up and said, hmm, can that be possibly true? So that started my interest, and then I stumbled across Thomas Nast, who’d drawn in that campaign, and I remember vaguely from my history class with Calder Pickett at the University of Kansas, I remembered a little bit about Nast, and then the more –


I got into it, I thought it was a really fun, intriguing way to sort of tie together my interest in history with the ability to — my past journalist experience in writing and editing and graphic design, so it kinda opened up a new window for me to explore those areas.

Teri Finneman: So, we’re focusing specifically today on the presidential election of 1884, and you note that “political cartoonists bludgeoned the majority party candidates during the 1884 presidential campaign with a vitriolic assault perhaps without parallel in American history.” So, what was it about this election, which is now virtually forgotten, that made it so divisive?

Harlen Makemson: One of the things that was most notable is, is that it was so personally, the vitriol was so personal and about personal character, though on the Republican side you had James Blaine, who was former Speaker of the House, former U.S. senator –


former secretary of state, so quite a resume, but always tinged with scandal. Most notably back in 1876, it had emerged, allegations that he was benefiting improperly from the railroads, getting them good deals and getting kickbacks, in essence and some letters emerged in 1876. A clerk named Mulligan saved some letters that that he thought he thought were incriminating, and one of the letters was written “burn this letter” allegedly in Blaine’s handwriting. Blaine escaped the worst of it in 1876. He had managed to get a hold of the letters himself, read excerpts in Congress, refused to release them. He became ill later that year so any serious follow up on that in 1876 was blunted. But more of those letters popped up in 1884 when Blaine became the nominee, and that was just one of several other instances where Blaine was accused of financial misdeeds while in office.


So that stuck with him, and so a lot of the not only cartoon coverage but coverage of the campaign focused on Blaine and his alleged sticky hands, if you will in terms of financial misdoings. On the flip side, Democrats, you had Grover Cleveland who was the governor of New York and had got the moniker Grover the Good because he had taken on corruption in New York State politics. He had taken on the Tammany Hall Democratic machine in New York City. But that was put into dispute when it emerged that a decade earlier he had had an affair and fathered a child out of wedlock with a woman named Maria Halpin, and this had been whispered for years but it became a big issue in the press later in the campaign. Maria Halpin actually did interviews toward the end of the campaign not only talking about the child out of wedlock –


but that Grover Cleveland had forced himself upon her. So this had, both these scandals, both of these candidates had moral misgivings by the public and so this manifested itself in both press coverage and that of political cartoonists at the time. So it was just intensely personal in the way some saw these candidates as being unfit for office.

Teri Finneman: And how much influence did political cartoons have during this time?

Harlen Makemson: They were hugely influential and, and thanks in large part to Thomas Nast, who I mentioned earlier, who had started drawing for Harper’s Weekly back during the Civil War but he also later went on to develop the symbols for the donkey and the elephant for the two political parties. Our depiction of Santa Claus, the United States was a Nast creation. Nast became most famous in mid-1870s when he took on Boss Tweed, who was the Democratic –


political boss of New York City. And in fact Boss Tweed was alleged to have said that he didn’t mind as much all the other reporting about his alleged corruption, but them damn pictures, in his words, by Nast made it stick in his mind to the public. Another story, maybe apocryphal, maybe not, when Tweed had escaped to overseas that the customs officials had recognized Tweed from Nast cartoons and had captured him and brought him back to United States to serve his sentence. So thanks in large part to Nast’s work, cartoons had become hugely important and influential in this country. What’s also interesting about 1884 is this was really Nast’s last campaign. He had left Harper’s for a year or so before and so his time was kinda ending, but a new kind of cartooning was just on the horizon, which makes it a really interesting time to study.

Teri Finneman: You discuss comic weeklies.


So what were those, and what were their purpose?

Harlen Makemson: Yeah, you might think of them as something like a Gilded Age Mad Magazine or National Lampoon, or if you want to go cross media here maybe have a similar role as what we think of The Daily Show today. Puck was the most influential of these type publications. Started off as a German language publication in the early 1870s by an immigrant named Joseph Keppler. By 1876 it became a English-language magazine, and it was remarkable in a couple of ways. First was technological. Keppler had perfected the color lithography process for mass publications, so Puck each week had a vivid color cartoon on the front and the back, and also a double page spread in the middle. Actually later on Keppler in the World’s Fair in the 1890s had demonstrated his lithography technique during, during that event.


