Thomas Nast applies irony and a direct hit at hypocrisy to this 1882 commentary drawn on the eve of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“Uncivilized” and “barbaric” were leading accusations (two of many) hurled against the Chinese by American citizens and other immigrant groups in America. Always defined and depicted as outsiders, sojourners and as “others,” the Chinese were not accorded the rights of other immigrants. In many locations, especially in the West, the Chinese were specifically prohibited to integrate or assimilate into what was viewed as normal white American culture.
Nast assumes this voice of normal America and suggests if only the Chinese could be like us, behave like us–if only they could “embrace civilization”–the Euro-American brand of civilization–then maybe they could remain in the United States. Nast throws this tolerated behavior of American civilization right in the face of his critics and illustrates the baseless hypocrisy of their xenophobic anti-Chinese sentiment.
Nast’s use of humor is effective. The center image is a direct hit at the Irish, whose penchant for whiskey was an oft-repeated stereotype. Perhaps, if the Chinese could drink like the Irish, then maybe they could stay.
Or, how about good old fashioned pugilism? For decades, the Irish had earned a reputation for bare-knuckle prizefighting. White men considered Chinese men docile. As boxers, the Irish had organized violence into a popular entertainment and sport. Did the public really want to see the Chinese taking up fights?
Cheap, competitive labor kept the Chinese busy and productive. If they raised their rates and joined the labor unions they could join the ranks of civilized men and strike, starve, and loaf about the city streets. Many white working Americans viewed the Chinese as a threat because they worked hard, kept to themselves and aided capitalist interests.
Nast offers an alternative. He invites the reader to consider the reality and dangers of getting what one asks for. Would pro-labor prefer drunk, idle, unproductive Chinese beggars? Will this behavior help the Chinese advance the way the Irish did? Is this how the Chinese must behave in order to join the ranks of civilized men? Through this collection of visual tales, Nast exposes the irony and the hypocrisy of accusations leveled by white men and the demands they placed upon the Chinese. Are the Irish the standard, the role model for acceptance?
By 1882, Nast grew disgusted with U.S. Senator James G. Blaine Republican from Maine who sided against the Chinese in the debate for Exclusion legislation. The image of a Chinese man as a U.S. Senator, doing nothing but “talk,” “talk,” “talk” is a stab at the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of public service and the current state of political integrity as Nast saw it.
The term “coolie” is commonly associated with Chinese Americans depicted as an involuntary slave labor force, forced cheap labor, or indentured servitude/contract laborers unwittingly recruited and trapped into slave work conditions, or exploited and victimized by low or zero wage compensation. “Coolies” lacked the freedom to leave the work site.
Indeed, many Chinese men were tricked and set aboard ships for paying jobs that did not exist. Many turned out to be slave ships, where men were forced to perform grueling labor in the polluted guano pits of coastal Peru to harvest solidified bird droppings prized as fertilizer. Other Asian slave labor journeyed to the tropics to harvest sugar cane.
Coolie labor differs from an individual offering to undercut one’s rate of pay in order to be competitive – a willingness to negotiate terms of labor. But from the very beginning of the Chinese arrival in the U.S.to work in the gold mines, and sustained through the development of intense anti-Chinese hysteria, the concept of “cheap labor” was synonymous with “coolie labor.” The white workingmen labor movement saw no distinction and all Chinese workers were “coolies” and no different than slaves. “Coolies” undercut all the labor competition. Employers would not hire white men as long as they had a source of “coolies” to do the work instead.
John Kuo Wei Tchen, an authority on Chinese-American history, describes the term “coolie,” and “Chinese labor” as being used interchangeably in the minds of American capitalists during the nineteenth century. The Chinese had arrived in America, specifically on the West Coast, after the 1848 discovery of gold in California, with an aim to strike it rich, and then return to their native China with a significant windfall. These Chinese did not view themselves, nor did Americans view them, as like other immigrants. Instead, they were “sojourners,” individuals who planned to stay in the United States temporarily, just long enough to make enough money to return home and provide economic security for their families back in China. The financial windfall promised from gold mining did not meet expectations and most Chinese remained in America and sought other means to earn money.
Tchen quotes a Protestant missionary in China describes how many viewed the Chinese labor as an export product and opportunity on which to capitalize (169),
The Coolie trade, it will be seen is speculation in human labor. In other words, it is reducing human labor to the list of marketable commodities –making it an object of purchase and sale, and holding it, subject to the various vicissitudes which attend stocks, provisions, dry goods and other articles of commerce.
