“Ides of March” 1880

Denis Kearny wears a sign while 4 Chinese men heckle in the background
“Ides of March” 20 March 1880 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Image Source : UDel-Walfred

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.

Sign detail

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.

Close up of distorted Chinese faces. Photo from WPC. Public Domain

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.

8 thoughts on ““Ides of March” 1880”

  1. Hey, I really like your work, I appreciate all the effort you put in it. I was wondering if you could provide me with references of the sources you used. Where can I find them? Kind regards 🙂

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