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The Politics Of Cigars: Don't Box Me In!

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By : Ann Knapp    99 or more times read
Submitted 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Cigars have long been a part of the iconography of American politics. On the negative side, early-twentieth-century newspaper cartoons symbolized the greed of villainous "party bosses" and robber barons by showing fat men lighting their stogies with one-hundred dollar bills. On a more positive note, cigar boxes were also used to advertise for various campaigns - in the years before there were television airways for candidates to blanket with their personally approved "messages."

It all starts - at least for those of us whose interest is in United States politics - with Henry Clay's 1850 visit to Cuba. A five-time presidential candidate, former leader of the Whig Party, and broker of several important legislative compromises - his "Missouri Compromise" helped shape pre-Civil War America, by ensuring that slavery would not expand farther north than Arkansas. Clay was a seventy-three-year-old eminence grise, still serving as a Kentucky senator, when he visited Cuba, where a local cigar factory decided to "honor" him by using his name and likeness on its labels. Other companies followed suit, using Clay and other congressmen (John Calhoun and Daniel Webster) to sell rival brands (something that was easier to do in the days before copyright law). Clay's reaction to this bit of inspired salesmanship is not known, and he died within two years of the trip - nine years too early to witness the Civil War that he spent his congressional career trying to prevent (sometimes at the expense of the abolitionist cause, which he sometimes espoused). Those who love their cigars with a little alcohol have another reason to remember Henry Clay, however - he introduced the Mint Julep to Washington, D.C.

Ulysses S. Grant - yes, that's U.S. Grant - helped win the Civil War for the Union side, then got himself elected President for two terms (1869-1877). During his administration, he helped spearhead the country's Reconstruction - a ten-year time in which African Americans made social and political gains that would be eclipsed by a new wave of racism in the post-1880 period - and he also gave us Yellowstone National Park. According to those who've read his two-volume memoir, which was a national bestseller in the immediate aftermath of his defeat in the 1876 presidential campaign, he was also a terrific writer. He wrote the memoirs for money after he discovered that his family was near-destitute (presidents in those days didn't get a pension) and that he was dying of throat cancer, threatening to leave his family without support; the memoirs helped keep his family afloat, and also won him acclaim from such writers as Gertrude Stein, Matthew Arnold and Mark Twain, their publisher.

With all that activity, it's amazing that he had time to be a connoisseur of whiskey and cigars, but he did. His presidential campaign song even acknowledged as much ("Less talk and no more war/ For President, Ulysses Grant a-smoking his cigar"). Unsurprisingly, his face turned up on a number of cigar boxes, which served both to raise awareness of his campaign and use his famous face to increase interest in the cigars within. (Among northerners, he was a popular hero, similar to Dwight Eisenhower in the aftermath of World War II, or George S. Patton after that movie.)

In 1872, Grant ran again - this time against Horace Greeley, the great newspaper editor who once hired a little-known academic named Karl Marx as his foreign correspondent - but one of the third parties in that election was the Equal Rights Party, which nominated Victoria Woodhull, a feminist, and Frederick Douglass, the great black anti-slavery writer, for president. (It's hard to imagine a ticket with more ethical credibility than that!) The National Cigar Museum, an online memorabilia collection, actually offers images of the commemorative Equal Rights cigar box that was distributed for sale by supporters of the company. After all, "equal rights for women" included the ability to smoke in public, which is what this box depicts women doing.
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