The Father of Modern Political Cartoons

By Leigh Eric Schmidt | February 13, 2013

Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons
By Fiona Deans Halloran
University of North Carolina Press, 2012

For those of us who work on American religion and politics, Thomas Nast’s late nineteenth-century cartoons for Harper’s Weekly are iconic. We pull them out especially as an illustration of anti-Catholicism and the fierce fights over religion in the public schools. It is hard to forget his “American River Ganges” (1871) in which those mitered bishops are coming up out of the water as crocodiles to devour public-school children. Other images are equally memorable: say, his portrayal of the Pope atop the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, gesturing toward the United States as “The Promised Land,” ripe for conquest; or his depiction of the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church as two “foreign” reptiles bent on destroying American liberties. Nast’s cartoons are so familiar that we rarely pause to consider the man who produced them and the dense circumstances in which he drafted them. His images have taken on a life of their own; in becoming utterly recognizable, they have been rendered strangely decontextualized.

Fiona Deans Halloran’s new biography, Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons, lets us see Nast’s caricatures with fresh eyes by returning them to the thick of the artist’s life and times. The surprises come early and often. A glance at any number of his anti-Irish cartoons would suggest that Nast was a garden-variety nativist eager to defend old-stock Protestants from immigrant incursions. Yet, he himself was a German immigrant; his mother brought him as a six-year-old child into New York City’s multiethnic cauldron in 1846; his father, a sympathizer with the revolutions of 1848, was only able to join them in 1850. Struggling with English and bullied by older boys, the young Nast failed in school, took to the streets with a sketchpad, worked his way into an apprenticeship at an art studio, and then landed a job as an illustrator at Frank Leslie’s at the ripe age of fifteen.

His inveterate contempt for the Irish had its roots not in Anglo-Saxon nativism but in the rough-and-tumble of New York streets, including the gangs of hooligans who ruled over his neighborhood with what Nast saw as lawless terror. And then there was the race factor: Nast, whose anti-slavery views were formed early and whose commitment to the freedmen after Emancipation was resolute, especially blamed the Irish for violence against the city’s African Americans. His ethnic antagonisms were visceral, built on youthful perceptions of a fractious urban environment that were redoubled through subsequent upheavals, especially the Draft Riots of 1863 in which working-class and predominantly Irish mobs took out their grievances on black citizens in particular.

Nast was a striver. Having gotten his foot in the door of New York’s literary establishment, he quickly made the most of it. The New York Illustrated News gave him a plum assignment covering a major boxing match in London in 1860, and Nast parlayed that trip into a grand European tour covering political events in Italy and reacquainting himself with his German roots and relatives. His literary connections widened his social circles considerably, and he hobnobbed his way into the company of George and Sarah Edwards. They collected an artsy group of New Yorkers around them and their daughter Sallie attracted Nast’s eye. The two married in 1861, and Nast thus became part of an extended family boasting the biographer James Parton and the novelist Fannie Fern. With surprising rapidity—he was only twenty-one at this point, after all—Nast had achieved artistic success and moved into middle-class respectability.

The Civil War left Nast little time to bask in his new home life. His illustrations of the conflict for Harper’s Weekly made him a political force, a fiercely pro-Union Republican with a gift for producing emotionally resonant images that kindled patriotism and hallowed sacrifice. Nast had been drawn to politics all along, Halloran makes plain, but it was the events of the Civil War, including the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s bid for reelection, that turned party politics into his central preoccupation. His “Compromise with the South” (1864), which hammered the Democrats as threatening to dishonor the Union dead through conciliating the Confederates, made him famous as a Republican polemicist and gave Lincoln a needed campaign boost.

After the war Nast took an adoring view of one Union hero above all the rest: Ulysses S. Grant. The artist proved indefatigable in cartooning in support of Grant’s political ambitions and presidency. Seeing Grant as matchless in stature and valor, Nast ridiculed the Democratic opposition as the party of Irish slum-dwellers and Lost-Cause worshiping Confederates, the joined enemies of Reconstruction and the freedmen. In fiercely supporting Grant’s reelection bid against Horace Greeley in 1872, Nast continued to ridicule the Democratic vote, depicting it as an unruly donkey (a symbol, Halloran notes, he borrowed from others), while personifying the Republican vote as a “sacred” elephant (an emblem, Halloran suggests, was Nast’s own invention). Nast never dwelled on his role in creating these party mascots, but they proved to be an unusually enduring contribution.    

The immense admiration Nast had for Grant, the singular “Hero of our Age,” mirrored the colossal disdain he had for the Democratic machine in New York and its control of city finances. Thwarting Boss Tweed and his ring of co-conspirators became Nast’s most famous campaign and his crowning success. Many of his most celebrated cartoons, including an image of the rotund Tweed with a moneybag for a head, come from his unremitting battle against Tammany Hall. Nast’s hard-hitting caricatures earned Tweed’s famed lament that it was not the avalanche of journalistic exposés that was burying him but instead all those “damned pictures.”

Nast’s star began to dim in the late 1870s as his editor at Harper’s, George William Curtis, asserted himself at the expense of the cartoonist’s artistic license. Curtis wanted Nast to fall into line with his editorial opinions and genteel temperament, and Nast bristled at any suggestion that he soften his satire or pull his punches. After two-and-a-half decades of participating in presidential campaigns as well as the internecine battles within Republican ranks, Nast’s long career at Harper’s sputtered to an end in 1887. For a man who had accrued considerable wealth through his illustrations as well as on the lecture circuit, his fortunes went precipitously downhill, surprisingly so. Two major investments failed completely, and, when he launched his own illustrated weekly, that too went belly up. Nast faced ever worsening financial straits over the last decade of his life. By the end he felt compelled to call in his political chits to get an appointment at an American consulate. He hoped for Germany or England; instead, he became Consul General in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in July 1902 where, within months, he was swept to his death in a yellow fever epidemic. Back in Morristown, New Jersey, his wife was left to auction off his belongings, including his library and original cartoons, to make ends meet.

