A parody of Democratic politics in the months preceding the party's 1848 national convention. Specifically, the artist ridicules the rivalry within the party between Free Soil or anti-slavery interests, which upheld the Wilmot Proviso, and regular, conservative Democrats or "Hunkers."
The "Gilpins" (named after the hero of William Cowper's 1785 "Diverting History of John Gilpin," who also loses control of his mount, to comic effect) are regular Democrats Lewis Cass, Thomas Hart Benton, and Levi Woodbury, who ride a giant sow down "Salt River Lane" away from the "Head Quarters of the Northern Democracy," which displays a Liberty cap and a flag "Wilmot Proviso."
Cass, a former general and avid expansionist, wears a military uniform and brandishes a sword "Annexation." John Van Buren (right), a Free Soil Democrat, tries to restrain the pig by holding its tail. He remarks, "This is our last hope. If the tail draws out, they are gone for good." A man at left tries to block the pig's passage shouting "Stop, stop, Old Hunkers! here's the house!"
Cass orders, "Clear the road. Don't you see that we are fulfilling our manifest destiny!"
Benton asserts, "We are not a whit inclined to tarry there."
On the far right a stout gentleman chases after them calling, "Hey! hey, there! where upon airth are you going? Come back here to your quarters!"
Meanwhile former President and Free Soil contender Martin Van Buren is neck-deep in a pool at the lower right. He laments, "Had I served my country with half the zeal with which I served my illustrious predecessor, I should not thus have slumped in the mud." He refers to his service under Andrew Jackson, whom he succeeded as President.
Attribution of "The Modern Gilpins" to John L. Magee is based on its similarities in draftsmanship and facial characterizations to Magee's 1850 satire "The Clay Statue," (no. 1850-9) and to several Mexican War prints he executed for the publisher Baillie.