The Presidency in Times of Turmoil

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Cartoon depictions of the US presidential politics from the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Early Adventures
America’s “founding fathers” and the revolutionary period are widely regarded with reverence today, but for people living through those times, there was plenty to criticize and poke fun at. The earliest American etchings and engravings commented on colonial frustrations, tensions and eventual separation from Britain; the challenges of establishing a new national government; and territorial expansion. The introduction of widespread commercial lithography in the U.S. coincided with the presidency of Andrew Jackson, whose political misadventures and personality provided cartoonists with plenty of fodder.

"A Peep into the Antifederal Club" (1793) provides an unflattering portrait of Thomas Jefferson and the Antifederalist party.

This is likely the first U.S. political cartoon to be lithographed. The alligator, facing west, represents Jackson’s Democratic Party. The tortoise, facing east, represents John Quincy Adams’s Whig Party.

Major Jack Downing, pictured next to Andrew Jackson, was a fictional character popularized in a newspaper serial. He can be spotted frequently in Jacksonian-era cartoons, standing in for the American people.

The fictional character Major Jack Downing stands to Jackson's left, waving his hat over his head and patting Jackson's shoulder.

President Andrew Jackson holds a document labeled "Order for the removal of the public money deposited in the United States Bank."

Jackson's political foes, Nicholas Biddle (depicted as a devil), Mordecai Manuel Noah, James Watson Webb, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Silas Wright Jr., flee the wreckage.

The Looming Crisis
The expansion of slavery into western territories and the continued existence of slavery violently divided Americans throughout the 1850s. The issue of slavery was pivotal in the election of 1860, in which Abraham Lincoln emerged the victor.

This graphic cartoon portrays the bloody fighting that took place in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Democratic politicians who supported the act are portrayed as “border ruffians” who threaten Columbia, the female personification of America and freedom.

Abraham Lincoln can't decide which of his opponents in the presidential race to devour first: hard-line proslavery candidate John C. Breckinridge or the more moderate Stephen A. Douglas.

Antislavery senator Charles Sumner's "radical" opinions threaten Lincoln's chances of victory in "Letting the Cat Out of the Bag!!"

Presidential contenders John Bell, Stephen Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge attempt to break into the White House but are caught in the act by Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln

"Ah! ha! Gentlemen! you need'nt think to catch me napping; for I am a regular Wide awake." Lincoln's spear (actually a sharpened fence rail, a symbol of his campaign), cape, and lantern make him resemble a night watchman, but readers in the 1860s would also have recognized that he is dressed as a member of the "Wide Awakes," clubs of young men who marched in support of Lincoln during his election campaign. Wide Awakes typically wore short capes and flat-visored hats, and carried lanterns.

Upon seeing Lincoln, Constitutional Party candidate John Bell warns Democratic Party candidate Stephen Douglas to hurry. Douglas, however, is unable to unlock the White House door.

From inside the White House, outgoing president James Buchanan tries, unsuccessfully, to help his vice president, John C. Breckinridge, climb through a window. In despair, Breckinridge cries that he will have to dissolve the Union.

Sports metaphors have been a staple of American political cartoons since the 1760s. In "The National Game," the presidential election of 1860s is depicted as a baseball game--one that Lincoln is winning.

The Civil War
The seceding Confederacy was a frequent target of cartoonists’ mockery during the Civil War, but so was Abraham Lincoln, who was faced with difficult and dangerous decisions that threatened his chances of reelection.

In "Rowdy Notions of Emancipation," a brooding Lincoln turns his back on the violence perpetrated against African Americans during the New York City Draft Riots of July 13-16, 1863.

In 1864, Lincoln ran for reelection against George McClellan, a Union general who supported the war but ran on a platform of reconciliation between North and South.

"Slow and Steady" Lincoln wins the race against McClellan, shown straddling two horses labeled "Brag and Bluster" and "Fawn and Cringe."

President Lincoln (aka "The Rail Splitter") and Vice President Andrew Johnson's (aka "The Tennessee Tailor") work to repair a fractured nation.

A Reunited Nation?
The lingering resentments of the Civil War, immigration, xenophobia, financial panics, unscrupulous and unregulated business practices, and political corruption preoccupied political cartoonists of the Reconstruction, Gilded Age, and Progressive Eras.

Andrew Johnson blocks civil rights reforms and pardons unrepentant Confederate rebels in "The Man That Blocks Up the Highway."

President Johnson attempts to paper over his controversial vetoes of the Civil Rights Act and the Freedmen's Bureau.

Chinese immigration (as a dragon with the head of a grossly caricatured Chinese man) threatens the Pacific Coast (shown here as a baby) in "Amusing the Child."

Only the prince of a new, anti-monopoly party, this cartoon argues, can awaken Sleeping Beauty, standing in here for America.

The end of the love affair between Democratic president Grover Cleveland and the Mugwumps--a faction of Republicans whose swing vote won Cleveland the presidency in 1884--is documented in this cartoon.

Republican senators block the confirmation of African American lawyer and judge James Campbell Matthews, Cleveland's nominee for D.C.'s Recorder of Deeds.

A surprisingly muscular Grover Cleveland, as the title character of Wagner's opera "Siegfried," battles the dragon of "War Tariff" with the sword of "Sound Policy" in the middle of the political "Dismal Swamp."

President Grover Cleveland, dressed as a circus performer, jumps through a hoop labeled "Anti-Chinese Bill" in "A Terrific Feat."

William Howard Taft’s obesity provided an easy punchline for cartoonists. In this cartoon, oil, woolen, and steel trusts try to hoist Taft, further weighed down by "industrial depression" and the "record of the Republican Party," to the presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt leaves a baby (an oilcan labeled "Standard Oil") on William Jennings Bryan's doorstep in this 1908 cartoon.

Polarized Perspectives
Although Americans have always viewed their presidents through partisan lenses, the decline of print media throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries—putting many political cartoonists out of a job—and the rise of increasingly fragmented and polarized internet “silos” together mean that fewer Americans are engaging with views (even cartoon views) of the presidency that do not line up with their pre-existing worldview than ever before. Historic political cartoons are visual proof that political consensus has never been a feature of American political debate; however, when viewed critically they can provide a shared base of evidence for understanding the politics of the past and present. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is home to thousands of such political cartoons, spanning from the 1750s through the 20th century. Interested readers are encouraged to explore our collections at www.hsp.org.
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