“Hard to Please the “White Trash”” 1878

A vexed Uncle Sam stands alone as minorities stand behind him
“Hard to Please the “White Trash”” – 6 April 1878 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Source: UDel-Walfred. Public Domain

When Thomas Nast used Columbia in his cartoons, she represented American values in the purest sense and was placed in cartoons to remind readers of American values and morality. Uncle Sam played a different role for the cartoonist. Nast is often credited with inventing Uncle Sam, but he only popularized the figure and Nast often included the tall thin man with a top hat and striped pants as a symbol for the American government and a reflection of the government’s current state of affairs.  As this picture above depicts, Uncle Sam can get confused. He finds himself at the mercy of opposing political parties and is often trapped, not by what might be right, but what legislation has passed as the law of the land.

The cover of this issue also shows Uncle Sam with his leg in a snare. In the following issue, he is seen in a full-page cartoon, seemingly confused as he reflects upon his nation. All is not well in his American house.

After the Fifteenth Amendment granted African Americans the right to vote, Southern Democrats continued measures to disenfranchise the African American vote.

Uncle Sam is confused. He is supposed to hate the “nigger” because he has earned the right to vote, and at the same time, he is supposed to hate the “Yellow Dog” because he has not yet earned the right to vote. Uncle Sam does not know how to react. He has lost track of the direction of his government.

The Chinese face a difficult dilemma. Legally prevented from earning citizenship, they cannot enjoy the same rights extended to other immigrants. The Chinese may not testify against whites or marry outside their own race. Since Chinese females are refused entry to the U.S. because they are considered and labeled prostitutes, Chinese men in America had little hope and few prospects to live a normal family life. Prohibited by law to join to American culture, they are additionally penalized for not assimilating to it. The Chinese find themselves in a no-win situation.

The U.S. legislative body spoke and Uncle Sam is forced to wear the mantle of these mandates. California’s state symbol is the bear. The bear trap on Uncle Sam’s leg is a painful harbinger of what is to come to the entire nation. An easy way out does not exist and he is forced to represent these xenophobic and intolerant values. Uncle Sam gets his marching orders from the “White Trash” — free lawmaking men, and there is no pleasing them.

A Chinese launderer is seen to the right. His head is slightly turned as if to acknowledge Uncle Sam’s grumbling. But he goes about his washing tasks, knowing Uncle Sam can do nothing about the current state of affairs.

On the right, an African American figure relaxes against the wall. Nast drew a similar figure in 1879, Every Dog “(No Distinction of Color)” Has His Day.“ He is unaware or unconcerned with Uncle Sam’s conflict.

 

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