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.
Regarding the upcoming presidential election of 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes declined to run for an additional term, thus leaving the Republican nomination up for grabs.
In 1876 Maine Republican James G. Blaine launched his first bid for the U.S. Presidency. Although he promoted himself as a favorite, and indeed he was a popular and strong candidate, his campaign was derailed by scandal. From the beginning neither Harper’s editor George W. Curtis or Thomas Nast were fans of Blaine.
In Boom! Boom! Boom!!! Nast pokes fun of Blaine and his attempts to reinvigorate excitement for his candidacy and Blaine’s belief that his nomination was assured. The term “boom” was widely used in politics at the time. Today the term “buzz” would be analogous. The Republican field was crowded and competitive with former president U.S. Grant tepidly allowing his name to be placed in nomination along with Blaine and John Garfield of Ohio.
In 1876 bid Blaine had been deeply humiliated by Nast’s Chinese cartoons (Paine 420). In an effort to court votes, Blaine included anti-Chinese rhetoric in his speeches. Nast saw Blaine’s pandering as a betrayal of Republican values of inclusion. Nast repeated his attacks on Blaine in 1880.
In January 1880, Blaine wrote to the artist directly, in reaction to depicting Blaine as a plumed Indian, and asked Nast to reconsider victimizing him in his cartoons. There is no record of a Nast reply, other than a continuation of the cartoons.
Blaine over campaigned in California and Nast ridiculed him continually. Blaine bangs his own drum and Blaine is shown in Chinese clothing and wearing a long queue.
Nast put little stock in popular trends or booms. A graveyard of self-aggrandizing “boomers” is seen laid to rest in the background.
Nast would repeat attacks on Blaine in 1884 when the politician tried for a third try for the presidency. Despite Blaine’s earning the party nomination, the third attempt would not prove to be the charm.
For Nast, Blaine’s third attempt marked the end of an era. Blaine embodied, better than any other politician of his generation, the transformation of the Republican Party and of American politics – from the social and ideological commitments of the Civil War era to the blander organization style of the Gilded Age (Keller 324). Disillusioned by his own Republican Party, Nast’s own passion for politics also waned after Blaine’s final attempt for the presidency.
This Chinese man is being pulled in two directions by two opposing political parties. Typical of most Nast drawings, the bad is on the left, the good on the right. The party figures also represent their regional power base -—the West for Democrats and the East for Republicans. We do not know from what location the Chinese man is standing or how he arrived at this particular tug-of-war predicament. Rare for Nast, there is no detail as to location, no props to suggest a political issue or visual guides to suggest how one might think about the Chinese man’s unfortunate situation. He is is simply being pulled apart.
On the right, the Republican Party, and particularly the Radical Republicans to whom Nast aligned and identified, wanted the Chinese to remain in the United States and argued for their admittance for American citizenship. Radical Republicans stood first and foremost from a position of morality and believed that the Chinese were no different than any other immigrant group. Mainstream Republicans and those Republicans whose constituency represented business, industry and capitalism, wanted the Chinese to remain. Good workers were good for business. Capitalists admired the hard working, non-striking Chinese and fiscally benefited from their industriousness and productivity. Ideal employees, the Chinese kept to themselves and completed their work. Chinese went where work was offered and perhaps unknowingly, served as pawns to break strikes, drive down labor costs and inflame white workingmen’s charges of coolie or slave labor. break strikes and drive down labor costs.
Democrats in the South also wanted the Chinese to teach newly freed African Americans a lesson.
“Democrats developed ingenious methods of limiting black voting power” and included the poll tax, property qualifications, literacy tests, and anyone convicted of petty larceny (and many such arrests resulted) restricted African Americans from exercising their newly gained voting privileges (Foner 422).
Plantation owners in the Deep South also looked to punish African American labor and reduce dependance on black labor’s earning power by encouraging immigrant labor that included the Chinese. One Alabama newspaper appealed to Irish and German immigrants to earn $10 a month on the farms. “Even more attractive were indentured laborers from China, whose “natural” docility would bolster plantation discipline and whose arrival, by flooding the labor market, would reduce the wages of blacks” (Foner 419).