The year 1870 “marked the moment at which struggles between capital and labor interpenetrated commercial culture, producing a common visual and written language in which Chinese labor would be represented in national political debate” (Tchen 167).
Post-Civil War industrialization created a need for labor. The Burlingame Treaty, enacted in 1868, sought in part to facilitate expansion of trade between the U.S. and China. The United States with the annexation of Alaska and inclusion of California and other western states needed plentiful labor. Treaties with Native Americans were abrogated in order to connect the East and West Coasts with the transatlantic railroad. A larger United States needed and encouraged the spread of homesteading, commerce, and European immigration. “At the same time, “cheap”–and seemingly limitless–Chinese labor became a highly desirable commodity for post-slavery capitalist” (Tchen 168-169).
But it was the lure of gold that beckoned those from China’s port cities to leave behind their rice farms and fishing villages and turn their ambitions toward the “Gold Mountain,” of California. “Facing warlords, destitution, and British battleships,” Chinese villagers were enticed by advertisements describing America as a land of plenty (Pfaelzer 4).
In addition to men tricked to work in slave shops, women were kidnapped and forced to serve as prostitutes for the burgeoning gold mining community. Not surprisingly, these women died early from diseases. The state of their health was used to define all Chinese women as immoral, reason enough to restrict their immigration into America. The cruel conditions these women were forced to endure lent credence to some American claims that the Chinese were unsanitary and carriers of disease.
“Free labor” had been swirling around as a concept, an ideal and a goal as anti-slavery ideology began to grow in antebellum America. “Chinese miners arrived in a new state that had just voted to outlaw slavery” (Pfaelzer 25).
Many Americans, fresh with the memory of battling slavery, could point to “coolies” as an anathema to free will. “From the outset, the penny press widely reported the uses and abuses of Chinese and South Asian indentured “coolie” labor” (Tchen 169) and were disturbed by its reality.
The problem was that the perception of “coolie” labor extended to those Chinese who were in fact, not being forced to work at all. Many had entrepreneurial ambitions and created businesses that fit the need of a growing community or boon town.
“The great majority of Chinese arriving in the United States were not contract laborers” (Tchen 170). By repeatedly classifying all Chinese labor as “coolie labor” and successfully blurring that distinction, the white labor movement, particularly the Workingmen’s Party led by Denis Kearney succeeded in presenting a moral argument to their rallying cry that, “The Chinese Must Go.”
Webster’s Dictionary offers a very succinct definition of “stereotype.” It reads: 1. to make a stereotype from a.) to repeat without a variation b.) to develop a mental stereotype about.
Loaded with meaning and consequence, “negative” is frequently paired as a prefix. Stereotypes are rarely considered positive.
Webster’s has gotten it right, particularly as stereotypical representations flourish in visual culture – in works of art – and in particular in cartoon caricatures.
To stereotype an individual is to strip them of their unique qualities, rendering them as one-dimensional figures with a singular behavior, dress, or unifying physical trait. Stereotypes strip away diversity. It denies a unique individual personality. A stereotype creates the suggestion that the subject or person only dresses, eats, talks or behaves in one limited way. To perpetuate a stereotype is to repeat that suggestion verbally, mentally, and visually. Through repetition, the stereotype gains a strange form of legitimacy that is difficult to unravel and reverse.
Editorial art historian Donald Dewey feels that American caricature’s “sorry history” need not have been inevitable. However “the pandering of artists to the opinion of readers was certainly a very large lure” (25-26). Dewey takes little credit away from Nast’s talents, but argues that a great portion of his art succeeded because it responded to people’s own “preconceptions about the last word in viciousness and degeneracy.” Repetition of images “tickled readers’ assumptions” (27).
Dewey calls visual symbols “an economic language in a frontier society where literacy wasn’t always available currency” (11). A weekly deadline didn’t provide artists with the luxury of time to deliver nuanced images. Like many cartoonists, Nast had a sketchbook of references, a repertoire of stock images that he could utilize and quickly drop into place as an ingredient to a scene. Nast’s home studio in Morristown, New Jersey was filled with objects; vases, weapons, classical works of art and likenesses which served as prop models. In the flurry of the Tweed years, Nast contributed as many as seven images over two issues. Meeting deadlines with a respectable level of detail required artists to take short cuts by repeating visual symbols.
John Kuo Wei Tchen believes that when it came to China, the American representation of Chinese people and wares changed drastically from 1776 to 1882. During the early part of this era using “Chinese things, ideas and people in the United States, in various imagined and real forms, has been instrumental in forming this nation’s cultural identity” (xv).