So from a technological standpoint, Puck was hugely important. It was also the first successful publication in this country to focus primarily on political and social satire. And Puck wasn’t necessarily attached to a – it wasn’t a party organ as had been the case earlier in the century, but it was generally for reforming the government, so clearly they were not gonna go for James Blaine given his record in terms of, of political corruption. And it skewered Blaine as a tattooed man. Maybe the most famous cartoons of the campaign were the names of the alleged Blaine scandals were tattooed all over Blaine’s body. I think there were 22, 23 such cartoons, and as is the case with media history a lot of times, if something is successful it’s repeated, so a number of competitors to Puck started to emerge in the mid-1880s. The most successful was the Judge, which was started by people who had left Puck magazine a couple of years earlier, and the Judge had –


kinda had a uneven editorial stance over the years, but in 1884 kinda landed on being against Grover Cleveland. So you had this new, emerging form of satire and some others other than Puck was starting to take up the mantle now. So there was a kind of a dual discussion going on between these two publications over the fitness of these two candidates.

Teri Finneman: Yeah, so let’s talk about the candidates in more depth here. It’s interesting to note that in 1884 the Republican Party fractured and had many who couldn’t support James Blaine for president and instead supported Grover Cleveland. Your paper focuses on the immense backlash to this, with Republicans turning on their fellow Republicans, and this independent group was called the Mugwumps. [Laughs] So tell us why that name and what the Mugwumps were about.

Harlen Makemson: Well, what they were about, first they were largely wealthy, well-educated New York, New England Protestants –


and they had a couple of concerns. One was cultural. They felt the need to have to lift up, so to speak, the standards for the working class. That was one of their interests. Second, politically they were very against, very much against the machine politics that had merged in many of the cities, and they’re really outspoken about political patronage. They were against this idea that you should put your cronies into positions in government and that should be instead on the merits of the individuals to fill the jobs they were supposed to do. So Blaine, on the Republican side, Blaine had — during his career had given some lip service to civil service reform. He’s kinda lukewarm about it but those financial problems we had talked about earlier made him completely unacceptable with the Mugwumps and so they bolted the party at the convention. Uh, the name Mugwump, a couple stories. One, that is an Algonquian word meaning “important person,” and that was meant as a sort of a backhanded kinda way –


implying they were sorta sanctimonious and holier than thou. Alternative use emerged during this campaign, though, that Mugwump meant was some — that was somebody that was on the fence, their mug was on one side and their wump was on the other, so I’ll let you decide which one, let you decide which one is more is more likely.

Teri Finneman: [Laughs] Uh, one of the most targeted figures in the presidential election of 1884 was actually a Harper’s Weekly editor, George Curtis, who pulled support from Republicans, prompting attacks from pro-GOP cartoonists. So why was Curtis deemed such an important figure to target?

Harlen Makemson: Well, couple of reasons. One, he had been involved in the founding of the Republican Party back in 1850, so this was like one of the originals who was leaving the fold, so to speak. So that of itself would have been cause for concern. I think more importantly, Harper’s Weekly had played such a role in defining what it meant to be a Republican, especially Civil War and afterward.


The publication was in staunch support of Lincoln throughout the Civil War, strongly supported Ulysses S. Grant in both his bids for president, and Curtis even served as a chair of a commission on civil service reform that, that Grant had founded during his first term. But also Harper’s was the most successful and widely circulated political news periodical of its time so, so clearly Republicans staying in the fold were concerned about the effect this would have. If Harper’s had turned against the Republican Party, this certainly would mean that a number of the people aligned with Curtis would also be leaving as well. So it was a great concern to, to the election prospects of the Republicans in this campaign.

Teri Finneman: The heart of your paper is how Republicans back then were equating lack of party loyalty with lack of male characteristics. So give us some of the cultural context of what was going on at the time for why this was a target.

