This digital humanities project examines Chinese Americans as depicted by Thomas Nast, the lead illustrator and cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly in the second half of the nineteenth century. Regarding American immigrants, few historians have discussed Nast’s cartoon treatment of Chinese, preferring to cast their attention to Nast’s depictions of American Irish Catholics. Irish and Chinese immigrants in America often intersected and Nast paid attention to the conflicts created within the Chinese and Irish communities. I will examine Nast’s different treatments of immigrants and minority groups, but with a particular focus on the Chinese.
Illustrating Chinese Exclusion will present research and analysis on the lesser known cartoons of Chinese immigrants in America drawn by Thomas Nast (1840-1902) and published by Harper’s Weekly. In addition, this examination will address Nast’s treatment of Irish Americans in cartoons, a population whom Nast identified as the lead oppressors against the Chinese in America.
Limited options exist on the Web that provide the public with historical-based analysis of Thomas Nast’s cartoons. A full scan of every issue of Harper’s Weekly issue is available through academic libraries. However this database does not provide analysis or commentary of Harper’s Weekly content. A commercial version of HarpWeek is available, which contain a limited selection of Nast cartoons. These images are accompanied by brief historical overview written by Dr. Robert C. Kennedy. Other collections of Nast’s cartoons exist, most notably Ohio State University, but all lack focus on Nast’s Chinese American cartoons or the Chinese relationship with Irish Americans.
That is not to say these cartoons have been ignored on the Internet. Quite the contrary, there is an abundance of public commentary about Nast’s cartoons, plucked from their historical context and presented as evidence of Nast’s strong bias against Irish Americans in particular, and Chinese Americans and other minority groups in general. This website offers insight into the historical context of these images and tools for visitors to see beyond what is alleged to be Nast’s obvious racism.
Ansel Adams observed, “A photograph is often looked at, seldom looked into.” This project will look into the images that Nast constructed of Chinese and Irish immigrantsand compare these with his visual treatment of other minorities in America. Historians largely agree that Nast was sympathetic to the Chinese. I will examine this assumption and compare his work to that of George Frederick Keller who drew anti-Chinese cartoons for The San Francisco Wasp, an illustrated weekly publication produced in the tradition of Harper’s. Overall, I will explore the many inconsistencies in Nast’s treatment of immigrants and minorities. In some cases I will defend him, in other instances, critically challenge his position. In all cases I will strive for a balanced analysis.
While photographs were accessible to many in the mid-nineteenth century, technological limitations prevented illustrations in daily newspapers. In a weekly news magazine however, current news could be delivered with images – the week between publishing dates allowed photographs to be converted to copper engravings and cartoons carved from woodblock. Harper’s Weekly, bolstered by a larger family empire of book publishers, enjoyed a national reach and the highest influence among New York City’s remaining weekly news publications, most notably Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and The New York Illustrated. Harper’s tagline was “The Journal of Civilization” and its breadth of topics included local and national news, editorials, book excerpts, and depictions of Civil War battles, arrivals of immigrants, politics, religion, biographies, political opinion, travel arts and culture both foreign and domestic. Harper’s, as part of a larger book publishing empire, had the edge in readership and influence.
Thomas Nast drew for Harper’s Weekly from 1857 to 1887. When he died in 1902, New York Times eulogized him as the “Father of American Political Cartoon,” an honorific bestowed in no small part for Nast’s scathing political caricatures of William M. Tweed who ran New York City’s Democratic political machine at Tammany Hall. Nast is widely credited for exposing Tweed’s corruption and it is this series of cartoons that comprise the vast majority of Nast scholarship. It is from this scandal-ridden time period that journalism historian Thomas Leonard described as launching an era of “visual thinking.” Beyond the printed word, readers could see facts or suggested truths, and form opinions.
As a freshman illustrator, Nast covered harbor arrivals and fires in New York City. Assigned to cover the Civil War, Nast’s art matured and his popularity grew. He passionately advocated for abolition, emancipation of African Americans, and was a stalwart defender of Abraham Lincoln’s Radical Republican policies. During the mid-1860s Nast’s illustrations were allegorical and lushly sentimental. After the Civil War, Nast ventured into political caricature focused on the failed Reconstruction policies of Andrew Johnson, and in this genre of caricature Nast found his true calling. Henceforth, he rarely took his eye off of local and national politics – lampooning and exposing hypocrisy, corruption or fraud from anyone whom he viewed as antithetical of progressive Republicanism. His caricatures of Tweed, Irish Americans, and the Catholic Church were brutal, but brilliantly executed, and are the most studied and well known of Thomas Nast’s art.
