Friday, January 16, 2009

"A labyrinth of wheels within wheels"

Having recently referred to "[t]he hothouse of politics in New York during the first half of the Nineteenth Century," I was amused to run across the following:

The complexity of New York State politics during its whole history has been often a matter of comment. Particularly during the first half of the nineteenth century it was the despair of the most competent observers. William Allen Butler, writing in 1862, declared that it had "always been a vast deep," and his judgment was echoed by other excellent critics. Horace Greeley, who, by virtue of long experience no less than active personal interest, should certainly have been able to elucidate the subject, complained of "the zigzag, wavering lines and uncouth political designations which puzzled and wearied readers." The shrewdest politicians from other parts of the union, anxious as they were to conciliate a state which was by its very size a vital factor in the decision of all political questions, were compelled to admit that the currents and counter-currents at work here could not be accurately or reliably gauged. President John Quincy Adams pleaded this lack of comprehension in excuse of some unpopular nominations, and Oliver Wolcott wrote: "I don't pretend to comprehend their politics. It is a labyrinth of wheels within wheels, and it is understood only by the managers."

Herbert D.A. Donovan, The Barnburners (NYU Press 1925).

About the illustration, entitled The strife, between an old hunker, a barnburner and a no party man:
A particularly well-drawn satire on the three major presidential contenders for 1848, (left to right) Zachary Taylor, Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass. Of the three the artist seems to favor Van Buren, the "Barnburner" candidate, who sits on a stool milking the cow which the others try in vain to move in opposite directions. Taylor, who tugs at the tail of the animal, is called a "No Party Man" because of his continued refusal to commit to a party ideology. Cass, the "Hunker" or conservative Democrat, strains at the cow's horns. Van Buren: "I go in for the free soil. Hold on Cass, dont let go Taylor, (That's the cream of the Joke)." Van Buren was the candidate of a coalition, between Barnburner Democrats and Liberty and Whig party abolitionists, called the Free Soil party. Zachary Taylor: "I don't Stand on the whig Platform 'I ask no favor and shrink from no Responsibility.'" Lewis Cass: "Matty is at his old tricks again, and going in for the Spoils old Zack, and myself will get nothing but skim milk."

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