Harlen Makemson: You get a little sense –


of some of the vitriol of this campaign. The Judge magazine during — when the Mugwumps had left, bolted during the convention –defined the Mugwumps as, quote, spoiled children or semi-imbecile old women. So you sorta get a sense of the tenor here. And in some of this, you see as sort of, you know, sort of sadly typical insult, but it goes a little deeper than that I think as a number of scholars have indicated this idea of what is it like to, what is it to be a man in this period was going under a lot of changes here, and this was kinda the first time they argue that manliness was defined as being in opposition or being what is not feminine in society. In part this was a reaction to women becoming a little more assertive and in part the abolitionist movement scared a number of men, and a lot of this response was misogynistic, sadly as you can imagine.


But there was a second reaction that, that men had lost their way after the Civil War and just needed to redefine themselves in a much more rugged and, shall we say, testosterone-filled manner. And the Mugwumps were genteel, their mannerisms and the way they were, the way they conducted themselves to many seemed like this did not fit the more rugged style that some thought men should be moving toward in this period of time. The way they dressed, the way they handled themselves also bore some resemblance to the dude or the dandy at the time, which were these young, well-to-do Eastern males that were very concerned about fashion and, and the way they looked, probably not that interested in, in fields that would have a lot of manual labor involved in it. Again, kind of against this idea of what ruggedness should be for men in this period of time, so it was not a large leap –


for publications to try to lump in the Mugwumps with the dudes and the dandies in the city at the time. And in the press and popular culture, the dude was often seen as being sexually ambiguous at best, so again, you see a lot of writing and a lot of cartoons of the time try to lump the two together, Mugwumps in with the dude and dandy at the time. So it was — it was interesting to do this research and realize there was a lot more going on in terms of defining what a man was going to be as we neared the end of this 19th century.

Teri Finneman: Yeah. So going off of that, expand a little bit in how these accusations of lack of manliness played out in these political cartoons.

Harlen Makemson: Yeah. You see a number of, of interesting ties here. So you see some biblical reference or one cartoon in particular where Curtis was Eve tempting Adam as an independent voter and the apple was –


uh, made to look like Grover Cleveland’s face. Kind of interesting. Another one you see, you see George William Curtis dressed as a frumpy housewife and offering independent scraps to a Democratic cat. You see a lot of reference to Miss Nancy, which had been a term of derision toward males who were seen as being effeminate dating back decades before this. So often you would see George William Curtis dressed in women’s clothes. One really interesting cartoon from this time in, in the Judge was Curtis holding a rag doll and the rag doll was stuffed with newspapers with the names of publications who had sorta been aligned with the Mugwumps here, or at least was at least thought bolting from Blaine as a candidate was a good idea. So was sort of this mother-child relationship going on here that was really interesting but also the title of it was “Led Astray” and that not only, uh –


it was really a call to Cleveland’s scandal, illegitimate child scandal, and so “Led Astray” was not only reminding people of the Grover Cleveland child scandal but also gave the idea that Curtis was weak that a real man would not have been taken under by a — by the idea of Cleveland being a true reformer, much as Maria Halpin, it was alleged, had been taken in by the lecherous Grover Cleveland. So it’s interesting. Some of these cartoons are weaving in. There were some that were — Curtis had some level of power here but ultimately was weak for having not stuck with the Republican ticket.

Teri Finneman: What were your main takeaways about the role of cartoons in the 1884 election?

Harlen Makemson: Well, several things. One, I became convinced you can’t say cartoons decided [laughs] the election. So that initial journalist in me, there just, there’s just no way to know, and as 20th century scholarship showed us, political cartoons are much more likely –


to resonate with people who agree with the idea or, or your own personal biases. Your own personal choices here are much more likely to determine how you’re gonna see a cartoon. But there’s no doubt that cartoons influenced the — what the criteria were gonna be for how we were gonna select a president in 1884. The Judge pushed forward this narrative about Cleveland being this lecherous bachelor that was not, not worthy of the office. Again, you saw this in other articles and other publications as well, but the Judge was successful in sort of bringing this more into the public light as well.

Moving on to James Blaine, after Puck started its series portraying him as the tattooed man, you would see the word “tattooed” pop up in other publications and newspapers, including the New York Times. So it was, it was clear that it was something that we would later call agenda setting in the 20th century going on here –


that they were at, at minimum setting the tone for what was gonna be important in this campaign. And, lastly, daily newspaper publishers, you could tell they started to see the value of the cartoon and its ability to at least get readers, get eyeballs here. Most notably Joseph Pulitzer, who had just purchased the New York World a year previous, for then the campaign ran a cartoon on the front page that covered about the top half of the page showing Blaine having dinner, which was actual dinner with millionaires in New York City, but at the bottom of this cartoon was a poor couple begging for scraps at the end of the table. So and that cartoon went on to be republished and also placed on billboards across New York City. So it was clear that, again, we can’t say that it changed any votes in election, but it was clearly influential in setting what was gonna be important, what were gonna be the criteria for deciding who was going to be the next president.