Tchen explains by the end of this period, as the U.S. approached the turn of the century, the rank and file American saw the Chinese as interfering with America’s “Manifest Destiny.” Chinese American men posed a direct threat to Caucasian laborers. Competition for labor to build America’s railroad infrastructure shifted to white labor. To facilitate this change in attitude, it was important to point out the differences and the dangers of Chinese people living and working in America.
Through the mechanical reproduction of art, the Chinese and other minorities became products or salable representations of a racialized other. As Tchen observed, the Chinese soon became exploited in all aspects of media,
Each time real Chinese were mimicked, simulated, and reproduced … abruptly altered, reduced and/or simplified. Visual images abstracted from real people were also disengaged from the real complexities of their lives, from the layered, creolized cultural practices of Chinese New Yorkers. The resulting abstractions – narrow racialized types-were easily recognizable and therefore highly salable…Such images, however, had a powerful effect on the real, everyday options of real, everyday Chinese, the representations became the real thing. (125).
Tchen’s definition of stereotype and its effects is an excellent one. Complexities become simplified. Easy representations become the truth.
And particularly with the second half of the nineteenth century cartoons on Chinese immigrants depict Chinese as males wearing their native dress and the long queue hairstyle. Many American cartoonists elongated Chinese heads and exaggerated the slants of their eyes. The most negative Chinese stereotypes include the addition of rats as companions and a staple of the Chinese diet. Smoking opium and living in squalor are common stereotypes. Since labor issues surrounded the presence of the Chinese, they are often shown working as launderers, cigar makers, shoe cobblers, tea merchants, miners or railroad workers. Chinese American men are rarely shown with Chinese wives, which was indeed rare. Chinese men and never shown to wear western clothes – a confirmation of their refusal to assimilate. In cartoons, particularly on the West Coast, it was common to show the Chinese as members of invading hordes, vectors of malaise and disease.
Stereotypes exist in all forms of communication – on stage, television, film, music, in casual conversations and through the use of expression in high and low art.
This 1880 cover is a curious cartoon for Nast on many levels. As a cover it is accompanied by a long, unsigned essay (likely Harper’s Managing Editor George W. Curtis) that both tears down and defends the Chinese. It is not known if the cartoon took the lead on addressing the issue or if the reverse is true.
Denis Kearney is shown at the center – his physical attributes drawn accurately and not caricatured in any manner. Clearly Nast wishes the subject of piece to be recognized. Kearney’s expression is serious, resolute and attractive. He is the leading man in this Shakespearean production.
Nast casts Kearney in the title role of the upcoming theatrical production of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Nast was exposed to many Shakespearean plays as a child. He often accompanied his father, Joseph, a musician for the Philharmonic Society. This exposure gave Nast many references and models for his caricatures (Adler 24).
Kearney dons a sandwich board and walks outside to advertise for an actor to play the role of Brutus, Caesar’s assassin.
Kearney, an Irishman born in Cork in 1847, became a central figure in California politics, and in San Francisco especially, where he rallied public opinion against the Chinese. Kearney, “in 1877, on the open sand lot fronting the new City Hall in San Francisco, started a general war-cry, “The Chinese Must Go!”” (Paine 412).
Kearney, a charismatic speaker, organized the Workingmen’s Party, a labor movement that accumulated significant political power in California. Kearney’s efforts influenced the passage of anti-Chinese legislation in California, ultimately leading to the passage of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. He also took his message across country, but his lectures “seemed to convince many national politicians that Chinese exclusion had broad and fierce support among American workers” (Meagher 272-273).
Nast saw Kearney’s behavior as theatrics. To the right, Nast identifies the area as “The Sand – Lot Theatre” The placard announces Kearney as Caesar, but has a question mark by the character Brutus. Who will stop Kearney/Brutus. In front of that billboard stand two Chinese men. Both are smiling. The one on the right raises his hands, as if applying for consideration. The other, wearing a hat, holds his hands to his chest and bows slightly, as if to indicate he would be honored to assume the role of the character Brutus, who with some coaxing from other conspirators, kills his erstwhile friend and Roman emperor/dictator Julius Caesar. Nast is trying to silence Kearney and suggests a figurative way to oust the white labor dictator. The two Chinese men, and another in the shadows, indicate multiple interest in the role of assassin. The two Chinese men at right wear identical, gleeful smiles. They are eager for the chance to play Brutus to Kearney’s Caesar.
Left of Kearney, two highly distorted Chinese men appear to heckle the Irish labor agitator. The one at far right points at Kearney’s back.
