In his essay on American keywords, Nikhil Pal Singh identified the literal use of “liberal” to “free men” and use of the colloquial of the term as one of the “foundational intellectual discourses of political modernity.”
In the twenty first century, one identified as “liberal” is often pitted against its counterpart “conservative” with each position slinging the other term as an insult. For conservatives, Singh suggests that describing one as a “liberal” infers that person has a “reckless disregard for traditional values and moral virtue.”
Singh points out that many versions of term exist and interpretations are highly uneven. For certain, the word’s roots come to mean a certain proponent of liberation or freedom.
In Nast’s time and politics, “liberal” was closely related to “radical” and used in his own political faction, “Radical Republicanism.” Singh asks a question that Nast and his progressive Republicans may have continually wrestled with; “How to combine an expansive, even utopian, defense of individual freedom with a stable and cohesive structure of social organization.”
Nast may have agreed with John Locke, who Singh reminds us, envisioned liberalism as a state where individuals enjoy a “natural liberty” and enter into a “social contract” in order to establish a government where life, liberty, and property can be secured (Singh).
Nast historian Morton Keller describes Nast’s Radical Republicanism as more than simply a party affiliation. “It rested on a set of social values that induced him to comment on a wide range of American public issues” (105).
Abolition and civil rights for African Americans, particularly the right to vote, Keller says, represented the “touchstone” of Radical Republicanism. Even after the war, when Negrohobia “prevailed” Radical Republicans believed in a nation of equality. But the rights of African Americans were a priority.
“Nast’s sensitivity to the rights of minority Americans extended to others besides embattled freedmen,” (Keller 107). His vision of America included all minorities – in public schools – at the voting booth and allegorically, at the Thanksgiving table. “The Chinese and the Indians in particular came under his protective wing” (107).
After the Civil War, the preeminent Radial Republican leaders in the nation were Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner (Foner 229). With ideals originating in New England constituencies, the movement was strong in both small towns and family farms – where free labor was self-evident (Foner 228).
Radical ideology embraced the utopian vision of a nation whose “citizens enjoyed equality of civil and political rights, secured by a powerful and beneficent national state” (Foner 230).
After the Civil War, those leaders affiliated with Radical Republicanism “hoped to reshape Southern society in the image of he small-scale competitive capitalism of the North” (Foner 235),
Examples of Nast’s Radical Republicanism and utopian beliefs are best expressed in his work of the 1860s: “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” “Emancipation of Negroes” and many of Nast’s commentary on the New York Public School System.
After Lincoln’s death, Radical Republicans placed considerable hope in Andrew Johnson and the promise of northern-led reform. Johnson did not live up to these expectations. Increasingly, Johnson unveiled “an emerging image of the white South’s champion (Foner 190). Radical Republicans felt disillusioned with the Johnson administration and with the president as an individual leader. This reality bitterly disappointed Radical Republicans and especially Nast, who took his angst out in the form of satire and caricature. With Johnson as his subject, Nast embarked on a new phase of his artistic career – personal political cartoon satire.
Nast’ most recent biographer (2012) Fiona Deans Halloran attributes Nast’s German origins and the German community in New York as key in shaping the young artist’s liberal philosophy. Germans in New York especially focused on local political corruption and the national struggle over slavery” (29). As German Forty-Eighters, the community in New York City keenly followed the social movements in Europe. “The fundamental principle of Liberalism was the idea that human history was a story of progress” (29).
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