Teri Finneman: We usually ask our guests at the end of the episode to answer why journalism history matters, but I’m instead going to ask you today why does political cartoon history matter?

Harlen Makemson: I think it opens up a window to what a culture finds important at a particular moment in time. I think one thing cartoonists try to do is, is make sense of a candidate or a policy or a particular scandal, and most often to do that they have to draw from something that resonates with the public, so that can be art, that can be literature, that can be popular culture, but it let — it opens up a different way of viewing what a society in particular found important at that, at that individual time. And then in part, it’s interesting to see then how that is put upon whatever the candidate that’s running or whatever the issue at heart, how are they making those connections between them. And I don’t think you get that necessarily from editorials or from news coverage.


I think it opens up a different window of, of how cartoonists saw the world going on around them at the time and what people at the time found interesting and important and notable.

Teri Finneman: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.

Harlen Makemson: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Teri Finneman: And now here’s more about another journalism podcast our listeners may be interested in.

Mark Simon: [Typewriter sounds] Hi, I’m Mark Simon. On my podcast, The Journalism Salute, we spotlight important and interesting journalism organizations and people. The goal of our show is to introduce you to different perspectives and different careers in the field. We talk to reporters, editors, publishers, and professors. There are so many great groups to learn about. We’re also here to show you that journalists are not the enemy of the people. That’s The Journalism Salute, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Teri Finneman: We now move on to our next guest, Flora Khoo, discussing the ideological influence of political cartoons on the 1884 U.S. presidential race. Flora, welcome to the show. What interested you in political cartoons?


Flora Khoo: Well, I like the sense of humor it has with regards to the way it illustrates serious political topics such as elections. It really makes you think deeper about the subject matter. The cartoons, the way they put across a very serious subject and the way it makes you laugh about it so that was what intrigued me about like the cartoons, Thomas Nast, and Puck magazine had, and that’s why I went and, and did this study.

Teri Finneman: So why did you focus on the election of 1884 specifically?

Flora Khoo: It was the first and only time a Democratic presidential candidate won the highest office since the Civil War. That was why I chose 1884.

Teri Finneman: And how much influence did political cartoons have during this time?

Flora Khoo: It has some influence. Political cartoons was a way to educate the public about the elections, and this could be seen in Harper’s Weekly and Puck magazine –


and 19th century cartoons tend to have a political focus. For instance, some of the newspapers during that period of time, they used illustrations to depict a threat to American security such as British colonialism, so it didn’t necessarily portray always all the time the personal interests of the cartoonists, and David Spencer once described it as a vehicle of persuasion as any contemporary television commercial.

Teri Finneman: So you look at the work of famous cartoonist Thomas Nast. Tell us more about him.

Flora Khoo: He was known as the father of modern-day political cartoons. He was born in Germany in 1840. He immigrated to the U.S. before he was 10 years old. He had an exceptional talent for drawing. He started at Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, and he moved on to Harper’s Weekly. His campaign against the corrupt William Tweed was perhaps what propelled him to the forefront or the top of his profession. –


It was the Tweed cartoons that made Nast a celebrity.

Teri Finneman: So let’s talk a little bit more about some of the cartoons that you looked at. Tell us about some of your findings.

Flora Khoo: When he determined that he could not support Blaine, who was corrupt, he decided to support the Democratic candidate, Cleveland, and he drew several cartoons that depicted Blaine as corrupt and Cleveland as having a very clean record, and he delivered this sharp contrast between the two men, the portrayal of the two men. For example, he drew Cleveland as regal, stately, and he put him on the front cover of Harper’s Weekly when he won the Democratic nomination. In the same issue of Harper’s Weekly, he depicted Blaine as the plumed knight, and he drew this three plume feathers in Blaine’s top hat and make him look silly and ridiculous. And the feather itself is a visual element to show the controversial nature of Blaine’s character.