Behind the two men on the left are notices condemning Chinatown as a Board of Health issue – the signs trumpet the political alliances Kearney was forging in San Francisco.
Four Chinese men behind Kearney are severely caricatured. “Their heads and faces are quite grotesque, with huge smiles and slanted eyes and eyebrows” (Tchen 209). The man at left center, closest to Kearney is extremely unnatural looking, almost hyena-like. Kearney was an effective villian against the Chinese community, yet none of these men seem to fear Kearney at all, which is odd. His anti-Chinese rhetoric catapulted restrictions levied at Chinese American freedom. The four Chinese men mock Kearney at their own peril. Their laughter is sinister and arrogant. In considering thi specific cartoon, historian John Kuo Wei Tchen raises an important question. Nast knew how to draw Chinese men with dignity – see Civilization of Blaine – so why draw these men in this manner?
Harper’s included a related article’s repeating from reported stereotyped descriptions of Chinese in California The language perpetuates tropes about the Chinese as peculiar, inferior and strange. Yet the unattributed author condemns Kearney’s tactics and extends an invitation of citizenship to the Chinese.
Prefacing their descriptions in such terms as “a great many writers have said,” and “newspapers writers have sometimes told their readers,” the article puts forth titillating information about the peculiar and unfortunate Chinese. The reader is left to determine whether or not the author believes what he is sharing. The article describes the colors in which the Chinese like to decorate, their small and dank environs and the strange manner in which they prepare their food. The author describes a people who prefer to keep to themselves.
A sizable section of the article speculates about the Chinese queue the most fascinating singular characteristic of the Chinese to Americans. What happens when the queue is kept? What happens to the Chinese if the queue is cut off? How does the queue affect assimilation, conversion to Christianity, American culture or dress? In almost every cartoon of the Chinese in America, favorable or not, artists like Nast and Keller and focusedon the distinctive hairstyle, often giving the long pony tail a life of its own. In 1880, thirty years after the Chinese arrive in America, the queue remained an object of great curiosity, even to a degree of obsession as a central characteristic of the Chinese.
And in Nast’s cartoon, the two men, far left and right, have very long queues that have grown far past the length of their tunics. Hidden from the upper torso and emerging from below their tunics, the queues look more like animal tails than pigtails.
Even by 1880, Harper’s still felt the need to describe the Chinese to its readers and speculate upon second-hand, remote observations regarding Chinese lifestyle, habits and traits. Tyler Anbinder writes that by the 1870s, the Chinese population in New York, though statistically very small (in the hundreds) had nevertheless grown conspicuous in Five Points. Outside of that neighborhood, however, it was unlikely any New Yorker or Harper’s reader would have direct contact with or knowledge about Chinese people.
In this issue, Harper’s Weekly editor also shared “valuable” reports written by the Reverend Gibson, a famous defender of the Chinese in California (see G.F. Keller’s cartoon). Harper’s agreed with Gibson and concludes that the Chinese labor controversy is one stoked by Irish laborers who fear honest competition. “The presence and labor of the Chinese have opened up industries which have stimulated the demand for such white laborers and professional men,” Harper’s cautioned its readers to consider the source biased on reports that the Chinese live in filth and therefore present a public health risk. Eventually tying into Nast’s cover, the editor refers to Mr. Kearney, and writes,
From the beginning persons of this ilk have found ready and willing to fan the sparks of ignorant bigotry and prejudice into the flames of animosity and hatred toward these people. The result has been acts of violence, bloodshed, and murder on the one hand, and on the other certain special class legislation equally iniquitous, the object achieved being simply the repression and injury of the Chinese. And this while intelligent men and calm thinkers have been doing their best to bear testimony to the generally quiet and industrious character of the poor Chinaman, and the indisputable capacity he possesses for becoming a good citizen.
By surrounding an important newsworthy person as Denis Kearney, with a clutch of laughing, fearlessly mocking Chinese men, Nast may have intended to reduce the importance of his antagonist. He sees these Chinese as Brutus’s co-conspirators. Nast does not ridicule Kearney directly, he has the Chinese men do it. But even they do not have the courage to confront Kearney directly, they cackle behind Kearney’s back. How well the cartoon serves to demonize Kearney is questionable. Nast has sacrificed Chinese integrity in an effort to berate Kearney. While the artist and Harper’s editorial board adopted a moral stance to extend to the Chinese the rights any immigrant might enjoy, they eagerly dip their pens in the inkwell of gimmickry and stereotype, making it difficult to cultivate empathy toward the Chinese. This cartoon, combined with the article offers confused signals for their readers to interpret.
