A Bit of a Brag

Published:June 21, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day 150 years ago, the British humor magazine Punch published the above cartoon, by John Tenniel.

In April of 1862, impatient for an end to hostilities in America, the Emperor [of France] participated in a clumsy attempt at back-door diplomacy with a pro-Southern member of the British Parliament, William S. Lindsey, who leaked to the press supposedly confidential proposals for joint Anglo-French intervention. The Palmerston government was embarrassed, while the French diplomatic corps—which had been left out of the loop—felt betrayed. When also, in the same month, Henri Mercier, the French Ambassador to the United States, made a secretive and unofficial visit to Richmond to speak to Confederate leaders, suspicions rose in the North that France was plotting a Southern alliance. Some of the more rabid Northern newspapers warned of possible war against both Britain and France.

Although the caption to this cartoon names the carelessly dressed figure in military uniform standing on the left as [Brother] Jonathan, the speaker’s facial features, lanky frame, and pseudo-Midwestern dialect clearly indicate that he is intended as a caricature of Lincoln. In a purely imaginary interview with Louis Napoleon, shown seated on the right, the American President sets forth an absurdly unrealistic series of threats to destroy the Confederacy, take over Canada, and face down the British, after which the United States will depose the Emperor and replace him with the more liberal Louis-Philippe d’Orleans, the “Count of Paris.” Napoleon III appears to regard these as empty threats; he sits at ease in his armchair, eyes narrowed, dismissively blowing a cloud of cigar smoke towards his antagonist. Yet in actuality the Emperor’s reign was built on a series of shaky political compromises. Had the “Orleanist” opposition faction actually succeeded in replacing him with Louis-Philippe, a new government may well have been much more sympathetic to the United States.