Nominating conventions came into being in the 1830s, after Andrew Jackson and his ilk turned party politics into a more egalitarian affair. The elite caucuses that had once chosen presidential candidates gave way to more inclusive mass gatherings where delegates styled themselves as representatives of the people. By the time the Republican Party formed in the 1850s, nominating conventions had become significant political events in the life of the country. Journalists, artists, and photographers documented the appearance and actions of the delegates and the spirit and style of the gatherings.
This particular artist’s drawing shows the meeting of the Republican Party in Chicago in 1860, when the young anti-slavery party nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. The Republicans went to the trouble to build a special hall for the convention, a vast domed wooden structure that they called the Wigwam. (It stood at the corner of Lake and Wacker and was reportedly destroyed by fire in the late 1860s.) Notably, the illustration shows a mainly female audience crowding the galleries to follow the proceedings. (Women would not gain the right to vote until 1920.)
Faced with the likelihood that the federal government would sanction the spread of slavery into the West and strengthen its legal underpinnings everywhere in the US, those participating in the Republican convention believed it to be an event ‘on which the most momentous results are depending.’ ‘No body of men of equal number,’ the convention chair proclaimed, ‘was ever clothed with greater responsibility than those now within the hearing of my voice.’
The Republicans, though only a northern regional party, were intent on dislodging the dominant Democratic Party, which they did that November, against all odds.
For the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast drew a many-paneled illustration of Central Park in winter. Like many of his works, this one featured a large central drawing, surrounded by smaller vignettes in round and elliptical frames. The main drawing shows New Yorkers ice-skating on Central Park’s Pond. (The Park was then only a few years old.) Below that is a rather wild sleighing scene, in which genteel New Yorkers ride through a desolate terrain, as urchins throw snowballs or rocks at them.
The opening of Central Park coincided with ice-skating’s growing popularity, which took hold in earnest in the 1850s. The Park was most heavily visited in winter, when its pond became crowded with thousands of skaters, whose activities Nast captures here in wonderful detail. (Note the woman in the skating chair.)
Perhaps inevitably, Nast’s wonderland contains some politics, too. Two months earlier, President Lincoln had been reelected as an inconclusive Civil War dragged on, inflicting terrible casualties. New York, being a commercial center, had always viewed the war with ambivalence. The conflict was contrary to the city’s interests, disrupting a lucrative trade with the South on which New York’s economy relied. While many New Yorkers were ardent Unionists and Republicans, the city also had a large Democratic constituency, including a politically active immigrant population, which resented the war, the federal government, and the fuss about slaves. Many, wishing a return to peace, had lately voted for Lincoln’s challenger, Democrat George McClellan.
Anger over the federal government’s war policies had boiled into violence the previous July. New York became the scene of bloody draft riots, in which rioters lynched at least 11 blacks and 120 people were killed in street fighting between protesters and the police. Poor whites were inflamed against a draft bill that Congress had recently passed: while ostensibly requiring all fit men to serve in the Union military, it contained a loophole that wealthier Northerners would use to evade the draft: arranging for a replacement by paying a bounty.
In the foreground of his skating scene, Nast (who ardently supported Lincoln and the war) highlights several figures, including a military man at the far left wearing a kepi—a reminder of high-minded Northerners voluntarily leading the Union effort as officers. At right are two prominent New York newspaper editors, James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley, who have run into trouble on proverbially thin ice. Greeley is teetering, while Bennett has fallen, both near a hole signifying treachery. Bennett had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and proponent of McClellan, whereas Greeley, while fitfully supportive of the war, had recently embarrassed the Lincoln administration by engaging in bogus ‘peace negotiations’ with some Confederate representatives who turned out to be fakes.
Both editors, though overwhelmingly influential, earned Nast’s scorn because they were feckless peace-mongers. To have ended the Civil War through a settlement at that juncture would have rendered the suffering of the soldiers in vain.
Their presence heightens the allegorical meaning of the left side of the tableau, where three figures guard the safety of the family and society. Besides the Union officer, who holds a small boy in his arms, Nast’s own editor Fletcher Harper (with mutton-chop whiskers) stands over a young girl protectively, while a third man (unidentified, but probably a prominent editor, too) deferentially greets a woman standing at the edge of the ice. Nast depicts these figures as both benevolent and patriotic. Harper gave Nast a venue for his pro-Union and radically egalitarian views.
So what at first glance passes for an innocuous pleasure scene is a comment on specific editors, and a paean to the value of virtuous editors in a conflict-ridden time.
In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. By the time he turned 52, on February 12, 1861, the Union was crumbling. The day of his inauguration, March 4, had yet to arrive. Continue reading →