Harper’s Weekly – August 12, 1876

In February 1875, a month after his inauguration as Governor of New York, Samuel Tilden suffered a stroke which distorted his countenance. Until he became a likely presidential candidate a year later, Nast harpooned him without showing the effects of his malady.

Nast’s change in portrayal probably came from more than just caricature. Although Tilden was well known as a hypochondriac, his emergence as a post-stroke candidate gave some Democrats cause for concern about his health; in fact, he looked about ten years older than his age (62). Nast wasn’t overly subtle in transmitting that to his audience.

Nominated overwhelmingly on the second ballot at the Democratic Convention in St. Louis in late June 1876, Tilden presented himself as the “Reform Candidate.” As a general theme, “Reform” was the Democrats’ antidotal slogan against the Grant administration’s multiple instances of corruption and nepotism. In fact, it had more to do with replacing Republican officeholders — especially in Southern white governments — than with proposed structural or procedural changes to assure that honest men would be elected.

Tilden had an encyclopedic knowledge of law, legislatures and courts. Nast used his expertise as a boomerang embodied in “Red Tape,” both figuratively and literally.

Here, Nast depicted Tilden with his distorted face and red tape body as a slippery eel swimming through Tammany mud.