Mugwumps were members of the Republican party of American politics who, during the 1884 presidential election, chose not to support the Republican candidate and instead rallied behind the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland. While the term has had a number of different meanings and is used only in fairly unusual or specialized circumstances today, the common usage is meant as a reference to the political mugwumps of the late 19th century, and it is typically used to refer to those who turn against their own group, usually in a political sense. In the 1884 election, Grover Cleveland won the election, and his victory in several key states, such as New York, is often cited as being due to the actions of the mugwumps in those regions.
The term itself comes from an Algonquin American Indian word mugguomp, which is typically translated as “person of importance” or “war leader.” This word was used even before the actions of Republicans during the 1884 election and often referred to someone who seemed to think he or she was overly important. In that usage it was also commonly meant as a derogatory label and often associated with someone who had recently gained some semblance of power and immediately used that little power to become greatly annoying to others.
Following the 1884 election, however, mugwumps became synonymous with the Republicans who had chosen to support Cleveland rather than the Republican candidate, James G. Blain. It is typically reported that Charles Anderson Dana, editor of the New York Sun at the time, gave the mugwumps their name and used the term derisively. While the term has gone out of popular usage, it has still been cited occasionally when referencing members of a political party or movement who make efforts against their own party. It can also be used in reference to someone who is unable or unwilling to make a decision, as the mugwumps were often said to be, and is used to refer to someone who is “sitting on the fence” about a decision. In such cases, the person is often said to be sitting with his or her “mug on one side” and his or her “wump on the other.”
The term has also managed to live on in a number of different references within popular culture, including minor use in the popular Harry Potter books, and the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch. In the Harry Potter books, a character named Professor Dumbledore refers to himself as the “Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards,” and Burroughs used the word for a fiction creature in his rather psychedelic novel. During the 1960s, a short-lived band in New York formed under the name “The Mugwumps,” though they did not produce any major hits.