Deftly narrating the twists and turns in Nast’s colorful career, Halloran offers primarily a political biography. She leaves the religious dimensions of Nast’s life in the shadows, and that is in fair measure because the cartoonist seemed disinclined to divulge very much about his faith. Nast’s initial biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, had the advantage of conversing at length with Nast in preparing his portrait, and yet Paine also offered only a hazy account of his subject’s religious convictions. Paine loosely implied that Nast was born into a Catholic family (and baptismal records from Germany, now available online, confirm that), but he was hardly definitive about Nast’s ecclesial background. Instead, he opened his discussion with the observation that the cartoonist’s “early religious impressions were confusing” and was then largely content to leave it at that. Aside from a stray anecdote about a very young Nast, still living in Germany, taking offense when some Catholics treated two little Protestant girls roughly for saying the wrong prayers, Paine had very little to offer by way of explaining how a cradle Catholic had become in his new homeland a notorious anti-Catholic propagandist. Indeed, Paine left Nast’s familial faith so nebulous that Morton Keller, another major interpreter of Nast’s art and politics, simply presumed that the cartoonist’s anti-Catholicism must have had its “roots in his German Protestant upbringing,” even when there was no evidence for that religious rearing.

Halloran pushes the discussion much farther along by considering Nast’s anti-Catholicism in essentially political terms. She speculates that Nast’s animus against papal power—of the ultramontanist variety—may well have been fueled initially by his father’s revolutionary politics. His father certainly did what he could to nurture in his son a reverence for the patriots of 1848, including taking him to a parade honoring the Hungarian freedom fighter Lajos Kossuth in 1851. When Nast was on his European journalistic tour in 1860, he immediately identified with the Italian patriot Guiseppe Garibaldi, a notorious enemy of the papacy’s temporal reach. The artist effused in his diary that Garibaldi’s “religion” could be summed up “in the one word, ‘Liberty.’”

Nast’s anti-Catholicism was aimed at “political Romanism”; it was nationalistic, pro-Republican, and anti-Irish; it was premised as much on liberal secularism—as an ideal of strict church-state separation—as it was on Protestantism. To be sure, Fletcher Harper, Nast’s employer, was Methodist, and his firm’s Protestant-heavy textbooks stood to lose market share if Irish Catholics called the shots in New York’s schools. Still, that fact made Nast’s anti-Catholic cartoons as much about the economics of publishing  as it did dyed-in-the-wool Protestant apologetics. Nast’s anti-Catholicism flared brightly in the early 1870s, but it was hardly as thorough-going as one might think in glancing at his cartoons from this period. Nast remained, as Paine related, “always attracted by Catholic forms and ceremonies.” One sure sign of that: he and his family joined St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, a congregation widely known for its Anglo-Catholic sensibilities, even when several low-church alternatives were close at hand on the town green.

Among the things that deeply moved Nast, Protestant Christianity does not appear to have been one of them. Love of liberty, love of country, love of Lincoln’s Republican Party, love of art—certainly, all of those things motivated him, and one more: love of family, in the full glory of Victorian domesticity. The last was on resplendent display in what may well be Nast’s most lasting set of illustrations, his stocking full of Christmas pictures. Halloran treats that holiday repertoire as distinct from his “political work,” suggesting that these sentimental images occupy “a cultural space separate from his political cartoons.” They certainly lack the blood-sport belligerence of his pictorial interventions in party politics, but there is no doubt that the cultural work these Christmas illustrations performed was political.

Nast shared with his wife a doting affection for their five children and a consistent aversion to women’s rights activism. They looked down their noses at novelist Fannie Fern, the family feminist, whose demeanor they considered anything but feminine, and Nast underlined that disdain in depicting the radical marriage reformer Victoria Woodhull as Satan in one of his more enduring and biting cartoons. His Christmas illustrations enshrined the holidays as a wonderland for children, while disguising the women’s work that made these domesticated festivals possible (all the presents, for example, are delivered magically by Santa Claus). To Nast, home and family were certainly havens in a heartless world, but that did not make the middle-class Christmas any less shot through with the politics of gender. All those cozy hearths he pictured were swipes at women who sought public lives and at working-class revelers who continued to imagine the season as a street carnival available for their own license. As the children Nast pictured offered their bedtime prayers to Santa Claus, they certainly looked the part of innocents, and yet Santa’s pack was laden, too, with its own politics—the burgeoning politics of consumption.

Halloran’s biography allows us to see Nast’s career as fully encompassed in his politics. Immersed in the conflicts of New York’s immigrant communities, Nast imagined transcending those divisions through his devotion to the Union, Republican reforms, robust public schools, and middle-class family life. “Come one, come all,” he beckoned, holding out a vision of equality that would ultimately enfold evangelical Protestant and liberal Catholic, African American and Chinese, into a free and tolerant republic. Nast always believed in that American promise, even as he served as a divisive, acrimonious, and party-minded cartoonist with an unstinting devotion to the art of caricature.

Leigh Eric Schmidt is Edward C. Mallinckrodt University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. Part of the faculty in the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, he serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Religion & Politics. 

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