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A cartoon by Thomas Nast in the April 20, 1867 issue mocked the Alaskan purchase by depicting Secretary of State William H. Seward as an elderly mother caring for her child, who appears to be a combination of Uncle Sam and President Andrew Johnson.  The figure wears Uncle Sam’s stars-and-stripes uniform, but the “sore spot” on his head is labeled “Andy” after the president.  Nast and other Radical Republicans were irritated by the lenient Reconstruction policy pursued by Johnson.  In the cartoon, the child figure shakes his fist at a portrait of “King Andy,” a satirical nickname alluding to what Radical Republicans saw as Johnson’s monarchical ambition.  The picture frame shows a carved snake, probably a reference to Northern sympathizers with the Confederacy who had been called Copperheads (a poisonous snake).  During Reconstruction, Nast continued to identify the Democratic Party with Civil War Copperheads.

For the cartoonist, the purchase of Alaska was an administration ploy to ease widespread resentment toward the president.  In the “Big Thing,” Seward tried to relieve the national pain by applying Redding’s Russia Salve, a popular ointment for skin maladies advertised in the pages of Harper’s Weekly and elsewhere.  On the wall poster in the cartoon’s background, Uncle Sam was shown trudging in snowshoes across the icy tundra, planting American flags on Alaskan mountaintops, as polar bears and walruses watched.  A picture of an Eskimo family was sarcastically labeled “One of the Advantages.”

Similar in perspective to Nast’s cartoon was the satirical commentary in “Winglets,” a humor column, from the April 27 issue.  Written as if the journalist had ventured into the Alaskan wilderness to interview the new American “citizens” there, it described the reporter’s encounter with bears, seals, walruses, sables, cold weather, ice, and barrenness.  The author clearly considered the Alaskan purchase to be a waste of money.

“Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” in the first paragraph of “Winglets” referred to the Democratic campaign slogan of 1844 concerning a dispute with Britain over the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory.  After his election, President James K. Polk agreed to a compromise at the 49th parallel.  The 54° 40' line of latitude is also the southern border of Russian Alaska.  The last sentence lampooned the campaign tour, called the “swing ‘round the circle,” undertaken by President Andrew Johnson (“Andy”), Secretary of State William Seward (“Billy”), and other administration members before the 1866 elections.  It was a public relations disaster for the president, who was verbally abusive and reportedly drunk, and a factor in the Republicans winning veto-proof control of Congress.

Sources Consulted

1)  April 20, 1867, p. 256, c. 1-2
cartoon, “The Big Thing”

2)  May 28, 1864, p. 351, c. 3
ad, Redding’s Russia Salve

3)  April 27, 1867, p. 263, c. 2-3
illustrated satire, “Winglets” column

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