I am a communications specialist at the University of Delaware. I blog about Thomas Nast and editorial cartoons, art history, journalism, fine arts, photography, agriculture, gardening, and social media.
The New Yorker, famous for its illustrated magazine covers, an honor and position Nast frequently attained at Harper’s Weekly, recently published a cover about the Trump Administration’s reaction to the Coronavirus controversy, and in particular, the president’s personal handling of the crisis.
This website is not political, however, political art and cartoons offer important commentary on current political events and issues. The Washington Post recently reviewed The New Yorker’s cover and talked to political artists about how they conceptualize and articulate criticism of the current president through their images. The article includes other artists’ variations on the theme of a mask being used as a blindfold.
Nast was a master of searing commentary. He used several techniques against William M. “Boss” Tweed, who while not a president, was a prominent political leader of his day, that were searing and stunning in their delivery. These images made Nast famous, and Tweed infamous. One Nast image comes to mind, “The Brains.”
Washington Post’s commentary is included here for its attention to the effectiveness of political art and the motivations and inspirations of the artists. As such, it is appropriate to include in this website.
Honored to be quoted and referenced in this article. Columbia, and symbols like her, continue to fascinate. America has always had its moments when her citizenry needed to be reminded of her values. Nast employed Columbia effectively. I am less confident her encore in the 21st century would , or could, make the sale .
“Reconstruction” by German-born American political cartoonist, Thomas Nast illustrates the Southern states being brought back into order with the North into the ancient symbol of collective power and fraternity, the fasces, and the nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”). The symbolism of Columbia (America) depicted in Thomas Nast’s cartoon illustrations are highly relevant to our current political times. It is in fact, not odd to find the Roman Fasces in American symbolism, and for those who simply define the American Republics, in all its phases (hence from beginning to the present), as Evil, then Oligarchic, or a Fascistic Police (Surveilled) State gnawed out and through by corporations, lobbyists, corrupt politicians, and private banking institutions, the fasces is also a symbol for the People. Thus, it may never be removed, or truly demonized. Columbia can be seen in this Harper’s Weekly cover clutching the Fasces…
Thomas Nast often used Columbia and ladies Liberty and Justice in his most important cartoons. See Power of the Cartoon Cover for examples of how Nast and his successors used the American maternal symbol to affect emotion on important national discussions.
This powerful cartoon by Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune follows in this tradition.
A fascinating history of the United States’ relationship with China. Although the early Chinese U.S. immigrants toiled in the gold mines and contributed labor to railroads, and while they were officially “welcomed” by the U.S. Government, as Ms. Roberts stated, they were never really accepted by the rank and file miners and laborers. They became the first and only people officially banned from entering the United States, purely on the basis of race and ethnicity.
American attitudes about immigration are often in conflict. Studying our history of immigration and attitudes toward immigrants reveals we have short memories and immigrants, once established and accepted into American culture often change their attitudes toward newcomers.
A new film by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu and scheduled to appear on PBS AmericanExperience in May.
Jean Pfaelzer, who contributes to the film at approximately 4:52, was my graduate professor and advisor at the University of Delaware and inspired me to study this chapter in our history. Her book, Driven Out is compelling story of how and why this disturbing part of our history came to be. This website is a direct result of Jeannie’s inspired leadership. Also contributing is John Wei Kuo Tchen, whose expertise I sought through two books, New York Before Chinatown, and Yellow Peril: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. Dr. Tchen has also been wonderfully responsive via email and I appreciate his accessibility and contributions.
At the suggestion of many, occasional posts on this website will feature contemporary political cartoons and a discussion about them.
I consider this website an academic one, and have steered away from voicing my political positions on what has been a very unusual, if not contentious 2016 political year. Whatever one’s political positions might be, it is certainly a season for some fascinating creative work. In studying Mr. Nast over the past decade, I admittedly admire his artistic ability, techniques of ridicule, and at times, his political positions.
This site does feature occasional modern cartoon discussions where a new work can directly compare with Thomas Nast, or when similarities of modern work echo a technique or theme that Thomas Nast used. Those few examples:
This website will feature a new post category “Cartoon Corner” where select political and editorial cartoons selected for their:
Cleverness or effectiveness.
Similarity to Nast as an artist. Does the cartoon or caricature echo Nast in some manner?
Similarity to themes or topics addressed by Nast
Analysis of the cartoons will include this criteria and of course, offer a subjective examination dependent upon knowledge of Nast and knowledge of the cartoon and political genre. Any analysis of any cartoon will endeavor to illuminate the artistic merits of an illustration or caricature and evaluate its effectiveness in getting to a point or shaping opinions. Opinions about the art will not necessarily reflect political opinions of the author(s). One can call a cartoon technique “brilliant” but totally disagree with the message.
Guest bloggers are most welcome to contribute submissions and essays. Comments on posts are welcome!
Rare Nast watercolor features a possible self-portrait
Through this website, I received an inquiry from Susan M., who recently acquired a small watercolor image, signed in print script, by T. Nast. Susan had little history on the image. Since “Nast + Chinese” often refers to this site, I was a natural person for her to contact. Nast watercolors are rare. And this particular subject matter is historic, as it features the artist Thomas Nast in a self-portrait engaging in direct contact with a Chinese tobacconist in New York. Seeing it was a fantastic revelation!