The labor question was uppermost in the publics’ mind during the latter 1870’s. It was a political question. Nast chided Republican Senator from Maine, James G. Blaine, for his willingness to forgo promises made to the Chinese with the Burlingame Treaty, in order to secure a Chinese Exclusion measure (Paine 412)
Blaine was a three-time presidential hopeful. With corrupt scandals of the Grant administration surfacing and swirling in political circles, and with no signs of public sentiment shifting in favor of the Chinese, Blaine courted Democratic voters and advocated for a revision of the 1868 Burlingame Treaty. The treaty was the product of negotiations between the Chinese Six Companies, “the most important association representing the Chinese community and the federal government” (Takaki, 113).
The more groundbreaking articles of the treaty included measures that promised the Chinese the right to free immigration and travel within the United States, and allowed for the protection of Chinese citizens in the United States in accordance with the most-favored-nation principle” (U.S. State Dept.). The treaty was “a major victory for the Chinese” (Takaki 114).
Republican politicians who wavered and bowed to the growing anti-Chinese mob pressure alarmed the artist. “Nast never had the slightest sympathy with any sort of organization or movement that did not mean the complete and absolute right of property ownership, as well as the permission to labor, accorded to every human being of whatsoever color or race. His first real antagonism to James G. Blaine began with the latter’s advocacy of Chinese Exclusion” (Paine 386).
Nast viewed the attempts to abrogate the treaty, and Blaine’s role in that shift, as deplorable and an unforgivable breach in Republican values. As Nast’s biographer points out, Nast frequently lampooned Blaine in order to expose his hypocrisy, a reality that made Blaine “heartsick” given his national ambitions. Nast was for Blaine, a painfully persistent pest.
Blaine was all too aware that Nast’s sphere of influence on the electorate was wide. Nast relished exposing Blaine’s hypocrisy. Nast’s fixation on Blaine was unrelenting, nearly equaling his Tweed/Tammany days. The adverse attention worried Blaine, who “attempted to explain and to justify his position, but the artist could see in the Chinese immigrant only a man and a brother, trying to make a living in a quiet and peaceful manner in a country that was big enough for all” (Paine, 413).
The cartoon also capitalized on the popularity of a popular 1870 poem, Bret Harte’s “Plain Language from Truthful James,” with Nast exploiting James Blaine as Harte’s fearful and deeply suspicious character.
Blaine is seen center at the top of an equal rights podium, welcoming an Irishman on right, and giving him space on the platform by kicking off a Chinese worker. The irony that both ethnic groups arrived in the U.S. to flee famine, was not lost on Nast. All of the accusations leveled at the Irish by Protestants, e.g. cult religion, large numbers (hordes) of poor and diseased people of a different race (the Irish were thought to be of a different race) who would ruin and dilute American culture, and an unwillingness to assimilate, became the exact charges the Irish leveled against the Chinese.
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“A Diplomatic (Chinese) Design Presented to the U.S. – 12 February 1881 by Thomas Nast, for Harper’s Weekly. Source: Scan at UDel by Walfred. Public domain
This highly detailed full-page wood engraving appeared in Harper’s Weekly without an accompanying article.
In the cartoon a Chinese dragon curls around a Chinoiserie vase—it drops a document “New Treaty” from its claws into the neck of the vase. The vase is highly ornate – its style familiar to fashionable American households that collected Chinese art and porcelains (Chinoiserie) to display as a statement of cultural sophistication.
The vase is also cracked. The fracture is serious, running from under the dragon’s tail to the base of the porcelain, where it bifurcates into another fracture. At first glance, the dragon, who Nast has drawn with a devilish grin, appears to be possessive of the vase, but it might be trying to hold the vase together with its body and tail—and the offering of a negotiated concession—as an incentive to stay together. Under the dragon’s left claw reads “diplomacy.” The dragon is dark, menacing, and both protective and defensive of its territory and history in dealing with western culture.
The treaty Nast refers to is the 1880 Angell Treaty – a modification to the Burlingame Treaty negotiated by Rutherford B. Hayes. Bending to the will of anti-Chinese hysteria in California, China agreed to American limitations on Chinese immigration on the promise that the United States will not try to trade opium in Chinese ports.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, China enjoyed an advantaged position between itself and England. England wanted the advantage neutralized or eliminated and began to forcibly import opium into China. In Collecting Objects/ Excluding People, Lenore Metrick-Chen sums up the consequences of the opium trade and its relevance to the U.S.
