The President as King: A Political Cartoon History

In the pack of cards that made up politics, George Washington never played king; true to form he was always just “first in the hearts of his countryman.”

George Washington made it clear he didn’t want to be treated, addressed or in any other way thought of as a King. He was the President of a democracy. And although regal in his public demeanor, he took no actions that smacked of monarchy or usurping the constitutional boundaries of the executive branch.

Adams meets the King,

His immediate successor John Adams, many suggested, was a bit more inclined to think of himself as a King; after all he’d been duly impressed when, during his stint as the first U.S. ambassador to the court of St. James, he observed the respect and honors paid to England’s King George III.

George and Jemmy duke it out: England’s King and America’s President Madison fighting in a cartoon illustrating the War of 1812.

During the War of 1812, when the United States again faced off against Great Britain, President James Madison was contextualized in political cartoons as the enemy of the crown, even shown in a fistfight with the King.

Ironically, it was Andrew Jackson, the crude and hot-tempered seventh President and the first of humble origin who was not from the cultivated eastern seaboard but a representative of the poor and working-class white men of the western frontier who found himself being sarcastically crowned king after waging war against a national bank.

King Andrew the First was the first image depicting a President as a monarch.

Ever since Jackson, any number of Presidents – ranging from those considered the “greatest” to “worst” have been turned into American monarchs, accused by the rival political party of so much arrogance as to warrant their depiction in crown, sometimes ermine cape and wielding a scepter.

Jackson’s immediate successor Martin Van Buren was cast as much as a demon as he was a king.
Formal and stiff, the former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, President James Buchanan was viewed as being out-of-touch with the reality of growing sectionalism interested more in being the first U.S. President to entertain a visiting member of the British Royal Family.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was caricatured as everything from an ape to the King. Many of his decisions were seen as unconstitutional and a usurping of presidential prerogatives.
“King Andy” showed President Johnson on a tour during which he cussed out hecklers and got drunk.
Andrew Johnson was thought of as “King Andy II,” also being a Tennessee Democrat like Jackson. His impeachment was brought on, in part, by those who considered him to be usurping executive privilege that was unconstutitional.
Andrew Johnson, “King Andy,” in a post-presidential pastel by famous cartoonist Thomas Nast from 1873
Ulysses S. Grant was shown as a presumptive king when he made it known he’d seek an unprecedented third term as a former president.
Chester Arthur, a man of princely habits and luxurious tastes, was cast as king in a Shakespearean context.
Although Republican Senator and perennial presidential candidate James G. Blaine of Maine is the center of this cartoon, former President Grover Cleveland – the only one to serve two non-consecutive terms is shown as King, while his successor William McKinley holds power as a Napoleonic figure of war,
Popular and elected to two terms, William McKinley is shown as the smug king crowning himself, most of the political opposition considering him the puppet of corporations and an imperialist for seizing Cuba and the Philllippines after waging the Spanish-American War.
Another depiction of McKinley as the imperialistic king.
After winning a full term in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt’s egotism and aggressive use of executive powers had many snickering that he considered himself the embodiment of the state, as French kings once had
Theodore Roosevelt hand-picked his successor William Howard Taft with the intention of the latter following his policies and even dictating what he should say and do. While Roosevelt remained the big king, Taft – despite his heavy figure – was shown as the little king, or prince in the arms of the outgoing president.
By refusing to run for another term in 1928, Calvin Coolidge was viewed as upholding the tradition of George Washington that limited an individual to serving in the executive position for no more than two terms. Here, Coolidge is shown refusing the crown of king.
When Herbert Hoover called out federal troops to clear the encampments of former World War I veterans who had descended on the capital city to demand their bonus pensions, he wore the kingly crown of a German Kaiser, with resemblance to the threatening dictator then rising in Germany, Adolph Hitler.
Whether it was seeking to reshape the Supreme Court or asserting himself by seeking and winning an unprecedented third and fourth term as president, Franklin D. Roosevelt was an easy mark for King of America.
In 1952, incumbent President Truman was depicted as “King Harry the First” in a right-wing Washington newspaper for his alleged maneuverings to have Adlai Stevenson chosen as the Democratic Party’s next presidential election chosen
John F. Kennedy was cast as King in a pack of “Kennedy Cards,” not so much because of policy but the presumption that he was but the first in a royal family to come – to be followed down the years by his brothers Bobby and Teddy – and even suggestions that his son would eventually “inherit” the throne.
Lyndon Johnson’s ruthless arm-twisting of COngress to pass much of his Great Society social welfare legislation and determination to win the Vietnam War led many to eventually see him as a tyrant.
In the months preceding the 1968 presidential primaries, this button referencing the use of power of Lyndon B. Johnson was sported by those opposing him from seeking another term – which he did not.
A rising concern among his political opposition had them alleging he was abusing his power as the Watergate scandal deepened and treating the presidency as his kingdom.
Many considering President Nixon to have a dark and morose personality, he was easily fused with “King Richard,” the character based on the real British King in William Shakespeare’s famous play.
Nixon was shown as a know-it-all king in a popular psychedelic poster sold in “head shops” in the early 1970s.
The lionization of President Ronald Reagan by his Republican Party had him being satirized as something even more than a king – an emperor or demi-god.

In the 21st century, every President thus far has been depicted as King – one with the gentle humor suggesting a royal inheritance, another with the biting wit of relishing the exercise of power.

Judging by the proliferation of caricatures and cartoons of the current man occupying the presidency, it may easily seem he has provoked the greatest number of such depictions. Even more than did his immediate predecessors. Certainly the number of topics justifying the caricature has been far wider in range.

This artwork by Jennifer Kohnke refers to president-elect Donald Trump as a mad king.
September 9, 2016

It may be that Presidents are getting more kingly – or simply that the bile of partisanship has become more bitter.


Categories: First Families, Presidents, Uncategorized

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