The man on the left with paper tucked under his right arm is most certainly Thomas Nast. At 5’5″ Nast was not a tall man, but when he included himself in his work, he depicted his physique as disproportionately tiny. This could be a young Nast, without the goatee. He is trying out a new cigar. In New York, the Chinese sold tobacco, specifically cigars, as well as teas and spices. The little man’s posture is erect and brave, with his rotund abdomen jutting out.
A 1959 self-caricature shows the artist without facial hair, and a similar physique:
Initially, I surmised that the much taller Chinese man to be a merchant. He is dressed in a familiar blue tunic and black pants, and rises from an oblong stool and leans over a small table toward his customer to offer the small man something. Did he just light Nast’s cigar, or is he offering Nast an alternative – an opium pipe? The slant of the Chinese eyes are quite exaggerated, but his expression is more friendly than sinister. Nast posture indicates little fear. The Chinese man’s feet are quite tiny.
I showed the image to historian and author John Kuo Wei Tchen (New York University) and appreciate his quick reply. Tchen feels the Chinese figure is more likely an employee at a tobacconist shop, rather than a merchant. His response in today’s email includes the following:
“There were Chinese cigar wrappers [especially] in the earlier antebellum era, and its possible the owners of these small shops would have welcomed guests to come in for a smoke. How long they continued, I don’t know but its possible even into the Civil War Chinese men could have worked in such stores around Chatham Square especially even if they weren’t the owners. That would not quite make them merchants but employees. And Herald Square was just blocks away (indeed very close to Park Row where some of the first cigar wrapper shops seems to have been & I suspect if memory serves me some of the wrappers lived around Herald Sq). If so, I’d be more specific and say the Chinese man could have been either a worker in a tobacconists’ store and/or a cigar maker and owner of a small cigar wrapper shop. The “merchant” category, though as defined by the letter of the Exclusion Act might be technically accurate, is a bit blurry in the usage here.”
Tchen also discounted the theory of an opium pipe. It was customary for patrons to recline when smoking an opium pipe.
At first glance, under the shadows of the table I thought I could make out artist’s strokes form in the shape of a pig, with its snout pointed down toward the center. Pigs were a stereotye often used to indicate the Chinese. If this is a pig, vague or not, it is Nast’s first use of the stereotype. Upon further inspection, I retract that opinion, and agree with Tchen that it is more likely Nast or the small youth is sitting, and the shape of his extended legs are less defined by the artist. Behind the customer, shadowy strokes create a sole figure witnessing the transaction. A single word hovers on the wall above the merchant’s arm, but it is difficult to make out the meaning.
Echoing Tchen’s speculation from his book New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture (see Overview) “Nast’s exposure to living and breathing Chinese and other racial groups was probably quite limited” (211). 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 felt about them. Tchen suggests Nast represented what he knew or was told about the Chinese, rather from direct personal knowledge.”
From this watercolor it appears Thomas Nast had direct contact with Chinese immigrants.
Furthermore, dating the image to the antebellum era of the New York cigar wrappers, as Tchen suggests, explains Nast’s appearance. Nast first gained recognition as a Civil War illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. Before the war and his own fame, Nast would have had a.) possibly more time to paint, b.) had not yet grown the facial hair (as seen in the 1859 image above) and c.) he may have not yet created his distinct signature found on his later cartoons with Harper’s.
Whether Nast did or did not meet a Chinese person in his lifetime, this painting clearly demonstrates an attitude toward them. It depicts a harmless and ordinary patronage of a Chinese-owned business and clearly, Nast is not afraid to interact with Chinese shop owners or their employees.
Initially, I was concerned about the the signature. In his cartoons, oil paintings and some known watercolors, Nast used his characteristic Th Nast or Th:Nast. script:
The signature on the painting is quite different – plain and not stylized.
Apparently, a precedent exists – as this watercolor from Arader Galleries indicates. It is attributed to Thomas Nast and establishes that Nast printed his signature without the flair in his early pre-fame work.
The owner also sent me additional images in hopes to find further information. Nothing is written on the back.
I am excited for Susan’s new find and so glad that she shared it with me. If indeed, it is an authentic Nast watercolor, it is extraordinarily special for its Chinese subject and self-portraiture. It is the only known image (in my experience) that includes Nast with Chinese-Americans.
Speaking on behalf of both the owner and myself, we would love to hear from Nast experts and curators concerning this watercolor.
All photos of watercolor taken by owner and provided to this website with permission for use.
Follow up January 11, 2016: The owner of the image contacted Ryan Hyman, curator at McCollough Hall, and in viewing the photographs only, Hyman proffered that the painting is consistent with other Nast watercolors and the signature similar to others found in the early 1850s, a pre-fame period when Nast was a young adult and a practicing art student. Hyman thought the image of the short man/patron could indeed be a Nast self-portrait. The printed signature is also consistent with Nast before he became famous. I advised Susan to seek out a professional appraiser, allow the painting to be personally examined and appraised, date the paper, etc., in order to establish its authenticity.
If authentic, and I think it is, the existence of this painting certainly suggests that Nast did personally meet and do business with Chinese people in New York City. There were few Chinese in New York City at this time (in the 1870s, only in the hundreds) so in the 1850s, it would have been quite a memorable experience for a young Thomas Nast, one worth documenting as a visual memory by means of this most interesting watercolor.
I came across this fascinating site from Princeton University’s Graphic Arts blog.
They got a hold of Nast 1860 European passport. Before the Civil War and employment with Harper’s Weekly Nast and as the passport stamps and registry shows, traveled extensively in Europe.
