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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 117

[ 25 ] July 30, 2017 |

This is the grave of Thomas Nast.

The father of modern American political cartooning, Nast was born in 1840 in Germany. His father was something of a political radical and like many Germans who wanted greater freedom in this era, he moved to the United States, sending his family in 1846 and joining them in 1850. Nast grew up in New York and was a terrible student but one who really liked drawing. Despite his lack of interest in school, he was really smart and good at art. His first drawings appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1859. After a brief trip to England where he drew cartoons of sporting events, he became Harper’s Weekly’s full time staff cartoonist in 1862. He was a strong supporter of defeating treason in defense of slavery and began to draw many cartoons that supported the vigorous prosecution of the war and opposing northerners who opposed the war. Abraham Lincoln called him “our best recruiting sergeant.”

Nast really kicked it into high gear when Andrew Johnson became president and pursued a white supremacist Reconstruction. It was here where Nast brutally caricatured Johnson, as well as his supporters. He was also rough on the Irish, many of whom were not only loyal Democrats, but who were viciously anti-black, at least in northern cities. Much of this was about self-interest, as they competed with African-Americans for low-paid work, but much of it was also naked racism. Nast repeatedly compared African-Americans favorably with the Irish, unfortunately slipping into anti-Irish stereotypes in his cartoons while doing so. This was motivated by his own anti-Catholicism, which he prosecuted with the zeal of a convert, which he in fact was, as he was born into a Catholic family. He believed Catholicism threatened the existence of the United States, which helped fuel his know-nothingism. But personally witnessing the Irish anti-draft riots that led to the lynchings of African-Americans and the burning of the Colored Orphans Asylum probably did more than anything in turning him against the Irish.

And yet, Nast could also express ideas of racial equality that were really quite radical for the day (and in the Age of Trump, maybe radical for today too), such as this cartoon in support of the Fifteenth Amendment, which was necessary because in the first few years after the Civil War, voters in 9 of 11 northern states rejected black male suffrage, deeply embarrassing Congressional Republicans attempting to institute meaningful Reconstruction on the South.

As his era’s most popular cartoonist, Nast also began moving the form away from the obscure, text-heavy cartoons with tons of insider references of the antebellum period toward more visually oriented cartoons that remain easily understood today. Other than the Irish, his main target by the 1870s was Boss Tweed and Gilded Age corruption. No one did more to destroy Tweed than Nast (except for Tweed himself).

Consider the power of that image. I could repurpose it today for the New Gilded Age (or just a Tuesday in the Rhode Island statehouse) and everyone would see its relevance.

He continued being a very important figure through the 1870s, mercilessly attacking Horace Greeley’s presidential run in 1872 and drawing cartoon after cartoon in favor of Ulysses S. Grant. He and Grant became close friends and frequently dined together until Grant’s death.

Nast peaked fairly young. After the 1870s, his racism deepened and the relative equality he once did much to foster turned into the typical racism of the day. His portrayals of African-Americans and Chinese began to resemble what he drew about the Irish. His attacks on corruption also flew in the face of a national poliitcal elite more comfortable with that and with the extreme partisanship of the era. New leadership at Harper’s Weekly decided to turn the magazine into a Republican hackwork and wouldn’t run Nast’s cartoons attacking Republican corruption. Nast refused to support James Garfield’s 1880 presidential run because of his involvement in the Credit Mobilier scandal, which further distanced himself from Harper editors. By 1884, he supported Grover Cleveland because James Blaine was also really corrupt. It’s believed that Nast’s cartoons, now often appearing elsewhere than Harper’s, helped swing the very tight election to the Democrat. In his late life, Nast suffered from financial difficulties; like his friend Grant, he got swindled by the sharpers and grifters that were so prevalent in the Gilded Age. He gave lectures, tried to run his own magazine which failed, and, finally, in 1902 Theodore Roosevelt, an admirer of the old man, named him Consul General to Ecuador. Four months after arriving in Guayaquil, he died during a yellow fever epidemic.

