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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 117

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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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