“In 1859, Nast was hired by the New York Illustrated News but this passport was issued on 17 May 1860 so he could travel to Sicily representing The Illustrated London News and report on Giuseppe Garaibaldi’s military campaign to unify Italy. Mott notes that “Nast had not been paid by his employer, and had no money to make his Italian trip until Heenan, the American pugilist, lent him the necessary funds. Nast followed Garibaldi from Sicily to Naples, right through the battle of Volturno, October 1-2, and his articles and illustrations covering the war captured the American imagination.”
Like the year before, 1880 was not a good one for presidential hopeful James G. Blaine. Thomas Nast went after the Republican senator from Maine with a visual vengeance. Nast broke his allegiance with his beloved party of Lincoln, and took on Blaine with a relish comparable to his attacks on William. M. Tweed more than a decade earlier.
Blaine aspired for national office. He sought to win votes in California and made a decision to break from his party and earn votes by siding with anti-Chinese Denis Kearney and the Workingmen party. Kearney’s war cry, most notably delivered in vacant Sand Lots, coined the phrase “The Chinese Must Go” which he delivered with charismatic zeal before and after each speech.
In this alternative reality cartoon, it is the Chinese who demand that Kearney, and his supporter from Maine leave. The Chinese figure is confident and defiant and taunts Blaine behind his back. He removes his hat to expose his shaven head, except for the braided queue grown from his crown. He dangles the braid toward Blaine, who doesn’t appear to know quite what to make the behavior. Chinese were typically thought to be docile, but this Chinese man feels emboldened to lash out at the august senator. Blaine’s expression is not one of appreciation.
On February 14, Blaine is reported to have been asked, “Ought we to exclude them?” His reply: “The question lies in my mind thus: either the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it” (qtd. Gyory).
Nast taunts his nemesis as well with the visual question, how does it feel to have done to you what is being done to the Chinese?
The Chinese man craves an answer to the same question. He wants Blaine to experience what it feels like to be an outcast and to be excluded. The Chinese were legally prohibited from becoming citizens and could not vote. Nast identifies the Chinese man as a”Non Voter” who exclaims: “Now Melican Man know muchee how it is himself.”
Above the Chinese man’s head, a sign shows a trans-Atlantic handshake between Democrats in California and Republicans (led by Blaine) in Maine. The handshake is a fusion of interests and with Maine breaking with the Republican Party, a change in immigration policy.
This sign, as well as top banner, plays on the word “fusion.” Nast adds the preface “con” to indicate the tumult his Republican Party is experiencing.
Another sign reads, “Denis Kearney is ready to lead a gang of men to Maine, to make the Republicans GO.” Although Blaine clearly jumped the Republican ship on the Chinese issue, Kearney had not converted the rest of the Republican Party. The signs on the wall warn Republicans that with Kearney in control, and along with the Chinese, the Republicans were next on his Exclusion list. Blaine, hat in hand, is appealing to stay. With his break in philosophy, the Chinese see Blaine as a traitor.
In California, Republicans sided with the capital interests of labor and soon fell out of favor once Kearney began his campaign to oust the Chinese. Kearney and the Democratic Party soon dominated California politics, and politics there clearly fixated on removing the Chinese.
Harper’s editorials had previously lamented the abrogation of the treaties and Blaine’s role in the treaty’s demise and decried that presidential politics had trumped common sense:
CONGRESS has announced to the world that the United States intend to break treaties at their pleasure. The peremptory abrogation of the Chinese treaty is a flagrant breach of public faith which sullies the good name of the country, and puts every other nation upon its guard in under-taking any dealings with us which depend upon our honor… But to argue that the presence of a hundred and ten or twenty thousand Chinese upon the Pacific coast is such an imminent peril to American society and civilization as to justify the peremptory abrogation of a treaty, withoutnotice or attempted friendly modification, is insulting to common-sense. (Harper’s Weekly, March 30, 1879).
On Monday, December 7, 2015, Bill Bramhall, editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News published the following image of presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, in response to Trump’s announced policy of denying Muslim immigration to the U.S.
The image was placed on the cover of the daily paper, overlaid by an updated and paraphrased version of Martin Niemöller’s iconic and poignant quote from 1963 about his inaction regarding Adolf Hitler:
The image shows the Statue of Liberty as a victim of Trump’s political terrorism. Lady Liberty, the beloved symbol of American values and immigration, is beheaded. A bloated Trump raises his weapon of choice, a scimitar, historically associated with Eastern and Ottoman cultures. In effect, Trump balances his own scales of justice with her head in his other hand. The remainder of her majestic body lies prostrate, her torch has tumbled away — her welcoming beacon of light is extinguished.
Bramhall’s image brings to mind Thomas Nast’s 1871 double-paged cartoon,”The Tammany Tiger on the Loose – “What are you going to do about it?””
Though not a cover, (many of Nast’s cartoons were featured as covers), this cartoon received an equally coveted double-page spread in the center of Harper’s Weekly, the premier illustrated weekly of its era. A portly Tweed, whom Nast dresses as a Roman emperor, sits in his imperial reviewing box and gloats upon his weapon of choice, the Tammany Tiger as it takes down Columbia, Nast’s preferred personification of American values. Drawn 15 years before the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, Nast favored Columbia as the maternal symbol to represent the American nation. Her cousins, Lady Liberty and Lady Justice, distinguished by a crested helmet and the scales of justice respectively, appeared less often as substitutions for Columbia, but frequently as sisterly companions.
