The day a person puts his left hand on the bible and raises his right hand to affirm, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States…” he immediately becomes fair game for members of the opposition party, as well as the public press. The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue learned that fact well, even before he took the oath to become president.
Some U.S. presidents have raised the hackles of critics more than others, however, and suffered through personal, and often outlandish, attacks. Political cartoons are often the modus operandi for the opposition’s venom.
One president in particular was lambasted by opponents and the media more than others. He was a target not only for his policies and programs, but for his personal appearance and demeanor as well.
Because of the tenor of the times, this president-elect had to surreptitiously arrive in Washington for his inaugural ceremony. As a result, a writer for the New York Times described him arriving disguised in “a Scotch plaid cap and a very long military cloak” — prompting cartoonists to depict him in a variety of ridiculous garbs.
An imaginative sketch artist was inspired by this president’s nickname, “The Railsplitter,” to depict the grim countenance of his scraggly-headed face stuck on top of a wooden stick figure.
This president was fond of telling stories and jokes to lighten the atmosphere — particularly when serious matters were under consideration. This habit inspired a cartoon in Harper’s Weekly showing him swapping funny stories with cronies while a hearse passed by bearing the U.S. Constitution.
America went to war soon after this president was elected, which caused upheaval throughout the country. To criticize this forceful action, a cartoon showed him uncomfortably trying to sit on an array of muskets with fixed bayonets.
The president received criticism when the U.S. army was floundering in the field, and the opposition forces gained a victory. A widely-published cartoon, labeled “Comedy of Death,” pictured him as a jester onstage with his generals as toys lying beneath his feet.
When one of his generals unilaterally issued a proclamation that benefited one segment of the country’s population, the president was forced to quash this premature initiative. As a result, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper took advantage of the president’s dilemma by depicting him in a cartoon struggling to stay afloat with a life preserver in high seas, while, at the same time, pushing the head of a member of the suffering population down under the water.
As the war dragged on, an unfriendly English newspaper, the London Punch, got its licks in against the U.S. president. It published a cartoon showing a U.S. soldier with an accusatory look on his face handing the downtrodden president a note he had signed that read, “I promise to subdue [the enemy] in 90 days.”
This Republican president made history by issuing a proclamation that freed millions of people from bondage. The Chicago Times, an opposition Democratic newspaper, caricatured “Masks and Faces” depicting an unmasked president as the devil, and another cartoon pictured this president in a military Zouave uniform coming out from “Under the Veil.”
Within four years and time for another national election, the Democratic press printed a Currier & Ives drawing wishfully, but erroneously, picturing the current president dreaming of being chased out of the White House, while his successful opponent entered. A balloon over the outgoing president read, “This don’t remind me of any joke!!”
To portray the president as a callous bumpkin, another Currier & Ives illustration shows him standing on a battlefield littered with dead and dying soldiers. The balloon has him incongruously commenting to a distressed officer, “Now Marshal, sing us ‘Picayune Butler’ or something else that’s funny.”
The assassination of this president finally sobered some of his critics. Even the London Punch published a portrayal of “Britannia Lays a Wreath on Lincoln’s Bier” as weeping emancipated slaves pay homage.
No doubt it can be readily determined from these examples that the president in question is Abraham Lincoln. Larry Tagg documented this characterization in “The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America’s Most Reviled President.”
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point