Thomas Nast is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

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  • tsam100

    Great piece-thank you,

  • Wapiti

    I *think* Nast also created the American Santa Claus, sniping at the New York Dutch celebrating Saint Nicholas.

    • Bruce Vail

      Also the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant.

  • dstatton

    I own several Nast prints from Harper’s. One in particular shows a black man with a rifle standing among dead blacks; in the background are editorials urging violence to protect white rights. The caption: “HE WANTS A CHANGE TOO”. It’s a startling image, very powerful. I do have one featuring a very ugly Irishman (and an ugly Marxist!) pestering poor Lady Liberty in the middle.

  • Haven’t been keeping tabs on Harper’s post-primary coverage the same way I have The Nation or Salon. Has the “LAS’ TWOO LEFISS'” fuckery fever finally broken (cf. Pareene), or is it still largely unreadable?

  • Bruce Vail

    Nast turned into a bit of a crank in his old age.

    He hated unions and he hated Communism.

    But I don’t think that diminishes his overall body of work. If he did nothing more than take down Tweed, he would be still be regarded as one of the great political figures of the Gilded Age.

    • Bruce Baugh

      That whole experience of doing really good work on important causes, then losing your compass as the world keeps changing around you and drifting into many of the same vices you used to astutely condemn, is…let’s say, not totally unfamiliar even now.

      • DocAmazing

        Among cartoonists like Nast, it is call “Al Capp syndrome”.

        • Hogan

          Fortunately there’s a Walt Kelly vaccine. If only it were mandatory . . .

    • LeeEsq

      I don’t think its crankiness. Thomas Nast was a 19th century liberal and remained one until death. Loving multiculturalism, 19th century style while hating unions and communism were perfectly compatible with 19th century liberalism.

  • Hogan

    That image of the Irish was pretty standard at the time. John Tenniel used it a lot in his Punch cartoons.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/da7799c39438847d02a44f87030e3538af54f23e3188a8a13335c57101fbb134.jpg

    • Deborah Bender

      Yow. Tenniel draws really well but it’s hard to forgive him this.

      • Hogan

        Finding those cartoons has certainly . . . complicated my experience of the Lewis Carroll books.

  • mark kuhn

    Really well done Erik. One of the best series anywhere.

  • Deborah Bender

    In the Thanksgiving print (click on it and it enlarges), does anyone know what ethnic group the woman with her back to us, to the right of the Chinese family and the left of the Senorita, is intended to represent? She is wearing traditional dress, but I’m not sure whether the starched head covering is of some variety of Northern European, Central European or Italian.

    Also, notice Columbia to the left of the Chinese people.

    • Wapiti

      From a Harpers page, I found this list: Joining the Thanksgiving Day feast of hosts Uncle Sam (carving the turkey on the far-right) and Columbia (seated on the far-left) are Americans from all over the world: German, Native American, French, Arab, British, African, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and Irish.

      Given that list, and the cross on the chair behind the woman, I’d guess she’s the Italian woman, with her husband to her left.

      • Deborah Bender

        Thanks!

  • That “Brains” cartoon is powerful.

  • LeeEsq

    Thomas Nast really hated the Roman Catholic Church, so that probably contributed to his hatred of the Irish.

    • Bruce Vail

      I’m not sure whether it was his hatred of Catholicism that made him despise everything Irish, or vice versa.

      In any event, for him the Catholics-Irish-Tweed were all sort of an 1870s Axis of Evil.

  • N__B

    My favorite Nast story is that after Tweed had his buddies bust him our of jail, he fled the country and was arrested by the Spanish police using a Nast cartoon as identification. ( http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/0106.html?mcubz=1 ) The cartoon was about the Tweed Ring stealing from the public schools; the non-English-speaking Spanish police thought that Tweed was a pedophile.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/42b0f5fc8482e6abe802f80a2ca62a1bb3a797025298ff1ab40976c6c4102583.jpg

  • Thomas Nast is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

    The last laugh is on Nast, he’d shit himself if he saw the neighborhood.