Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Origin of the Bucktails


The hothouse of politics in New York during the first half of the Nineteenth Century gave birth to a plethora of odd party factions with equally odd names: the Barnburners and Hunkers, Hardshells, Softshells and Silver Grays. And that’s not even counting arguably separate parties or movements like the Anti-Masons. So how about one more?

The Bucktails had their origin in opposition with the Democratic-Republican party to DeWitt Clinton. Martin Van Buren and a number of other Democratic-Republican political leaders in New York had broken with Clinton in 1813, convinced that Clinton had covertly assisted Rufus King in his election to the United States Senate that year.

Five years later Clinton was ascendant, having been elected governor in 1817. As John Niven tells it in his Martin Van Buren: The Romantic Age of American Politics, a Clinton partisan tried to smear the governor’s opponents with the term Bucktails. As the Whigs did later with log cabins and hard cider, the targets turned the tables (and how’s that for alliteration?):
In one of those impulsive comments meant to be derogatory, a Clintonian lumped all party opposition to the Governor under the rubric “Bucktails,” a bit of Tammany regalia displayed on the hats of its members at certain celebrations. New York’s elite had long sneered at the emblem and its rustic appearance, a slight well-known to the Martling men, the Tammany faction bitterly opposed to Clinton. As so often happens with an epithet, it was adopted as a badge of honor, not merely by Tammany but by all who opposed Clinton. While Van Buren never identified himself publicly as a “Bucktail,” a term he considered rather vulgar, he saw the benefit to be gained and did not discourage its use. Henceforth, the combination of factions he headed, at first united only in its opposition to Clinton, would be known in New York politics as the Bucktails.

About the illustration, which was one of the earliest I could find involving Martin Van Buren:
A simpler and less animated composition on the same general idea as Edward W. Clay's ".00001" (no. 1831-1). Again Jackson is seated in a collapsing chair, with the "Altar of Reform" toppling next to him, and rats scurrying at his feet. The rats are (left to right): Secretary of War John H. Eaton, Secretary of the Navy John Branch, Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, and Treasury Secretary Samuel D. Ingham. Jackson's spectacles are pushed up over his forehead, and his foot is planted firmly on the tail of the Van Buren rat. "Resignations" fill the air behind him, and a pillar marked "Public confidence in the stability of this admistration [sic]" falls to the left. There seem to be at least two versions of the print, not counting Clay's ".00001." The present version seems to be a close but inferior copy of the print by the same title attributed to Edward W. Clay by both Murrell and Davison. The latter has the legend "Washington 1831" printed in the lower margin. Davison quotes from an April 25 entry in John Quincy Adams'diary saying that "Two thousand copies of this print have been sold in Philadelphia this day. Ten thousand copies have been struck off, and will all be disposed of within a fortnight." It is unclear, however, whether Adams was referring to a version of "The Rats leaving a Falling House" or to Clay's ".00001" which was produced and published in Philadelphia and deposited for copyright on May 5.

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