Tweed’s tiger looks straight into its audience and bears its teeth, poised to tear into Columbia’s neck. Columbia often carried a sword, symbolizing the strength of her resolve to protect American values of tolerance, fairness, and compassion. Her weapon has left her grip, broken apart by the force of the beast’s pounce. Like Tweed, the tiger arrogantly asks, “What are you going to do about it?”
Thomas Nast, known as the “Father of American Caricature” or alternately as the “Father of the American Political Cartoon” rose to worldwide attention and wielded significant political power by the deft and powerful strokes of his pen — the ire in Nast’s ink often appeared on the cover of the illustrated weekly magazine, Harper’s Weekly. To get his message across, Nast and other great cartoonists of the time employed the ego-cutting tools of caricature: ridicule, physical exaggeration, and careful placement of symbols, to elicit emotions from readers and viewers. Nast is best known for excoriating and bringing down New York politician William M. “Boss” Tweed through these techniques. The visibility and power of Nast images continued for two decades as undeniably effective weapons against corruption.
Few escaped seeing Nast’s images. Apocryphally, Tweed is famously quoted as saying, “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”
According to Nast’s biographer Alfred Bigelow Paine, Tweed representatives tried to entice Nast with bribes to tempt the artist to stop maligning the city boss. Intrigued, Nast strung the agent along, seeing how high he could negotiate the bribe. It reached $500,000, a tremendous amount of money for its time. Nast refused to be bought.
The American editorial or political cartoon in the twenty-first century grasps an uncertain future. The genre thrived in Nast’s era, a time in which photographs could not easily be mass reproduced for the print media. In the century that followed, modern political cartoons traditionally found their stage off the front page, yet, placed in a venerated position in the editorial sections of daily and weekly newspapers. The photograph took over on covers. There were exceptions, of course, the New Yorker magazine being the most notable, today giving prominence to the cartoon cover with provoking results.
The tradition of home delivery or buying a paper at a newsstand and enjoying that publication at the kitchen table or office desk— physically leafing the pages and sharing sections among family and friends, assured these editorial cartoons would be seen multiple times over.
With the demise of many print editions of newspapers and magazines, new generations of readers are now able to cherry-pick their news from online offerings. Some fans of the art form fear that these hand-drawn visual commentaries, and appreciation for what Donald Dewey has called The Art of Ill Will, might lose their historic influence, or get lost among the many clickable headlines, losing ground to the altered digital photograph — satire by Photoshop.
Bramhall’s cartoon offers hope that the cartoon caricature is still beloved. It possesses the qualities to pack a powerful punch. Bramhall’s image rose above the fray and was instantly picked up across media outlets and shared prolifically on social media.
The New York Daily News use of Bramhall’s cartoon as its cover, therefore, is in the best tradition of an excellent and scathingly successful takedown of a public figure by an editorial or political cartoon, drawn and delivered, much like Trump’s sword, as a blunt courier of raw truth. In the best New York City media tradition, the cartoon exposes both the disturbing and the ridiculous.
In our saturated and specialized markets, editorial cartoons must compete for broad attention. But when they are timely and deftly drawn, these black and white lines of editorial expression expose stark realities through exaggeration. Ah! To dish out the glorious tool of ridicule, a technique Trump wields with expertise and lately, to great effect.
Like Nast and Bramhall’s cartoons, the crème de la crème of caricature will always rise to the top — viral-worthy, these images and the artists who create them, serve the public good by striking a tender national nerve and provoking us to consider both the obvious and the subtle.
If Nast were around today, he’d be proud, and perhaps, a little envious.
An excellent essay on the history of racial attitudes in America. When we discuss “white privilege” today, a term which rankles many white Americans, one can find the origin of that attitude in our nation’s immigration history. An excellent recap with a thorough list of citations and quotes! I am proud my work is included.
I think it cannot be maintained by any candid person that the African race have ever occupied or do promise ever to occupy any very high place in the human family. Their present condition is the strongest proof that they cannot. The Irish cannot; the American Indian cannot; the Chinese cannot. Before the energy of the Caucasian race all the other races have quailed and done obeisance.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote those words in the late 1820s or early 1830s (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, Volume 12). Someone asked, in response to that quote, “aren’t Irish white?” Well, to the younger Emerson, obviously the Irish weren’t white or rather weren’t Caucasian.
Another great American luminary was Walt Whitman, a close acquaintance of Emerson. From a personal letter, he called Emerson “dear Friend and Master” and the admiration was mutual, Emerson even having penned Whitman a letter of recommendation. In the following decade, writing…
Obama has signed into law a U.S. House and Senate law removing terms as “oriental,” “negro,” “Indian,” and others from use as terms to describe people. It’s about time.
People are not vases or rugs. Now people need to catch up. I still hear the term “oriental” and “Indians” used to describe Asians and Native Americans. It’s an old and bad habit, a vestige from the 19th and 20th century.
If you are in the D.C. area celebrating our nation’s independence, take a moment to visit the “On the Move” tent at the Smithsonian Museum to hear Jean Pfaelzer talk about the Chinese experience in 19th century America.
It was through Jeanie, then “Dr. Pfaelzer” that I first learned about the Asian immigration experience in the United States, when I took a graduate level course, for no other reason than it fit my schedule. As an East Coast resident all my life, my curiosity swirled around my own region and my own Irish-American ancestry.
Jeanie is an inspiring educator and gifted storyteller. It is because of her this website exists. It is because of her I stretched my perspective and curiosity about the people who formed our American story and the compelling Often heartbreaking story of the first Chinese Americans!