When the Qing government protested this illegal activity, Britain used its military to force the trade’s continuation. The Opium Wars resulted in huge financial, military, cultural and humanitarian losses for China. Poverty forced many people, mainly young men, to risk the truly wretched conditions of the ocean journey to America. (6)
Harper’s Weekly commented on the treaty in response to an apparent snide editorial originating out of England. Harper’s justified the terms of the new treaty, which ironically continued to award China “most favored nation” status, and reflected on the possible prohibition of Chinese immigrants as being good if it kept the U.S. from forcing opium on the Chinese as the British had done. Harper’s went on record earlier and speculated that “The friendly acquiescence in the restriction of immigration should at once satisfy the California apprehension” (Harper’s Weekly Jan. 29, 1881) which of course the treaty did not.
An aftermath of the Opium Wars was the damage it did to American opinions on all things Chinese. Chinese works of art, once prized by cultured Americans, began to lose their luster in American homes, and American began to favor Japanese objects. “For a short time in the 1870s, Americans began to look enthusiastically at both Chinese and Japanese things, but as the decade drew on approval voiced for Chinese things diminished” (Metrick-Chen 37).
In Nast’s image the caption reads that the artist sketched the vase from a private viewing in Washington D.C. Upon the neck of the vase, Nast has drawn the U.S. Capitol, and, the U.S. Flag upside down, a symbol of distress. A single shamrock replaces the flag’s stars, an indicator that Nast continued to feel the Irish had too much power and influence in American governance. An eagle bearing “85” on its shield (the significance of that number cannot be determined) hovers over the Capitol dome. A string that appears to be kite ties, crosses the throat of the vase. Under the neck of the dragon, Nast includes two Chinese men who dangle from nooses created from their queues, They hang under a sign that reads “Rum Hole.” A fire smolders with “Washington Herbs.” The herbs indicate a ritual or ceremony accompanied the hangings.
In the center, representing England, is a portly John Bull. Bull has fallen off his steed. The horse escapes to the left. Bull wears a “St. George’s” medallion. Big Ben can be seen in the background. The face of the famous clock is Chinese. John Bull bears the scars of other diplomatic mishaps. His right leg is in a cast, adorned with shamrocks and a harp, both symbols Nast used to represent Ireland.
At the vase’s base, a semi-circle frame labeled “Opium Business” is affected by the fracture. Two Chinese men are stoned by the product they are forced to sell. To the right a ship carrying “opium” arrives ashore.
Nast also addressed the new treaty in the Feb.5th issue with his cartoon “Celestial.”
He included a similar vase in the 1882 cartoon “The Veto.
In October 2011, Thomas Nast, (1840-1902) appeared among a list of distinguished individuals nominated again for induction into The New Jersey Hall of Fame. The nomination, Nast’s third in four years, would not result in his induction. Despite Nast’s legacy as the “Father of the American Caricature” (Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 20, 1902), the accolades and fame earned for his series of approximately 50 cartoons exposing the corrupt New York City Tammany Hall boss William Meager Tweed would not be enough. Rather, it would be another Nast legacy, his anti-Irish and anti-Catholic cartoons drawn primarily in the late-1860s to mid-1870s, which determined Nast’s failure to be included in the Hall of Fame roster.
Caricature can be a cruel expression of contempt. Cartoon historians Stephen Hess and Milton Kaplan refer to caricature as the Ungentlemanly Art; Donald Dewey, the Art of Ill Will. As an editorial caricaturist, Nast relied on techniques to exaggerate physical features, employ personal ridicule, symbolism, and stereotype to expose what he saw as “a struggle between good and evil” (Dewey 7). Nast viewed Irish Americans and the Catholic Church in the post-Civil War era as direct threats to the Republican values of inclusion, unity, toleration, and fairness. He saw the rise of Tweed’s Democratic Tammany Hall Ring, the Irish immigrants, and American Roman Catholics as inexorably linked, one group enabling the others’ prominence.
Nearly a century and a half after they were drawn, Nast’s Irish and Catholic depictions continue to deeply offend. Reprising an English tradition of depicting the Irish as beasts, most typically as apes, Nast’s Irish was a brutish, violent- loving, jaw-jutting aggressor.
Nast, who was born and baptized in the Catholic faith, and received early Catholic education, frequently drew sinister-looking Catholic clergy, usually elaborately robed and surrounded by riches. Recently, these images have resurfaced as a retort to Nast’s 2011 Hall of Fame nomination. The cartoons appear in numerous blogs and editorials – examples offered to prove that Thomas Nast was a racist and a bigot. These images should not be viewed in isolation, without historical context to explain their purpose.
