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LeaderHenry Adams
Edward Atkinson
Charles Francis Adams Jr.
Founded1884; 136 years ago (1884)
Dissolved1888; 132 years ago (1888)
Split fromRepublican Party
Merged intoDemocratic Party
Political positionCenter-right
National affiliationRepublican Party
1884 cartoon by Bernhard Gillam in Puck magazine which ridicules James G. Blaine as the man tattooed with many indelible scandals. A parody of Phryne before the Areopagus, an 1861 painting by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme

The Mugwumps were Republican political activists in the United States who switched parties from the Republican Party by supporting Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland in the presidential election of 1884. They switched because they rejected the financial corruption associated with Republican candidate James G. Blaine. In a close election, the Mugwumps supposedly made the difference in New York state and swung the election to Cleveland. The jocular word "mugwump", noted as early as 1832, is from Algonquian mugquomp, "important person, kingpin" (from mugumquomp, "war leader"),[1] implying that they were "sanctimonious" or "holier-than-thou"[2] in holding themselves aloof from party politics.

After the election, "mugwump" survived for more than a decade as an epithet for a party bolter in American politics. Many Mugwumps became Democrats or remained independents and most continued to support reform well into the 20th century.[3] During the Third Party System, party loyalty was in high regard and independents were rare. Theodore Roosevelt stunned his upper class New York City friends by supporting Blaine in 1884; by rejecting the Mugwumps, he kept alive his Republican party leadership, clearing the way for his own political aspirations.[4]

New England and the Northeast had been a stronghold of the Republican Party since the Civil War era, but the Mugwumps considered Blaine to be an untrustworthy and fraudulent candidate. Their idealism and reform sensibilities led them to oppose the political corruption in the politics of the Gilded Age.[5]

Patronage and politics[edit]

The Mugwumps were Republicans who refused to support Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine in 1884

Political patronage, also known as the spoils system, was the issue that angered many reform-minded Republicans, leading them to reject Blaine's candidacy. In the spoils system, the winning candidate would dole out government positions to those who had supported his political party prior to the election. Although the Pendleton Act of 1883 established the United States Civil Service Commission and made competency and merit the base qualifications for government positions, its effective implementation was slow. Political affiliation continued to be the basis for appointment to many positions.[6]

In the early 1880s, the issue of political patronage split the Republican Party down the middle for several consecutive sessions of Congress. The party was divided into two warring factions, each with creative names. The side that held the upper hand in numbers and popular support were the Half-Breeds, led by Senator James Blaine of Maine. The Half-Breeds supported civil service reform and often blocked legislation and political appointments put forth by their main congressional opponents, the Stalwarts, led by Roscoe Conkling of New York.

Blaine was from the reform wing of his own party, but the Mugwumps rejected his candidacy. This division among Republicans may have contributed to the victory in 1884 of Grover Cleveland, the first President elected from the Democratic party since the Civil War. In the period from 1876 to 1892, presidential elections were closely contested at the national level, but the states themselves were mostly dominated by a single party, with Democrats prevailing in the South and the Republicans in the Northeast. Although the defection of the Mugwumps may have helped Cleveland win in New York, one of the few closely contested states, historians attribute Cleveland's victory nationwide to the rising power of urban immigrant voters.[5]

Historical appraisals[edit]

Illustration shows a group of men, some identified by name "Blackburn, D.B. Hill, Mclaughlin, Thurman, Jones, Hedden, [and] Hendricks" and some by association with quills behind their ears "Sun" Charles A. Dana, "Cincinnati Enquirer" John R. McLean, "World" Joseph Pulitzer, and "Star", with the newspaper editors pushing a wrapped figure labeled "This is the Mugwump! And don't you forget it!" into a crematorium labeled "Bourbon Crematory for Disbelievers in the Spoils System"; Hendricks stands on the right, next to an urn labeled "For Mugwump Ashes" and the others observe from the left. Puck and the figure representing "The Independent Party" are watching from a window in the background.
A "bogus" cremation for the benefit of the "life-long Democrats" 1885 cartoon by Joseph Keppler from Puck magazine

Several historians of the 1960s and 1970s portrayed the Mugwumps as members of an insecure elite, one that felt threatened by changes in American society. These historians often focused on the social background and status of their subjects and the narratives they have written share a common outlook.[7]

Mugwumps tended to come from old Protestant families of New York and New England and often from inherited wealth. They belonged to or identified with the emerging business and professional elite and were often members of the most exclusive clubs. Yet they felt threatened by the rise of machine politics, one aspect of which was the spoils system; and by the rising power of immigrants in American society. They excelled as authors and essayists, yet their writings indicated their social position and class loyalties. In politics, they tended to be ineffectual and unsuccessful, unable and unwilling to operate effectively in a political environment where patronage was the norm.

