In American politics, the term “mugwumps” was first used to describe those who left the Republican party in favor of the Democrats in 1884 to vote for Glover Cleveland instead of the GOP nominee James Blaine.
At a contentious 1884 Republican convention, Blaine beat out Chester Arthur for the nomination on the 4th ballot. But Blaine had his detractors and was perceived as financially corrupt by a significant number of Republicans, who would ultimately flee the Republican party and vote for his Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland. There were enough defectors (estimated to be 60,000), particularly in New York State, to swing the election to Cleveland, who became the 22nd president.
In a sense, Mugwumps were the original independents, eschewing their party for the things they believed in strongly.
Mugwumps earned their colorful nickname when New York Sun’s editor Charles Anderson Dana first referred to them as such, citing their fence sitting posture: “Their mug sat on one side of the fence and their wump on the other.”
The nickname, however, actually had a dual meaning, as the term was originally derived from an Algonquian word that referred to a “war leader” or someone who considered himself “self-important.” Ironically, it was Blaine’s sense of self-importance that the mugwumps were rebelling against.
At the time, the Mugwump nickname was meant to be derogatory. From The Daily Kos: “The bolters were called man milliners, hermaphrodites, turncoats, amateurs, delusional public moralists. By claiming themselves above partisan interests, Mugwumps were seen as sanctimoniously arrogant.”
But the term was actually embraced by these independents who were proud to be “aloof from party politics.” Some of the most notable Mugwumps still have a firm place in American history, such as Carl Schurz , Henry Adams, Charles Eliot Norton and Henry Ward Beecher. Two of the most notable Mugwumps were Mark Twain and Louis Brandeis.
These days, a general misunderstanding of what a Mugwump really was has led to more questionable uses of the word, including a 2017 Boris Johnson rhetorical attack on Jeremy Corbyn, when the British PM called Corbyn a “mutton-headed old mugwump.”
And the term has crossed over from politics to pop culture, finding a place in Harry Potter’s universe.
In 2016, the controversial candidacy of Donald Trump caused some, like political consultant and writer David Frum, to long for the days of the Mugwumps, where principles trumped party.
Indeed, a direct analog to the Mugwumps of 1884 can be found in the “Never Trumpers,” who all but left the Republican party under the 45th president in favor of any possible alternative. Such contemporary “mugwumps” include Jeff Flake, Bill Kristol and Rick Wilson.