Thomas Nast had a well-established history of supporting fairness and equity, but he would quickly attack those he had previously championed when he perceived hypocrisy, corruption or stupidity within the ranks of previous favorites. Nast’s most famous targets: Tweed and the Irish-Americans Catholics who affiliated with and benefited from the political boss, had questionable alliances and political stances. As emerging actors in New York City Democratic politics, Irish-American Catholics under Tweed’s protection provided a critical backdrop in which a six-year-old Catholic immigrant from Germany came of age, and formed a political identity. Nast witnessed extraordinary characters and cultures, indeed he was part of New York City’s immigrant identity. As Nast matured in this cultural and political soup, he found a passionate solidarity within the progressive politics of the new Republican Party. In particular, after the Civil War, Nast identified his enemies as Democrats and their positions on key social and political issues fueled the ire in his ink.
Nast critics deserve a hearing, however. For example, in his 1863 Emancipation drawing, Nast took great effort to present an optimistic vision of African Americans contrasted against a reminder of African American slavery and oppression. It was important for Nast to present the two together. But when it came to the Irish-American experience, Nast did not explore or comment on the Irish’s long history of oppression in Europe. Nast appears not to have considered any background material which could have furthered his understanding of their collective behavior in America. His work is not sympathetic to the Irish’s dire living conditions in New York City. Nast may have shared a common attitude held by most Germans Americans that they superior to the Irish.
If Nast felt superior, he was not alone. Dale Knobel explains that the rank and file Americans, prior to the war at least, believed that environment was a direct result of a defect in character – in this case, the native Irish character, and character developed from one’s environment. The prevailing view among Protestant Americans held that the Irish had made poor life decisions (marrying early, too many children, following a pope and superstitious religion) and therefore deserved their troubled lot in life (82). Irish-American historian Timothy Meagher writes that Ireland’s troubled history is often overlooked when explaining subsequent Irish American behavior. The Irish didn’t act like Germans because “they were from Ireland and had learned “lessons” there that shaped their reaction” to other races religions and cultures (224).
Had Nast fully studied and appreciated the Irish’s history of oppression and the extraordinary circumstances that caused them to emigrate to America, would he have excused the intertwined relationship of Irish Catholics with Tweed? Probably not. As sympathetic as he was to African Americans, Nast later resorted to racial caricatures and lampooned African Americans when they (in Nast’s opinion) too easily gave away new civil rights gains in the early days of the Restoration. Nast felt they hurridly compromised with southern Democratic politicians — a ruling class Nast felt to to be insincere and corrupt.
Blacks, who Nast once drew with dignity and respect, later became guffawing simpletons who didn’t know better — incapable of navigating through the complex and murky waters of southern politics. As tender as Nast could be in an image like Emancipation, he could be unmerciful in his treatment of minorities in images like The Ignorant Vote. These depictions couldn’t be any more inconsistent.
Albert Bigelow Paine, (1861-1937) was Nast’s only contemporary biographer and penned a reverential 600-page tome published two years after Nast’s death. Paine interviewed Nast toward the end of his life, and he does not challenge the recollections of his subject and the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic drawings are weakly examined.
In an effort to explain away the anti-Catholic reputation that had obviously lingered and threatened to tarnish Nast’s legacy, Paine wrote, “He was inspired by no antagonism to any church–indeed he was always attracted by Catholic forms and ceremonies” (150).
Extraordinary and divisive national events shaped Nast’s persona and outlook. In his adopted country, Nast embraced and championed a Republican political view — a position reinforced by his employers at Harper’s Weekly and the at-large intelligentsia of the day. His attitudes about the Irish were not at all unusual. This was the era when “Irish Need Not Apply” signs proliferated across storefronts and businesses. Knobel’s convincing research makes this very clear. In this atmosphere of an evolving America, Nast transitioned from an illustrator to a caricaturist; the latter’s prime purpose was to expose, within his immediate environment, malfeasance, corruption, lapses in morality, etc. To be successful and effective as a visual commentator and observer, his caricature needed to shock and startle. Caricature provokes and elicits conversation and debate.
In using caricature, Nast purposely fired a weapon clearly meant to exaggerate, upset, and call attention to a specific issue or crime. Exaggeration was precisely his point. Nast argued for diversity and illustrated these differences with recognizable symbols his readers would immediately grasp — an artist’s version of shorthand.
