Many names have been hurled at Jeremy Corbyn during his short reign as Labour leader. As playground insults go, though, Boris Johnson’s ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’ takes some beating.
Mugwumps, as several journalists who have been rushing to their dictionaries today now know, were reformers in late nineteenth-century U.S. politics who bolted from the Republican Party in 1884 over concerns that corruption had reached catastrophic levels. At first glance, their ‘bourgeois’ outlook, hostility to trade union radicalism, and insistence that self-styled ‘best men’ should rule make them an imperfect likeness to an insurgent politician with a long history of support for left-wing causes. Yet for all that Johnson may be on to something, for mugwumps too were part of a much broader revolt against party politics as usual.
Although the term mugwump only came into fashion in 1884, historians have seen a ‘mugwumpish’ (an adjective we Americanists sometimes try to sneak past editors) mindset shaping U.S. politics since at least the 1870s. The expansion of voting rights over the course of the nineteenth century to the white and black working class, the decentralized nature of the American state, and the political principle that ‘to the victor belong the spoils’ created a fertile ground for boss rule. Skilled political specialists organized electoral coalitions around the distribution of patronage: a new city mayor, for instance, would sack the existing police force and reward his own supporters with their jobs. Even Abraham Lincoln appointed several Civil War generals on the strength of their party connections.
As a way of redistributing resources in lieu of a welfare state, the ‘spoils system’ may well have made life better for many poor Americans, but for middle-class critics it embodied the evils of popular politics. Mugwumps therefore called for civil-service reform as a way to secure better government and disarm political machines. By the Progressive Era (c.1890-1920) they had begun to get their way, even if patronage powers remain an important part of American politics today. Most ambassadorships, for instance, go to wealthy donors, and the nepotism in the current White House is something reformers criticised in the early 1870s.
The good-government advocates of Gilded Age America hardly mirror Corbyn in such respects. Where they cried for austerity to starve the beast of spendthrift government, he calls for stimulus. Where they claimed to speak on behalf of an economically powerful but politically marginalized bourgeoisie, he claims to speak for a working-class that lacks both economic and political power. One might suspect that Johnson simply seized on the term for its alliterative ring with mutton.
In some respects, though, the Foreign Secretary might not have been so far off. Over the course of its etymological journey from the Native American Algonquin tongue to late-nineteenth-century politics a mugwump came to mean a man who placed principles ahead of party: a fair characterization, perhaps, of Corbyn’s career.
And in abandoning party ranks, moreover, the Mugwumps were not alone. The late nineteenth century, like our own era, saw a widespread revolt against established parties, which, though failing to sink the Republicans and Democrats, did severe damage to both. As the Mugwumps mobilized middle-class voters, a populist movement, which eventually coalesced into the People’s Party of the 1890s, swept across the rural South and West.
Historians have never quite been sure whether the Populists of the late nineteenth century were forces of progress or reaction. On the one hand, they railed against economic inequality and united poor blacks and whites; on the other, their attacks on finance capitalism sometimes sounded alarmingly like anti-Semitic movements in Europe, and when racial segregation spread over the South at the turn of the century erstwhile Populists sometimes rushed to the banner of white supremacy.
Dubious attempts to draw historical parallels between Corbyn’s support and the Populists do not end well for Labour. In 1896 the People’s Party effectively captured the Democrats only to lose resoundingly in the presidential canvass. It might be more useful, though, to see both Mugwumps and Populists as evidence of a broader mistrust in the capacity of the political system to deliver meaningful change. Like today’s insurgent movements – Corbyn’s among them – they sought to rewrite the way politics was practised.
Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the Civil War-era United States. You can see Andrew’s other History Matters blogs here, and find him on twitter @andrewdheath.
Image: Boris Johnson addresses reporters in the Lacarno Media Room in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London on July 19, 2016, during a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry [Wikicommons]