During the Tweed era, Nast began his first of 44 cartoons depicting early Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans. It is unknown if Nast ever met or associated with a Chinese person in New York – reportedly only 200 Chinese were in New York in 1870 - or how he personally felt about them. His drawings of the Chinese, however, philosophically align with Harper’s editorial position of tolerance. Viewers of these Chinese cartoons perceive them differently. I believe there is a distinction between being pro-Chinese or taking a position against those who adopted anti-Chinese politics. I will argue that Nast was more passionate against those who attacked the Chinese, than he was arguing on behalf of the Chinese in America. Given his philosophy, many of Nast’s artistic choices are confusing. He could have been a stronger advocate, but that he spoke out at all on behalf of the Chinese is deserving of credit and admiration.
Nast’s Chinese cartoons are only briefly referenced by scholars (Keller, Adler, Halloran) and acknowledged as pro-Chinese. Even historian John Kuo Wei Tchen, who takes a brief critical look at the cartoons, cedes Nast’s sympathetic renderings. Tchen points out some grave inconsistencies and instances where Nast relied on negative stereotypes. I will provide an in-depth look into the components – the visual choices – that Nast included in his drawings and expand further on the questions Tchen raises.
Nast loaded his cartoons with visual clues; contemporary newsmakers, literary figures, symbolism, and quite often, compelling narrative in the form of posters or placards framing his main subject. To properly analyze a completed Nast cartoon, one must peel back the many layers Nast purposefully included. They are clues that are often overlooked. While a summary paragraph is better than nothing, my analysis of the cartoons is both expansive and unique. As mentioned before, a very small number of Chinese Americans lived in New York City, yet Nast was paying attention to them. Why?
Chinese Americans had come to the Pacific coast of the U.S. in response to the Gold Rush of 1848. Resistance to the Chinese presence in America was immediate, initiating a string of local laws aimed to de-legitimize them and undermine any success they might develop in America. Despite these hurdles and acts of violence to drive the Chinese out of western communities, the Chinese continued to arrive in America, encouraged by employment opportunities in agriculture and railroad construction, and fleeing from poor economic conditions in their homeland.
Demonizing the Chinese through visual art became an effective means of setting them apart from other immigrant groups, effectively defining the Chinese as alien, transient sojourners or as “others.” The campaign to officially exclude the Chinese as a race accelerated in the 1870s when an economic recession in the United States further heightened labor competition, culminating in acts of violence by white laborers in western states demanding that “The Chinese Must Go.” Cartoons helped make the argument to deny naturalization of the Chinese. A battery of specialized laws targeting Chinese immigrants quickly evolved into a national debate and in 1882, passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only U.S. immigration law in existence that banned a race of people from coming to America.
Thomas Nast turned his attention toward the “The Chinese Question,” particularly when he could link local anti-Chinese sentiment to Tweed and the Irish and their identity as Democrats. In 1884, two years after the Chinese Exclusion Act, Nast took a very unusual step in condemning the Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine for betraying Republican values and endorsing the anti-Chinese legislation. Nast reprised earlier attacks on Blaine, reminding the public of Blaine’s hypocrisy. Blaine appealed to Nast and his editor, George Curtis to cease producing the cartoons. Nast’s pen would not be silenced and likely his cartoons played a role in Blaine’s unsuccessful presidental bid. However, Nast’s excoriation of Blaine significantly contributed to the beginning of the end of Nast’s favor with his Republican base and his career at Harper’s.
I will provide a thorough analysis of the components that Nast included in his cartoons and caricatures and offer explanations as to the significance of his artistic choices. It will be my purpose to encourage visitors to consider the complicated issues that surrounded the construction of these images.
By 1892, 110,000 Chinese were in United States. This project will examine attitudes on immigration, racial politics, and a larger discussion of “belonging” among America’s newest residents and their inclusion in the national narrative. My examination will also look at other immigrant/minorities depicted in popular media and attitudes on race and ethnicity – African American, Native American, Irish and Chinese –were in conflict. I will investigate whether the use of symbols and stereotypes can be justified within the genre of cartoon satire and how these cartoons may have propelled audiences to accept these stereotypes. I will also discuss how the limitation of technology influenced the repetition of stereotypes. My project has particular relevance to one of the core courses in the MALS program, Interpreting the Past – a course that encouraged students to look critically at the perspective of the historian or story teller. Nast’s images are often examined out of their historical context, and through a modern prism of political correctness and growing intolerance of stereotype. I will examine how the interpretations of these images have changed as our collective tolerance and political correctness has evolved, and what, if any, difference that should make when we take in these images.
I am indebted to Dr. Jean Pfaelzer, my graduate advisor, for all her encouragement, wisdom and talent for inspired teaching! For my project I will draw upon an extensive bibliography and synthesize Master of Arts in Liberal Studies courses I completed at the University of Delaware.