And he, besides that, besides the drawing, he added a little poster on the wall. For Blaine he wrote there, “We dislike him most for the friends that he made.” For Cleveland’s cartoon he put there, “We love him for the enemies he made.”

Teri Finneman: So you have another section in your paper called The Chinese Question. Give us some context on that and what you found.

Flora Khoo: There were some anti-Chinese sentiments in the years leading to 1884, and the Chinese were often described as coolies, slaves, paupers, and rat eaters. So these terms were very, pretty much stereotypes, and they emphasized them as the out group. So the Chinese along with the African Americans and Native Americans were not allowed to vote. The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law in 1882 by President Chester Arthur, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese labor, especially in California. It was against such a backdrop –


that Wong Ar Chong wrote the letter, and in that letter you could sense that he was very, very frustrated with the entire situation.

Teri Finneman: And so tell us a little bit more about the cartoons.

Flora Khoo: Thomas Blaine, the way he saw, he had a lot of sympathy, empathy for the Chinese, so in one of the cartoons I think he drew in 1871, he drew like Columbia, you know, with her hand on the Chinese man who was very defeated against the wall that was plastered with a lot of words. The wall depicted the wall of puppet protests, and that was one of the ways he advocated for, for the Chinese through a whole series of those 30 cartoons. He was introduced in this cartoon as one of the oldest diplomats, and he negotiated the Burlingame Treaty in 1868, which was an attempt to protect the Chinese immigrants in the U.S. from being discriminated against.


So Columbia here touches the Chinese diplomat on the shoulder to introduce him to the international community, and this treaty appears in many of Nast’s cartoons as being defaulted by Blaine because Blaine was in the other direction. He voted for the Chinese Exclusion Act. And Blaine is often shown, you know, for instance stepping on the Burlingame Treaty with his back towards the Chinese diplomat. So he rejects the spirit of that treaty, and Nast’s cartoons show the added, what the power of cultural representation of the Chinese question in contrast to Blaine’s position was.

Teri Finneman: You have another section of your paper called “The Tattooed Man.” So what did you find related to that? Tell us more about that.

Flora Khoo: Puck magazine was the one that depicted Blaine as the tattooed man, and his body was embellished with the names of all the different scandals that he was involved in. Now, the graphic use of tattoos was a satirical device that started much earlier –


so it wasn’t new, but Puck’s portrayal of Blaine as the tattooed man in “The Dime Museum,” it was very, very well received. It was so well received to, to the point that their competitor, another cartoon called — another cartoon magazine called the Judge acknowledged that the tattooed man imagery was so effective in shaping public opinion that they themselves copied the idea. So when Blaine won the Republican nomination, the Judge used the tattooed man metaphor as a form of rebuttal. So the, the Judge captioned their own version of Blaine as a tattooed man as let those who laugh, who win. Let those, let those laugh who win. And another week later he, they printed another cartoon showing the other great men, such as Blaine, James Garfield, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington had also been tattooed as well.


So this tattooed man was a very powerful image that created a mental picture in, in the minds of the public and it was something that was very well remembered and what Blaine was known for.

Teri Finneman: In your research you ponder was Nast a president maker. What did you conclude?

Flora Khoo: I think he was a very important figure in the campaign to make Cleveland the next president, but it took more than just the person of Nast. In fact, you find that Puck’s magazine, the colorful tattooed man seemed to have a greater impact than his black and white drawings. Their rich colors was a very important draw with the audience, and it was the Puck’s cartoons that were copied instead of Nast’s art. So while the cartoons itself as a form of medium can help to achieve consensus, they alone do not –


determine what that consensus will be. The issue has to resonate with the public for it to appear on a public agenda, and I think that was what happened. The agenda setting effect from the cartoons collectively influenced the attitudes towards the candidates and affected the pro-Democratic shift in 1884.

Teri Finneman: So we usually ask our guests at the end of the episode to answer why journalism history matters, but I’m instead going to ask you why does political cartoon history matter?

Flora Khoo: I think political cartoons history are fascinating because of the value to, especially to the historian in what they reveal about the culture, about the society, about the community that produced and circulated them.

Teri Finneman: Okay. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.

Flora Khoo: Thank you.

Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in –


and be sure to follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. If you like our podcast, leave us a rating and a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Until next time I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night, and good luck.


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