How would Nast have drawn a positive image of an Irishman? Perhaps he did, and these white, Euro-centric faces simply blend in. How would we recognize a positive Nast Irishman if he did not use stereotype? Wouldn’t the Irish look like any other Anglo-American? When something was wrong, went wrong,, Nast drew out his pen and pencil and fired off an attack. The Irish and Catholic alliance with Tweed and the growth of their political prominence and activism (including adopting a pro-slavery political position) provided the fodder — the examples for Nast to run with his preconceptions.
In his book the Irish stereotype, Paddy and the Republic, Dale Knobel quotes Harold Lasswell, a content analyst who helped compile period material for the book,
It is impossible to get inside the mind and observe attitude as one might observe conduct. We obtain insight into the world of the other person when we are fully aware of what has come to his attention(qtd. Knobel xv).
When one browses the Internet and grabs one of Nast’s drawings do we know the full story? Nast drew more than 2,200 cartoons for Harper’sWeekly (Kennedy) alone. A vast majority of his images focused on the people, groups, and religion of my Irish ancestors. In these pieces, I see a slice of history as it was, not how I wish it would have been! His images are historic and possess intrinsic value. Nast came of age during events, controversies, drama, and a cascade of cultures. In order to assess the layers of meaning, and do it with justice, involves an extraordinary commitment of time and affection for history. To fairly evaluate these documents (and Nast’s images) involves having an open mind and a curious nature willing to explore the many backstories and cultures that shaped individual attitudes and behavior during Nast’s career. Every detail — the meaning behind every symbol, the tradition and origin of each stereotype, and the significance of the words, placards, and captions that accompany his caricatures all play a vital role in understanding these cartoons.
Caricature and editorial cartoons go beyond mere illustration. Simple illustration captures the obvious action along with the ingredients that everyone recognizes. Caricature captures an unseen truth — a truth exposed, an opinion perhaps, that many would prefer to brush under the carpet. Caricature peels back the layers of illusion and exposes a starker reality.
Had it not been for particular political alliances, which in Nast’s view involved stolen elections, misappropriated public funds, and an enormity of ego and arrogance, there would have been few reasons for Nast to have attacked Irish Catholics. Every line Nast drew, he executed toward achieving or arguing for a Republican political view. One may not agree with Nast’s political thinking, but those who are informed about his life and times find it difficult to question the well of integrity from with which he drew his creative inspiration and the evidence of corruption that swirled all around him compelled him to take action. See Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.
Nast took to task the people he saw as villains, and as a result, in the eyes of many, became one himself. Nast did not glamorize the villains and threats of his day. He obliterated them through the exposure of black lines on white paper. As wrong as these perceptions and images might feel today, the truth is, most people felt that way toward the Irish. Because of his ability to visualize the way ordinary Americans felt, Thomas Nast now bears the brunt and identification of owning this attitude lock, stock, and barrel.
Today, Americans with an Irish heritage often react with anger at Nast’s nomination, and may not fully understand nor be willing to accept the knowledge that a sizable portion of our ancestors, horribly oppressed in Ireland, became oppressors in America. Ignorance is bliss. In the Irish-American struggle to fit into mainstream America, other immigrant groups were mistreated, most notably the Chinese, by the Irish and other white groups. In climbing the rung and elevating one’s status from a low life meant another group had to occupy the lower tier. Horrible things were done to the Chinese in caricature and more importantly, in everyday life. In a large part of organized Irish activism, the Chinese faced a battery of restrictive legislation and were officially excluded from immigrating to America with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Historical figures like Nast should not be kept out of museums or halls of fame any more than Mark Twain’s use of the N-word should be erased from modern editions of Huckleberry Finn. Our history is full of unique people who did not all get along. The beginning of the immigration era of American history is complicated, extraordinary and often cruel. Nast deserves to be in New Jersey’s Hall of Fame because he earned a place in history through his exposure of political corruption and for documenting the Civil War, national elections, minority struggles and visually capturing and recording northeastern Republican attitudes of a still young nation seeking to reconcile after the Civil War. His art shaped ideas. Not all of us are going to like what he did, and that is fair, but we can’t pretend it didn’t happen.
Today, Thomas Nast’s controversial images are an important educational tool for explaining how and why images matter, how stereotypes are developed, used or misused. Caricature is not illustration and it is not meant to be viewed as such. It is sarcasm, it is an over-the-top exaggeration. Its very nature is controversial and Nast executed that art form as few others could, and for that reason alone, regardless of content, he deserves a spot in New Jersey’s Hall of Fame.