MUGWUMP. A Natick Indian word signifying "great chief" and used by the Puritan missionary John Eliot in his Algonquian Bible (1661–1663) to translate the English words "duke" and "centurion." It entered the American popular lexicon in the early nineteenth century as a humorous term for a person in authority. Its most famous application came in 1884, when New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana labeled as "little mugwumps" those liberal Republicans who bolted the party to support Democrat Grover Cleveland for president. Their defection contributed to James G. Blaine's defeat, and party leaders considered the mugwumps hypocritical turncoats and fence-sitters. Many dissident Republicans accepted the term proudly as marking their opposition to the spoils system and party corruption in general. In contemporary usage the term is often synonymous with "genteel reformers," designating upper-class, native-born reformers of the same era. Noted mugwumps include Samuel Clemens, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Carl Schurz. Although past historians have tended to view them as elitist, reactionary, ineffective, and idealistic in their efforts to reform American politics, more recent assessments have pointed out their links to Civil War abolitionism and their efforts in pushing for civil service reform and independent voting, seeing the activities of mugwumps as important preludes to the achievements of the Progressive Era.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. New York: Knopf, 1955.
McFarland, Gerald W. Mugwumps, Morals, and Politics, 1844– 1920. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975.
mug·wump / ˈməgˌwəmp/ • n. a person who remains aloof or independent, esp. from party politics. ∎ a Republican who in 1884 refused to support James G. Blaine, the Republican nominee for president.