Early use of "political graveyard"
- I'm always alert to clues about how the phrase "political graveyard" was
popularized. This evening, I tried doing a search in the New York Times
archive of occurrences of the phrase, and turned up some interesting
Though "political cemetery" shows up as early as 1858 (and then not again
until 1891), the phrase "political graveyard" did not start to appear in
the Times until the 1870s.
Two 19th century American political figures played significant roles in
making "political graveyard" a common term: Henry L. Clinton and Thomas C.
Clinton was a New York City politician who (at least accoridng to the
articles in the Times) was noted for readily changing his political
stripes. In February 1872, he made a speech denouncing Tammany Hall's
power in Democratic politics. So, when he became an ally of Tammany,
excerpts from his old speech were quoted in New York Times articles in
1875 and 1878:
The Sachems [Tammany Hall leaders] invite the
Democracy [Democratic Party] to wear the
threadbare, cast-off political garments of
Tweed and Sweeny: to steep themselves in
dishonor; to wear the garlands of political
infamy, and to enjoy the hospitable entertainment
of a political graveyard.
Perhaps influenced by that speech, which must have been printed in other
papers for the Times to be able to quote from it word for word, an Iowa
newspaper editor (quoted in the Times) used the phrase in an August 1875
These reports are not from one or two locations
alone, but are general; and while all is zeal
and animation in the Republican ranks, the
funeral cortege of Democracy [Democratic Party]
slowly wends its way to the political graveyard
of annihilation and oblivion.
Though it postdated the 1872 speech, this Iowa report was apparently the
first time the phrase "political graveyard" appeared in print in the New
York Times (August 18, 1875).
But after these three occurrences, there was nothing more of the term in
the New York Times for more than a dozen years.
"Political graveyard" returned to the news in 1888, and there were
fourteen articles using the term in the fifteen years from 1888 to 1903.
Of these, one was about the British House of Lords; the rest are about
And in all but two of these, "political graveyard" is used to refer to
what happens to the careers of politicians who disobey New York State
Republican boss Thomas C. Platt.
The first one, in December 1888, was about Platt's irritation over his
scant chances of being appointed to the Cabinet by president-elect
The succeeding of any other New-York man will not
compensate Platt, who could not get a substitute
who would as effectively fill up his political
graveyard as he would himself.
A little later, in 1890, a column or editorial, titled "The Assassin
Method", denounces Platt and his control of the New York Republican Party,
He has two instruments with which he does his work--
the corruption fund and the political graveyard. He
rules through cupidity and fear, and appeals to the
meanest motives of the human soul.
The next reference, from May 1890, is an article about the Republican
state committee doing Platt's bidding:
The object was to denounce Hamilton Fish, Jr., and
Frederick S. Gibbs for their treachery to the party
during the session of the Legislature, and to warn
all who acted with them that they are marked for
slaughter labeled for PLATT'S private political
Another article, soon after, refers to the same purge in the same terms:
Mr. Platt has enlarged the area of his political
graveyard, and has left marked places for Messrs.
Gibbs, Fish, and the eight or ten other Republicans
who stood by them.
Still another editorial in 1891 denouncing Platt:
Any Republican who sought advancement by nomination
for office or by official appointment would have
to discard all independence, sink his self-respect,
and become wholly subsurvient to the Platt machine.
If he presumed to oppose or to question the decrees
of the Boss he would be consigned to the political
graveyard, and only the sordid and submissive
would be admitted to the rewards of party activity.
A politician named Milholland opposed Platt, in April 1894, so:
Into his political graveyard Platt proposes to put
the doughty Milholland.
A piece in January 1895 chronicles a brief moment of magnaminity during
Platt's earlier rise to power:
He finally abandoned his political graveyard and
declared a general amnesty to all who had been at
war against him.
In June 1896, Platt's propensity for revenge is cited:
Mr. Platt keeps a political graveyard in which
there are said to be many unoccupied plots.
In August 1896, apparently he had a scare:
Platt's friends took the alarm, and the "boss"
himself seems to have had visions of the spooks
that might troop from his political graveyard
with substantial knives in their voluminous sleeves.
It wasn't until July, 1900 (for the first time since 1878), that the term
"political graveyard" was used in a New York Times article about American
politics unconnected to Tom Platt. It was in a quote from an unnamed
Democrat critical of William Jennings Bryan:
"If we make a mistake," said an Indiana man of
great experience in party conventions, "this
will be but a funeral march to a political
Many of these uses of "political graveyard" are in quotations or
editorials rather than in the Times' own reportorial prose. None of the
quotations are from Platt himself, but I'm guessing that he must have used
the phrase himself, given the way it stuck to him for so long.
There's a further oddity. The Times uses "political graveyard" 21 times
from 1900 through 1937. Then, it disappears, with no mention for more
than a dozen years. Was it out of fashion, or perhaps banned by the
newspaper's style book?
Hodding Carter brought "political graveyard" back to the Times in June
1950, with a Times Magazine article about Southern politics. The term has
appeared in 45 articles since 1950 -- most recently (October 1, 2006) in
reference to the web site.
Lawrence Kestenbaum, polygon@...
Washtenaw County Clerk & Register of Deeds, http://ewashtenaw.org
The Political Graveyard, http://politicalgraveyard.com
Weblog: Polygon, the Dancing Bear, http://potifos.com/polygon
P.O. Box 2563, Ann Arbor, MI 48106