In his 1998 work, historian David Tucker attempts to rehabilitate the Mugwumps. According to Tucker, the Mugwumps embodied the liberalism of the 19th century and their rejection by 20th-century historians, who embraced the government intervention of the New Deal and the Great Society, is not surprising. To Tucker, their eloquent writings speak for themselves and are testament to a high minded civic morality.

During the 2017 United Kingdom general election, Conservative Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson by writing in The Sun accused Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn of being a threat to the United Kingdom and described him as a "mutton-headed old mugwump".[8]


Dictionaries report that "mugguomp" is an Algonquian word meaning "person of importance" or "war leader". Charles Anderson Dana, the colorful newspaperman and editor of the now-defunct New York Sun, is said to have given the Mugwumps their political moniker. Dana made the term plural and derided them as amateurs and public moralists.[9]

During the 1884 campaign, they were often portrayed as "fence-sitters", with part of their body on the side of the Democrats and the other on the side of the Republicans. Their "mug" on one side of the fence, and their "wump" [comic mispronunciation of "rump"] on the other. Angry Republicans like Roscoe Conkling sometimes hinted they were homosexual, calling them "man milliners".[10]

The epithet "goody-goody" from the 1890s goo-goo, a corruption of "good government", was used in a similar derogatory manner. Whereas "mugwump" has become an obscure and almost forgotten political moniker, "goo-goo" was revived, especially in Chicago, by the political columns of Mike Royko.[11]

Notable Mugwumps[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ On-line Etymological Dictionary; The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1996
  2. ^ The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, Thirteenth Edition. Advanced Placement edition
  3. ^ Tucker (1998)
  4. ^ Henry F. Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography. (1931) p. 88.
  5. ^ a b Summers (2000)
  6. ^ Hoogenboom (1961)
  7. ^ Blodgett (1966)
  8. ^ Khomami, Nadia (27 April 2017). "What is a mugwump? An insult that only Boris Johnson would use". The Guardian.
  9. ^ Sperber and Trittschuh, pp. 276–67
  10. ^ Allan Nevins, Grover Cleveland p. 178; Muzzey, Blaine p. 160
  11. ^ Sperber and Trittschuh, pp. 173–74.
  12. ^ Kurland, Gerald (1971). Seth Low: the Reformer in an Urban and Industrial Age. Ardent Media. p. 48.


  • Blodgett, Geoffrey T. (1966). The Gentle Reformers: Massachusetts Democrats in the Cleveland Era. Harvard University Press.
  • Blodgett, Geoffrey T. "The Mind of the Boston Mugwump," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 48, No. 4. (Mar. 1962), pp. 614–634. JSTOR.
  • Blount, Roy. Mark Twain's Reconstruction, The Atlantic, July 2001.
  • Hoogenboom, Ari (1961). Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865–1883 (1982). ISBN 0-313-22821-3.
  • McFarland, Gerald W. (1975). Mugwumps, Morals and Politics, 1884–1920. ISBN 0-87023-175-8.
  • McFarland, Gerald W.; editor (1975). Moralists or Pragmatists?, The Mugwumps, 1884–1900. ASIN B000FHABUC.[ISBN missing]
  • Nevins, Allan. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (1932).
  • Muzzey, David Saville. James G. Blaine: A Political Idol of Other Days (1934).
  • Poteat, R. Matthew (2006). "Mugwumps" in the Encyclopedia of American political parties and elections (by Larry Sabato, Howard R. Ernst), p. 233. ISBN 978-0-8160-5875-4.
  • Sperber, Hans. and Travis Trittschuh. American Political Terms: An Historical Dictionary (1962), pp. 276–77.
  • Sproat, John G. (1968). The Best Men: Liberal Reformers in the Gilded Age (1982). ISBN 0-226-76990-9.
  • Summers, Mark Wahlgren. Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion: The Making of a President, 1884'. 2000 online version.
  • Tucker, David M. (1998). Mugwumps: Public Moralists of the Gilded Age. ISBN 0-8262-1187-9.

External links[edit]