Invitation to guest blog on Nast, immigration issues or political cartoons in general!
Did Thomas Nast influence your decision to become a cartoonist? Is there a particular cartoon of his that gave you pause, inspired or disturbed you? Nast is referred to as the father of the American political cartoon, but for you, where does he rank in the pantheon of polticial and editorial cartoonists?
This website averages 1,000 visits per week, with referrals coming in from universities and colleges, high schools, home schoolers and history buffs! This site is ad free and exists solely for academic purposes.
Comments on George F. Keller are also welcomed.
I’d love to add your perspective to the discussion! Thank you!
Negative Irish stereotypes depicting the Irish as beasts or apes prevailed in an antebellum Anglo-America and anti-Irish sentiments permeated throughout the lives of ordinary Americans, not just nativists. Historian Dale Knobel, in Paddy and the Republic, examined the culture of language in everyday American life, taking into account the personal correspondence, political speeches, textbooks, travel literature, newspaper, and magazines, songs, theater and novels that were read, discussed and exchanged.
Knobel discovered that negative attitudes toward the Irish existed in America and were expressed throughout the course of everyday life and strengthened as the Civil War approached, a period where his research concludes.
Considering the Irish in America as “outsiders” rather than “insiders” manifested how Protestant nativists weighed immigrant identity and eligibility as Americans in the early and mid-nineteenth century.
Acceptance as potential citizen material depended primarily on race, religion and political character. As the Great Famine migrations progressed toward America, attitudes about the Irish coalesced into a stereotype known as “Paddy” and his female equivalent “Bridget” and Knobel argues that their creation “was a collection of adjectives applied over and over again to the Irish in Americans’ ordinary conversation. This is the authentic definition of a stereotype” (11).
Long before Thomas Nast came to America in 1846, “Paddy” had been well established and “no mere accumulation of random references” (17). Early Paddy stereotypes drew from perceptions of personal character. Although kinder language did surface in Knobel’s surveys of content material, words like “pugnacious,” “quarrelsome,” “impudent,” “impertinent,” “ignorant,” “wickedness,” “vicious,” and “reckless” accumulate as a frequent part of the American lexicon as it related to Irish Americans.
As the nineteenth century turned past its midpoint, Knobel uncovered a marked change in references to physical descriptions of the Irish over describing their character. Descriptors like “ragged,” “lowbrow,” “brutish,” “wild-looking,” and “course-haired” began to surface more frequently. Knobel’s most fascinating revelation was that in everyday situations in antebellum New York, Anglo-Americans had many opportunities to personally encounter the Irish, especially as servants and peddlers.
In Protestant conversations with the Irish and with each other, “words propagated an image of the Irish and thus an attitude” and became a source of judgment. Even if they did not have these occasions to meet an Irish in person, certain assumptions were made and believed to be true, because Americans had become accustomed to believing them (15-16).
Knobel cautions against the inclination to only blame American nativism for anti-Irish sentiment in mid-nineteenth century America. While Knobel’s primary focus was establishing the locations and frequency of words that formed to shape American attitudes and stereotypes of the Irish, he is correct that these words and the mental images that went along with them were enhanced by visual representation such as stage performances and by cartoons.
These portrayals and images helped to establish what antebellum New Yorkers likely thought and considered as fact in forming opinions about the Irish. Thomas Nast came to age in this hegemony and like other artists of his time continued the tradition. Keeping in mind Knobel’s argument, it is nevertheless useful to look into the origins of the stereotype, which originated in Great Britain.
The Irish-as-ape-stereotype frequently surfaces, as a popular trope, with the English in the mid-nineteenth century. But, In Nothing But the Same Old Story, researcher Liz Curtis provides plentiful examples that establish anti-Irish sentiment as a centuries-long tradition.
Dehumanizing the Irish by drawing them as beasts or primates served as a convenient technique for any conqueror, and it made perfect sense for an English empire intent on placing Ireland and its people under its jurisdiction and control. The English needed to prove the backwardness of the Irish to justify their colonization (16). When the Irish fought back against English oppression, their violence only perpetuated the “violent beast” prejudice held against them.
English artist James Gillray had drawn the Irish as an ogre – a type of humanoid beast – in a reaction to the Irish’s short-lived rebellion against England in 1798. Even before English scientific circles had begun to distort Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species later in the century, the English had favored the monkey and ape as a symbol for Hibernians.
After the Irish had made great social and political gains in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the view that they were of a different race than white people continued to persist, as can be seen by this cartoon printed in Harper’s Weekly as late as 1899 (not drawn by Nast):
Belief in emerging eugenics also emboldened a place for white European superiority. New York brothers Orson Squire Fowler and Lorenzo Niles Fowler, pioneers of phrenology, touted a philosophy and pseudo-scientific method that rated human intelligence and placement on an evolutionary scale based on the favorable or unfavorable measurements of one’s head. They opened shop in Manhattan in 1835 measuring or “reading” people’s skulls.
The Fowlers published several books and manuals on scientific methods of identifying, establishing and securing one’s (white people) superior place in society. The size and shape of the skull and forehead were thought to be indicators of “racial-biological differences” (Tchen 148). The Fowlers and their followers believed the assumption that “skulls divergent from the shape of certain northern and western European types were automatically of a lower order” (Tchen 148).
Nast too had his cranium measured and examined. “Like so many nineteenth-century Americans, Nast believed that genetic heritage, national characteristics, personal qualities, and achievements all manifested themselves in the physical body” (Halloran 51). No one it seemed, questioned the science of the day.
