Mugwumps: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Jason McCollom
Mugwumps were a faction of the Republican Party of the 1880s. They opposed political favoritism and corruption and promoted honest government. Read about the Mugwumps and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Who Were the Mugwumps?

Ruthless politicians in the Republican Party called them 'goo-goos,' meaning the good-government crowd. But their actual group name was just as weird-sounding. Mugwumps were a faction in the GOP (Grand Old Party, another name for the Republican Party) that advocated honesty in government and an end to machine politics and political favoritism in federal employment, also known as the spoils system.

The spoils system was everywhere in party politics of the late nineteenth century. In local, state, and federal politics, corrupt practices, deal making, and preferential treatment were the norm. Party bosses boasted that they could make or break any aspiring or sitting politician. In the GOP, factions emerged which reflected support for or opposition against the spoils system.

On one end, there were the Stalwarts, mostly New York Republicans, who strongly supported the patronage political system. In the middle were the Half Breeds, who were less blatantly corrupt but still participated in the spoils system. On the other end were the Mugwumps, Republicans mainly from Massachusetts and New York. Mugwumps fiercely opposed the spoils system and advocated civil service reform. A New York editor coined the term Mugwumps, which was derived from an Algonquian Indian world meaning 'big chief.'

What Did They Want?

In promoting honest government, Mugwumps saw politics in moral terms. Their adherents were mainly located in the large cities of the northeast, and included prominent professors, editors, and writers such as Mark Twain. They promoted free trade and opposed tariffs, which they believed helped big businesses and harmed consumers.

The main goal of the Mugwumps was to make all federal jobs nonpartisan, which would have essentially killed the practice of patronage and the spoils system. That the Mugwumps broke from the Republican Party in 1884 attests to the strength of their convictions.

A political cartoon illustrating the mugwumps and the major issues of the 1884 election season.
mugwump cartoon

The Mugwumps and the Election of 1884

In 1884 the Republicans chose James G. Blaine as their presidential candidate. Blaine had served in a variety of political capacities in his career, and he had the taint of corruption upon him. The release of the so-called Mulligan Letters demonstrated that as a congressman, Blaine had secretly received money from railroad companies to vote on certain legislation. Other leaked documents linked him to additional shady political practices. One critic said Blaine 'wallowed in spoils like a rhinoceros in an African pool.'

James. G. Blaine
James. G. Blaine.

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