Graphic Witness: visual arts & social commentary
to home page
Frederick Burr Opper

See also a selection of Opper's earlier work for the journal Puck.

A note of thanks to Maurice Sagoff, for first unearthing the treasure of Willie and His Papa, and then being unselfish enough to part with it. See also a brief correspondence between George Putnam and Opper about these drawings.
Willie and His Papa cover enlarged

To read the book, select the cover (above).
Continue to select each subsequent image to turn the page.
Captions are given below each image.
93 pages, one image per page. Average size 90K.
Willie and His Papa is a chronicle of the issues and events related to the United States presidential election campaign of 1900, as reported in caricature by Frederick Opper in his cartoon series for William Randolph Hearst's New York Evening Journal.

The main characters are:
-- William McKinley, presidential candidate and incumbent (having first been elected in 1896) as "Willie"
--Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's running mate as "Teddy"
-- "Papa" (representing the business and industrial trusts that were funding and directing the campaign) and
-- Senator Mark Hanna, a power in the Conservative wing of the Republican Party, appearing as "Nursie."

With Hearst's permission the series was first published as a book in 1901, the same year that, after winning the 1900 re-election campaign by a large majority, McKinley was assassinated.

Background information on the 1900 presidential campaign
[The links in the paragraphs below will take you to a related page in the book from which you can either return to this page or continue reading by selecting the image.]

Opper's series focuses on railroad, steel, oil and financial monopolies and trusts; these powerful business interests and industrial conglomerates fostered the growth of imperialism and militarism to the detriment of the common people or the workingman. In the series, as in life, elected officials are paid for and therefore responsive to the Big Business interests of the day, for the benefit of business. Why were the trusts, in particular the railroads, so powerful? The beginnings of an answer may be found in the industrial and technological expansion that started after the Civil War and flourished until the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression.

Financial power, and its frequent partner, political power, was to be had for those lucky enough, determined enough, and often unscrupulous enough to survive the busts and exploit the boom times. Savvy investment backed exploration and exploitation of timber, oil and mineral wealth; industrial and technological developments increased steel and food production; cheaper energy sources spurred further invention and industrial refinements, and a burgeoning network of trans-continental rail links carried raw materials and finished goods to ever-growing marketplaces. With no paved roads between towns, transport by rail or river was the only practical means of traveling or shipping goods over long distances. Electricity was in its infancy, and most homes were lit with a relative newcomer, kerosene, or in larger cities, gas lamps. Oil, coal or wood stoves provided heat for cooking and warmth.

Human beings were another source of exploitable energy. The population that had been an agrarian majority was becoming urbanized as jobs in city factories drew new immigrants and former farm workers alike. Unskilled labor was plentiful and therefore cheap; employers aggressively discouraged unions and strikes, although workers had justifiable reasons for complaint: the work day was commonly 10 to 12 hours long, or longer; the average work week ran six days. Workmen's compensation for accidents or injury was rare, depending solely upon the good will of the individual employer.

Family planning was an oxymoron; infant mortality was common. Women couldn't vote and children could work (indeed, in most families, child labor was an economic necessity, whether on the farm or in the city. The future would bring the Model T, the movies, antibiotics, the Pure Food and Drug Act, a graduated income tax, social security benefits, and total war, but none of these 20th century inventions had yet arrived when McKinley stood for re-election in 1900.

As Opper begins his series, "Willie" (incumbant William McKinley) is already 4 years old, having been first elected in 1896, thanks to "Papa" and "Nursie." Senator Mark Hanna, a wealthy businessman, and McKinley, a long time Member of the House of Representatives, were both from Ohio. They had been friends for a number of years; Hanna found McKinley sympathetic to the wishes of the business community. Ultimately, Hanna became Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and exerted his financial influence and business connections to secure McKinley the 1896 Republican Party nomination for president. The McKinley campaign outspent the Democratic-Populist opposition candidate, William Jennings Bryan, 20 to 1, and McKinley won in a Republican landslide.

During McKinley's first term in office, the Spanish American War brought Theodore Roosevelt to prominence. "TR" most definitely did not stand for "...timid and retiring," Opper's tongue-in-cheek description of Rough Rider Teddy. He is depicted throughout this series as a hellion on a hobby-horse; without doubt his energies and exploits in Cuba added a macho luster to the 1900 Republican ticket. Roosevelt was Governor of New York at the time the Republican Convention nominated him for Vice-President, a nomination Roosevelt had not actively sought, nor was Roosevelt Senator Hanna's first choice.