In Punch, a popular English weekly illustrated magazine (1841-2002) anti-Irish cartoons were common. In TheBritish Lion and the Irish Monkey, (April 8, 1848) artist John Leach created a tiny monkey (Ireland) who faces a majestic, regal lion (Great Britain). Why a monkey, and not another animal to serve as the preferred animal symbol? The size of the monkey poses no threat to the regal lion. The monkey would have been familiar to the public as a circus or organ grinder’s companion – a demure creature easily trained and controlled. This monkey wears a court jester’s hat. Clearly, to the British literati and readers of Punch, the Irish are a joke. However, the use of the elfin monkey to depict the Irish is less common than the use of an ape.
The ape could be understood as human-like, particularly in terms of Darwin’s new theory of evolution, yet inferior to humans. A beast that could encapsulate rough, unsophisticated behavior conveniently attributed to the Irish. Ape-like features assigned to the Irish soon became the ideal stereotype to emphasize the perceived beastly and violent nature of the Irish.
As early as 1842, Punch’s artists “drew on popular notions of physiognomy that the angularity of a face connoted a lower stage of evolutionary development” (Justice 177) and they adopted the practice to depict the Irish consistently in derogatory terms. A Frankenstein monster, seen left, represents Catholic political activism and protests for emancipation, home rule and repeal of the British Union. Under the leadership of charismatic, nationalist Irish leaders like Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s Catholic peasants were emboldened to demand change. Punch quickly and effectively shut down these aspirations with ridicule.
Animalistic dehumanization was only one of many techniques designed to oppress the Irish and deny them full, human consideration. By regarding the Irish as an “other” the English could justify and guiltlessly ignore the repercussions of their oppression and cruelty toward the Irish. Watching the Irish starve during the Great Potato Famine Hunger was one manifestation of this belief system.
During the height of the Great Famine, Punch published the English Labourer’s Burden (Feb. 24, 1849) complaining on behalf of England’s outlay of ₤50,000 of famine relief, given to silence Irish protest and demands for assistance.
The Irishman is depicted as a gruff simpleton, getting a free ride on the back of an ordinary English laborer. The English government displayed little sympathy or compassion for the Irish or their famine–related predicaments and despair.
Numerous objections to the Irish proliferated in America as well. Like the English, American Protestants viewed Irish Catholics as “a separate people” (Heuston 82). Irish-American historian Timothy Meagher agrees. “The new Irish American was Catholic. Irish Protestants began melting away into the broader Protestant mainstream” making an effort to vehemently distinguish themselves from the Catholic Irish and preferring to define themselves as Scotch-Irish. See Orangeman’s Riots.
“Most Protestants in America by this time had abandoned the definition of “Irishmen” in order to distance themselves from the Irish Catholic (295). The feeling was mutual.
Irish Catholics saw themselves differently from Protestants and, as an embattled people, “in competition with and fighting against all Protestants, Irish or otherwise.” In New York, politician William M. “Boss Tweed” seeking votes, helped the Irish Catholics gain legitimacy and this alliance of Irish Catholics, Tweed and Democratic politics propelled Nast to attack.
Nast was also deeply influenced by the cartoons of English artist John Tenniel who drew for Punch. Tenniel enjoyed star status as Punch’s lead illustrator for several decades. Tenniel also received high praise for his illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. He was later knighted and enjoyed a privileged life in England.
According to Nast’s biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, Nast and his colleagues at Harper’s Weekly were keenly aware of what other artists abroad were drawing, particularly at Punch. Nast had access to John Tenniel’s snarling, aggressive, simian-faced Irishmen (28). Nast borrowed heavily from Tenniel both in concept and technique. A startling example of Tenniel’s effect on Nast’s art can be seen in the following two cartoons, first Tenniel’s and then Nast’s. Compare:
Today, the name Thomas Nast bears a particular infamy among American Irish Catholics. His body of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish work is quite substantial and brutal. Nast’s reasons for attacking Irish Catholics directly resulted from his perception of four issues which demanded response through his visual commentary:
1.) Irish Catholics relationship with William M. “Boss” Tweed – and the many issues that stemmed from that alliance,
2.) The role of the Catholic Church (thereby Irish) involvement in the New York Public School controversy (also involving Tweed),
3.) American Roman Catholic Church and Democratic Party’s stance against abolition, and lastly,
4.) Irish-Democrats pro-labor violence against Chinese immigrants.
Whether Nast was justified in his decision to attack Irish-Catholics is complicated and modern sensibilities judge Nast harshly. For these reasons, he remains the subject of passionate debate. Nast drew positive images of the Irish, but these representations often blend into the background. Modern lobbying efforts to keep Nast out of the New Jersey Hall of Fame have so far been successful.
The Chinese Question is full sized cartoon published in Harper’sWeekly, February 18, 1871,
Nast was tolerant of all races, nationalities, and creeds. He was not, however, tolerant of ignorance. He deplored the mob mentality that in his mind, the Irish represented. Their alliance with Tweed and Democratic Party values drove Nast to draw with savage fervor. It wasn’t the Irish per se, but what the Irish did with their political power and alliances that Nast found disturbing. As Patricia Hills points out, “he [Nast] castigates only the ignorant and bigoted who engage in reprehensible deeds” (115).
