Saturday, May 23, 2015

Lilliputian politicians

            Sometimes politicians we love to hate take such reprehensible stands on subjects dear to our hearts, we are compelled to reach into our grab bag of 19th century retorts for a response—“Lilliputian politicians” often fits the bill.

Illustration by Milo Winter (1888-1956). 


            This phrase was very popular with editorial writers and cartoonists in the 1850’s. An 1853 editorial in The New York Times inveighed against “the tribes of Lilliputian politicians” that were robbing the U.S. Treasury.[1] The Brooklyn Eagle told its readers in an 1854 article that “Lilliputian politicians” were advocating a 10 hour working day and a requirement that employers pay their employees weekly, and in cash.[2]

Created on wove paper by John L. Magee. Library of Congress.


            The 1856 lithograph above, blamed Lilliputian Democrats for the violence against antislavery settlers in Kansas after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In the cartoon, a bearded freesoiler has been tied to the Democratic platform. From left to right, U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas and President Franklin Pierce are forcing a black man into the freesoiler’s mouth, and presidential nominee James Buchanan and U.S. Senator Lewis Cass are restraining the freesoiler.

From an 1896 edition of Gulliver's Travels.


            Lilliput is an island nation that appears in Part One of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel, Gulliver’s Travels. The inhabitants of Lilliput are less than six inches tall. Lilliput’s emperor chooses his high government officials on the basis of acrobatic skill—how well they can dance on a slender white thread which is two feet long and stretched taut about twelve inches from the ground. Whenever there is a vacancy in the government, five or six candidates petition the emperor for the job and then dance on the thread. Whoever jumps the highest without falling is selected for the position.[3]

Illustration by Milo Winter (1888-1956). 
            There are two political parties on Lilliput. They hate each other so much they will not eat, drink or talk to each other. They distinguish themselves by the height of their heels. Gulliver learns that the high heels have the most respect for Lilliput’s constitution but the emperor only uses low heels in his government. The heir to the throne has a tendency to like the high heels—one of his heels is higher than the other, which makes him hobble when he walks.[4]
            Today, when it comes to controversial issues such as those involving same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration reform, fair trade agreements, global warming or health care, who are the Lilliputian politicians? Who is jumping the highest for public favor? Do they have low or high heels? Do some of them hobble?



[1] “Is the Whig Party Dead?,” New York Daily Times, July 19, 1853.
[2] “The Working Men and the Demagogues,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 16, 1854.
[3] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1912), 30–31.
[4] Ibid., 43.

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