Given the dire politics of today, the notion that the United States is undergoing a steep and irreversible decline is easy to entertain. The lifespan of republics being notoriously short, and the signs of decay being abundant, American prospects are suddenly, unexpectedly bleak. The nation that’s risen to such heights, that’s given its people so much, now seems destined to decline and fall. The conflict between the parties has been going on for so long, and the tone of public life is so low, and the bad people among us so bold and numerous, that many of us have reluctantly given up the nation for lost.
We have resisted and objected to each new outrage, each new manifestation of mendacity and corruption, but with such mixed results and with such persistence of myriad malignant forces that many of us are demoralized and exhausted.
Americans who have fought for years to marginalize Trump and keep good people in power have yet to score a decisive victory. Even now, two years after American voters defeated Trump at the polls, they cannot yet rejoice. It’s still too soon to rejoice, too soon to say that the federal system is safe.
Take heart. Americans have seen their nation deteriorating before. To be honest, much of US history consists of backsliding times, when wholesome pride in this glorious nation, and righteous service to it, has been nearly snuffed out, thanks to the wily machinations of low-lifes and thieves.
Even in times of peace and prosperity, the United States has suffered setbacks and indignities, as corrupt and self-seeking charlatans (such as James G. Blaine, depicted above) have tried to rise, aiming to monopolize a great system of government they can only disgrace.
Long is the fight, but good Americans are too stalwart to cede victory to the dark forces still pressing in.
Bernhard Gillam, “The Honor of the Country in Danger,”
published in Puck magazine 29 October 1884,
from this source.
IMAGE NOTE: In this masterful 1884 political cartoon by Bernhard Gillam, the ghosts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln stand watch over a presidential chair that the unworthy James G. Blaine aspires to. As the United States approached the centenary of its Founding in 1889, would the century that began with George Washington as president end in disgrace with the likes of Blaine? (Opponents dubbed Senator Blaine, “the Continental Liar from the State of Maine.”)
In the 1884 election, Democrats sought to rout a Republican party that, since its glory days in the Civil War (1861-1865), had grown disreputable and corrupt. The Republican Party’s rise to power in the 1850s on the strength of its principled opposition to slavery, coupled with its noble defense of the Union and victory over the rebel proslavery states, issued in an enduring political monopoly. Beginning with Lincoln’s election in 1860, Republicans controlled the White House for twenty-four years. The Democratic Party, having been tolerant of slavery before the war, was tainted and nationally anathema for all this time.
During Reconstruction (1865-1876), Republican control of the federal government guaranteed that former slaveholders would not regain power and undo all that the Civil War had so painfully accomplished. Excessive power in the hands on one party, however, allowed political mendacity and corruption to flourish. In addition, support gradually waned for the monopolistic use of federal power (including military power) to protect minority rights in Southern states. Open-ended coercion violated the principles of self-government and reserved state powers on which the Constitution is based.
In 1876, these contradictions and other, more ignoble considerations led the Republicans to abandon the Reconstruction policies that had kept the former Confederate states from reverting to the status quo ante bellum. Thereafter, commercial prosperity replaced racial equality as the Republican Party’s top priority. The Grand Old Party’s degenerate condition became unmistakably evident in 1884, when it chose the slippery James G. Blaine as its presidential nominee.
In the cartoon, Blaine is depicted as an imposter who is out of his league. His scandal-ridden past is indelibly tattooed on his flesh. The flimsy cloak he wears can’t hide his true nature as a servile tool.
He stands abased before the lofty legacy of past presidents. His hat, labeled “Corruption,” is falling off, as, quaking, he begins his assault on the nation’s highest office. Leaning against him and pushing him from behind is Jay Gould, who excelled in getting government concessions for the railroads he owned. Gould has his sights set on stacking the bench. The paper he holds reads “Four Supreme Court judges to be appointed by the next president.”
Also behind Blaine is Stephen W. Dorsey, a former US Senator implicated in the “Star Routes Scandal,” whereby a circle of profiteers bilked the Treasury of millions of dollars by colluding on bids for carrying the mail. Dorsey is depicted as a bootlicker. Next to him on the floor is a paper that reads “Honesty No Requisite for the Presidency (Blaine’s Theory).”
Finally, to the right of the stairs stands Benjamin F. Butler, dressed up as a court jester possessing a “Bargain with Blaine.” Butler’s controversial actions as the military governor of wartime New Orleans, coupled with his opportunistic political maneuverings, made him a weathervane of the Gilded Age. Vastly wealthy as a result of both honest and questionable business dealings during the Civil War, Butler was arguably providing cover for Blaine in 1884, for he was on the ticket as a third-party presidential candidate for the People’s Party. Rumor held that Butler’s candidacy was a Republican-backed sham, to draw off votes from Blaine’s opponent, Democrat Grover Cleveland.
It was no use. On Election Day in November 1884, Americans went to the polls and saved the nation from James G. Blaine. They rejected the stink of Republican corruption and, for the first time since 1856, elected a Democratic president.