Unfortunately for the Chinese, the Irish played a major role in Sinophobic hysteria. In her book Driven Out, Jean Pfaelzer quotes a New York Times article on the role of the Irish against the Chinese:
It was well known that the chief objection to the Chinese in California comes from the Irish. It was from this class that the Democratic Party used to draw most of the political capital which it gained by fostering the prejudices against the Negro. Fleeing to this country, as they claimed, to escape British oppression, the Irish immigrant always made haste to join the ranks of the oppressors here. They voted, almost to a man, with the Democratic Party…now that slavery is abolished, we find them in the front ranks of the haters and persecutors of the Chinese. (52-53)
Accompanying this cartoon was a short, but powerful Harper’s editorial, “The Heathen Chinee” which decried the fear-mongering and blame placed upon the Chinese for labor displacement. In a bid to strengthen his Irish constituency, Tweed sought to restrict the use of Chinese railroad labor through legislative means. While a state senator, Tweed sponsored a bill to prevent the Chinese from being hired on projects. Although Chinese population in New York was statistically minute, estimated to be only 200 at the time, Tweed favored invasion vernacular to stoke fear within a male, Caucasian workforce. Harper’s Weekly’s editors observed,
The working-men of this State know perfectly well that no such danger exists as that which is hinted at in Mr. Tweed’s bill. The Chinese invasion, of which he seems to be so much afraid is altogether mythical, as everybody in his sober senses is well aware; and Mr. Tweed presumes too much on the ignorance or the prejudices of the working-men if he expects to delude them with such a flimsy cheat. The general sentiment of the American people on this question is admirably expressed in Mr. Nast’s cartoon. A majority in this country still adhere to the old Revolutionary doctrine that all men are free and equal before the law, and possess inalienable rights which even Mr. Tweed is bound to respect.
Nast featured an imaginary local brouhaha in his cartoon The Chinese Question.
Nast places an angry, defiant Columbia front and center to confront the Workingmen menace and she serves as a reminder of America’s values. She stands over a crouched and defeated Chinese man. In addition, Nast utilizes what would become a favorite technique — to plaster current controversy on a wall of public protest. On the wall, all the various forms of hate speech spouted against the Chinese could be read and considered.
Chinese are in kind referred to as “coolies” “slaves,” “paupers” and “rat eaters.” Rat eaters, in particular, became a favorite and virulent Chinese stereotype deployed to great effect, especially on the West Coast, in order to dehumanize the Chinese and affirm their “otherness.” “Barbarians” and “heathens” are additional descriptive terms prominently displayed. The placards pronounce the Chinese as the “lowest and vilest of human race,” “vicious and immoral” declares another. Nast’s wall is an effective tool. It collects the hate speech used within the local white labor community. Each layer of verbal expression collects and builds like pounds in a pressure cooker. Workingmen would stop at no insult to rid themselves of the Chinese menace. The Chinese must go. “Their importation must be stopped.” Nast plastered the prejudice for all to see their ugly truth and consider the lie.
Nast created a clear visual divide on the issue. The hard edge on the right separates Columbia and the Chinese man from the trouble that is arriving from the other side. Columbia’s body stands in the path as a violent mob approaches. The vertical division creates a tension and theatrical suspense against what comes next and who might prevail.
Whipped up by the Tammany frenzy is New York’s version of the Workingmen’s Party. Led by Nast’s quintessential brawny Irish leader, they angrily turn the corner toward Columbia and the Chinese man. Nast dresses his thugs as would-be gentlemen – his Irish brute wears a waistcoat and top hat. The high fashion does not change his savage character or propensity for violence.
Well-dressed as he may be, his face betrays his brutality. His features are roughly chiseled, his steely stare focuses on the impending attack. He brandishes a club in one hand and a rock in the other. This Irish ringleader is eager for some good old-fashioned mob violence. Behind him, four other men are visible, and by their normal faces, not all are Irish. All are white and possess guns or weapons and expressions of anger. Behind them, faceless mob members carry signs in the air. One sign reads, “If our ballot will not stop them coming to our country, the bullet must.”
Nast reprises New York Draft Riot imagery of 1863 to recreate a scene in 1871 and give it additional implications. Nast had provided eye-witness drawings of the New York City draft riots and had not overly implicated the Irish in the violence. By including 1863 draft riot imagery to this event, Nast links Irish involvement with racial violence. In the background lies the evidence of their most notorious mob activity–the lynching and destruction of a “colored” community. The Orangemen’s Riots followed later that summer on July 11-12, 1871 and Nast would once again deploy the same lynching imagery against the Irish. During the same riot, a colored orphanage burned to the ground. By including a smoldering orphan asylum in the background, Nast indicates this mob and associating the participants to the crime. A barren tree is seen in the distance. An empty hangman’s noose dangles from a leafless tree. Below makeshift tombstones acknowledge buried rights, blood, and strikes. With the African American issue handled and put in their rightful place, graves, the Irish-led mob turns to provide their answer to the Chinese question. One problem down, one more problem to go.
Nast’s audience understood the significance of Columbia’s inclusion. She appears in Nast cartoons with great effect and is a formidable challenger to thwart Tweed. Having fought and won many battles, she alone has the wherewithal to protect an emotionally defeated Chinese man. Slumped against a wall, framed by “heathen,” “idolater,” and exclamations of paganism, he is confused and helpless against this onslaught of white terror and oppression. He raises one knee to support a clutched hand and lowered head. His eyes are closed and his expression is one of utter despair. Columbia’s long tresses toss as she turns her head, alerted to the approaching mob. Her tiara is marked “U.S.” Her right hand gently touches the head of the crouched Chinese man. Columbia’s left hand rises above her waist and over her heart into a fist. Her neckline bears a shield of America’s stars and stripes. Her expression is resolute. She will not stand for what is about to go down. She addresses the mob, “Hands off, gentlemen! America means fair play for all men.” Columbia is Nast’s voice.