Roosevelt was wary of what he saw as

"...the unnatural alliance of politics and corporations..[as] personified by [Senators and businessmen] Thomas C. Platt and Mark Hanna...To them, capital was king; the corporation was society in microcosm; government was the oil which made industry throb. Just as tycoons were necessary to control the efficiency of labor, so were bosses required to supervise the writing of laws. If tycoon and boss could be combined in one person, so much the better for the gross national product."[ Morris, pp. 693-694]
And as Governor, Roosevelt's progressive stances on issues affecting labor, the environment, public utilities and large corporations made him appear radical to the much more conservative political bosses. The conservative solution to an active, progressive Governor Roosevelt was to make him Vice-President Roosevelt.

"...that coarse, rude Billy Bryan" refers to William Jennings Bryan, once again the Democratic and Populist opponent to McKinley. Bryan was defeated in 1900 by McKinley, as he had been in 1896 and as he would be by William Howard Taft in 1908. Support of high protective tariffs and the gold standard made McKinley a candidate compatible with business interests, in contrast to Populist Bryan, an eloquent supporter of Free Silver, as well as more progressive ideas like women's suffrage, a graduated income tax, and the creation of a Department of Labor. Based on his support of the common people and a weekly political journal he founded and edited titled Commoner, Bryan was often referred to as The Great Commoner. Bryan's last turn in the public spotlight would come in 1925 at the famed Scopes trial. He defended a literal interpretation of the Bible in a lawsuit that put the teaching of evolution on trial.

John Hay, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), assistant Secretary of State (1878-1881) and an Ambassador to Great Britain (1897-1898) was the United States Secretary of State (1898-1905) when Opper added him to the list of Willie's playmates; Imperialism was the new game.
"The age of imperialism had begun, and the mapmakers were busy changing the colors that denoted ownership of the darker continents. Between 1870 and 1898 Britain added 4 million square miles and 88 million people to its empire; France gained nearly the same area of territory with 40 million souls attached; Germany won a million miles and 16 million colonials; Belgium took 900,000 miles and 30 million people; even Portugal joined the race with 800,000 miles of new land and 9 million inhabitants." [from Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers]

The United States, barely a century old as an independent nation, took its first overseas imperialist steps at this time (not counting the Louisiana Purchase, Alaska, Texas, California and the Black Hills). As a result of the Spanish American War, and the peace treaty negotiated by Hay, the United States took control of territories formerly administered by Spain, in particular, the strategically important Phillippine Islands. In 1901, the Hay-Paucefonte Treaty with Britain gave the United States exclusive rights to build a canal in Panama, and in 1903, Hay again negotiated with Britain an Alaskan boundary agreement.

For a fascinating exploration of the responses against imperialism, see Jim Zwick's Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935. Zwick's site also includes political cartoons of the period.

Just as large countries were gobbling up smaller ones in the name of imperialism, so too were larger and more powerful businesses absorbing their competition, in the name of mergers and "cooperation." Moderate Republican Benjamin Harrison was the president whose administration saw passage of both pro-business and anti-trust legislation. Harrison's inclusion as a character in this series provides a contrast to the pro-monopolist views of Papa, Nursie, and Willie. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 was passed during Harrison's administration (enforcing the act would be a hallmark of TR's 1904-1908 administration). Still, business interests were sheltered by another piece of legislation passed the same year: the McKinley Tariff Act, which imposed high, protective tariffs on imported goods (and not coincidentally, sponsored by then House Representative William McKinley).

Mentioned in passing by Opper is Chauncey Depew (1834-1928). A railroad lawyer, known for his wit, he was a candidate for the Republican nomination for President in 1888, but he withdrew in favor of Harrison, who won that earlier election, with support from Depew. Depew was president of the New York Central Railroad, then its chairman of the board, and for two terms (1899-1911), a United States Senator. Opper suggests Depew supported the existence of trusts and monopolies, a viewpoint shared by other railroad executives. James Hill, pictured by Opper along with financier J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., was a financier and builder of the Great Northern Railway (which grew 'great' by absorbing the competition, just as other railroads and industries were doing at the time). Hill was president of the Northern Securities Company when in 1904 the firm was declared in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

The trusts were not monolithic. Although large companies would work together to price fix or in other ways seek "cooperation in restraint of trade" and competition, their alliances usually proved to be temporary, lasting only as long as their uneasy cooperation turned a profit. Opper refers to a tussle between the trusts represented by "Papa" and Andrew Carnegie's steel interests. In 1901 J. P. Morgan organized a merger of his own steel interests with Carnegie's various steel companies and the iron and shipping interests of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Other smaller but related companies were also included in the deal. The new trust, known as United States Steel Corporation, would control more than half of all the steel business in the country. It was, at the time, the largest merger in American business history.

Related reading:
Chernow, Ron. The House of Morgan: an American banking dynasty and the rise of modern finance. Simon & Schuster, 1990.

____________. Titan: the life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Random House, 1998.

Morris, Edmund. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Random House, 1979.

Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: the epic quest for oil, money and power. Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Please note: All images in Graphic Witness are for personal enjoyment or educational use. Any other use is prohibited.

Graphic Witness home page | who's who 1900-1950 |