There’s no denying that the internet and social media play a prominent role in the way we access news today, and the type of news we choose to follow. This is especially true when it comes to politics and modern presidential campaigns. With this seemingly endless stream of information, there is no shortage of criticism and humor directed at politicians. Whether it’s good or bad, most Americans have likely even come to expect it!
So what about presidential campaigns of the 19th century? Did such witty criticism of the nation’s potential commander-in-chief exist then, too? The answer is, of course, a resounding “yes.” While Americans of the day certainly were not inundated with updates via Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media site (there weren’t even radios for inquisitive citizens to gather information from), that doesn’t mean humor was absent from political campaigns of the period.
Humorous criticism has always been a staple of political campaigns, in varying degrees of seriousness, and there was no lack of it in James Garfield’s successful campaign of 1880. The most prominent satirical periodical of the day was Puck Magazine, and Garfield often found himself on the receiving end of the publication’s commentary and political cartoons during his campaign. From Credit Mobilier to DeGolyer Pavement and the “salary grab” of 1873, Garfield’s congressional career provided ample ammunition for journalists of the day to criticize.
Simultaneously, Garfield’s opponent was not immune from critics. Democratic candidate Winfield Scott Hancock was just as frequently at the center of the magazine’s jokes, despite the fact that it was generally more sympathetic to the Democratic Party. Yet while I found the comics and commentary poking fun at the two candidates to be rather even, while combing through editions of the magazine from the 1880 campaign I stumbled upon something a bit more unusual.
While I expected to see the presidential candidates lambasted, I was not expecting to see anything targeting their spouses. Yet that’s exactly what I found in the July 21, 1880 edition. Starting with Mrs. Garfield, the writers at Puck weave an intricate story of a woman more impressive than even her husband! Of course upon closer examination it’s less about her actual accomplishments and more a grossly exaggerated fiction of the soon-to-be First Lady. From holding four patents for boiling potatoes, to entering West Point at the age of 71 (!) – only to subsequently give up her military duties to marry James Garfield at the age of 74 – the magazine creates the image of a comically overambitious woman.
The reason behind this exaggeration and why Puck chose to portray Mrs. Garfield in such a light is unclear, though perhaps it becomes clearer after reading the magazine’s description of Mrs. Hancock. Whereas Mrs. Garfield’s life and accomplishments were impossibly unrealistic, Mrs. Hancock is presented as possessing qualities “quite important enough, in a quiet, unobtrusive and domestic way to set a noble example to the women and children of the universe.” Unlike Mrs. Garfield, whose accomplishments have “shaken the world to its foundation,” Mrs. Hancock is presented to the readers as the epitome of a virtuous American woman. Setting a noble example, Puck sees Mrs. Hancock as the more suitable of the two to fulfill the duties of First Lady, as she provides the American public with a character to which any woman would aspire.
So why the criticism of Mrs. Garfield? Was there something particularly loathsome about her character that prompted the editors at Puck to attack her? Looking through other sources of the time, from Cleveland’s Plain Dealer to The New York Times, Lucretia Garfield is notably absent from any criticism related to her husband, and is even referred to as a “quiet, thoughtful, and refined woman” by the Times. Using a little leeway, perhaps it’s not that Puck is not actually ridiculing her, but rather using her as a way to poke fun at her husband and his rise from “canal boy” to presidential candidate.
However, that is just my conclusion. Whether the authors of this humorous article were truly looking to mock Mrs. Garfield, or to find an alternative way to satirize her husband, we may never know. The one conclusion we can draw is that political satire is certainly not new to American political campaigns or candidates. Whether Lucretia Garfield deserved to bear the brunt of this joke or not is almost irrelevant, as this article clearly illustrates that satire was becoming a prominent voice in American politics, and anyone was fair game.
-James Brundage, Museum Technician