Columbia defended the downtrodden before. Consider how Nast uses her for “And Not This Man?” on August 5, 1865.
Here, as in the Chinese Question, Columbia advocates for civil rights, this time for a wounded African American Civil War veteran. Although seriously wounded, he stands erect. He possesses a quiet dignity. Columbia touches him at the shoulder and invites him to step up for consideration as an American. She is speaking to his legislative detractors who appear on an accompanying page.
In Nast’s Chinese Question, Columbia touches the head of the Chinese man. Although he Is able-bodied, he cannot stand on his two legs, he is unable to face his accusers as a whole man, even with Columbia by his side.
Nast has intentionally weakened the Chinese man in the face of the mob. The question is why. Is it to evoke empathy for the Chinese man, is it to make the mob look worse than what they were? Could Nast have drawn the Chinese with more dignity? The Irish were afraid of labor competition. Struggling to get established in America the Irish organized in their new home and resolved that they would not suffer the oppression they experienced in their homeland of Ireland. As Timothy Meagher has noted, the Irish had no history of prejudice or exhibited any racist behavior in Ireland. They possessed, Meagher suggests, all of the sensitivities necessary to be empathetic to others who were oppressed. But in nineteenth-century Ireland, the Irish had learned that organization and activism produced results, albeit limited.
The new Irish immigrant in America faced hurdles other immigrants, such as the Germans did not. Because of the Great Famine, they arrived in very large numbers and in the most destitute of conditions. As Roman Catholics, they were considered by the Protestant population as members of a strange cult, unwilling to assimilate to American culture. These built-in prejudices, Meagher argues, forced the Irish to assert their “whiteness” and be demonstratively aggressive to other races, in particular, African Americans and Chinese Americans. Meagher cites the work of Moses Rischin who observed that Irish Catholics who aligned against the Chinese in California, and Irish Catholics who aligned with Democratic anti-abolitionists in the South, found greater acceptance into the white Protestant mainstream of their respective communities if they joined others who expressed racial paranoia.
The prevailing view of many historians asserts that the Irish feared any form of labor competition. The banding together of white against black would not work to the Irish’s favor in the Northeast, and Meagher offers several opinions that dispute a view that the Irish were afraid of southern blacks seeking northern jobs. Meagher warns against drawing such simplistic conclusions that point strictly at racial tensions or only that only targeted African Americans.
The Irish were hostile to all competitors including other ethnicities. They fought with Germans and Chinese. Real fear existed that a “powerful Republican Party and rich industrialists, would overpower the Irish” (223). Meagher notes that the New York Times was exasperated with the Irish, writing in 1880, “the hospitable and generous Irishman has almost no friendship for any race but his own. As laborer and politician, he detests the Italian. Between him and the German-American citizen, there is a great gulf fixed…but the most naturalized thing for the Americanized Irishman is to drive out all other foreigners, whatever may be their religious tenets” (223). Observations such as these, Meagher suggests, establish that tensions went beyond Irish-African-American tension and violence. The Chinese were easy targets.
As victims of the English oppression and prejudice in their homeland, and again in America, as targets of nativist and Protestant fears in America, the Irish directed their paranoia, distrust toward non-Irish and non-Catholics. Irish Americans battled persistent and ill-informed scientific theory which classified them as a unique and inferior human race.
The Irish were not considered white, at least not culturally by many. For Irish-Americans, defining others as inferior was an early step in self-preservation. As other ethnicities began to fear the Chinese, many Irish not only latched on to this common concern but took the lead in ridding the nation of the menace. By attacking the Chinese, the Irish could prove their “whiteness” and earn a legitimate place in American society. Once severely oppressed in Ireland, and again in America, many Irish turned the tables by becoming the oppressors. Nast would never let the Irish forget this irony.
A few months after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (May 1882), this small square cartoon shows a U.S. Customs House official scrutinizing his law books in an attempt to define or clarify the ethnicity of four Asian men appealing for entry into the United States.
Three would-be immigrants are huddled behind a spokesperson, who denies he Chinese, and testifies he is instead Korean (Corean). Above their huddle, a banner testifies to the United States “treaty with Corea.” The sign also says, “Coreans may live at their option throughout America,” a privilege the Chinese once enjoyed under the protection and promise of the Burlingame Treaty.
Above the U.S. emblem reads, “E. Pluribus. Unum. Except Chinese.”
In addition to volumes on duties and antiques, behind the official is a “Vol. 1 on Bribes.”
The official, wearing a bicorn hat (Denis Kearney?)*consults with an open volume which describes the characteristics that distinguish a Chinese national from a Korean one. The volume refers to “color and pigtails.” The men attempting to enter the United States are wearing the Manchurian queues for which the Chinese were well known in America.
The Customs House guard raises his spyglass for a closer look at the petitioners, who exclaim,”You no stoppee me! me no China manee, me Corea manee; allee samee Melican manee.”
The gaggle of Chinese men behind their spokesperson appears to find the claim amusing.
*Denis Kearney was a self-described soldier against the Chinese immigrants. In California, San Francisco Wasp illustrator George Keller frequently depicted Kearney wearing military garb, and in particular, a bicorn hat. Nast also picked up the symbolism when referring to Kearney, though it cannot be determined this was his intent for this specific drawing.