“Give us five million of Chinese laborers in the valley of the Mississippi,” wrote a planter’s wife, “and we can furnish the world with cotton and teach the negro his proper place, (qtd. Foner 419-420).
Democrats along the West Coast however, wanted the Chinese driven out all together. As Euro-American populations increasingly traveled west, any Chinese earning money was seen as competition — as the enemy. This view took on an even greater urgency during the economic crash of the late 1870s.
The Chinese man central in this cartoon is confused and startled. His queue stands up straight like an exclamation point in reaction to the tug of war over his person, his talent, and his future. He is both a prize of labor and a future victim. Representing the average Chinese worker, he has nowhere to call home, no political party with whom he could place absolute trust.
The Chinese were prohibited from becoming citizens in the United States and could not vote. This prohibition did not extend to any other immigrant group.
By 1880, some Republicans like James G. Blaine aligned less with pro-business and bent under the populist pressure to rid the country of the purported Chinese threat.
This illustration was accompanied by a Harper’s editorial who wrote of President Chester Arthur,
“In a temperate and excellent message the President has vetoed the Chinese bill. He states in detail the existing treaty relations between the countries, and the express understanding between the Commissioners upon both sides in the late negotiations. It was stipulated that the free immigration of Chinese should not be prohibited, and that any regulation of their coming should be reasonable. But an exclusion of twenty years is a practical prohibition, and therefore unreasonable. The President adopts this view, and regarding the twenty years clause as a breach of the national faith, he returns the bill.
He objects, also, incidentally, to the passport and registration provisions, as subjecting the resident Chinese to needless annoyance, which is equally forbidden by good faith. The President adds further that the bill is repugnant to good policy. It would be detrimental to the general interest to destroy amicable relations with Asia until it is plainly evident that Asiatic competition threatens our labor and safety. To ascertain how far this is probable, a shorter exclusion is desirable. But the President accepts the bill as evidence that Congress is of opinion that the Chinese immigration does injuriously affect our interests and endangers good order, and the tone of the message implies that a “reasonable” exclusion bill would not be vetoed.
The possible party effect of his veto the President has properly not allowed to sway his decision. If the veto should give California and the Pacific coast to the Democrats, it would be evident that they could be retained for the Republicans only by a wanton defiance of the American principle that honest immigrants to this country shall not be excluded until self-defense demands exclusion, and that in any case the national good faith shall be preserved. If fidelity to these principles should cost the Republican party [sic] some advantages, that fidelity will ultimately, as usual, commend the party to the renewed confidence of the country.” Harper’s Weekly, 15 April, 1882.
Harper’s confidence in Arthur was misplaced. The president signed a revision of the act in May, with a 10-year ban on Chinese immigration. He would soon extend the ban permanently.
The vase that President Arthur is set to examine with a magnifying glass resembles an earlier cracked vase featured prominently in Nast’s 1881 cartoon, “A Diplomatic (Chinese) Design Presented to the U.S.” The same dragon clings to the top of the vase, but it is less commanding than its appearance in 1881.
The vase is labeled “1880 Treaty” and it sits upon a pedestal with a sign that reads “Handle With Care.” The 1880 treaty, though it restricted Chinese immigration, did not interrupt trade between China and the United States. A Chinese diplomat and American are seen exchanging “Trade” and “Commerce” while a befuddled Irishman stares blankly into space.
A Chinese passport into the U.S. is trampled upon under Arthur’s foot. It reads “Passport for Land of the Free.”
This cartoon depicts relics of the once-influential Republican and pro-capitalist interests being driven out of the West alongside Chinese laborers, whose much needed services were boycotted in California.
Beginning in 1877, Denis Kearney an Irish-American immigrant, built steady and passionate support for his anthem, “The Chinese Must Go” a statement that began and concluded every charismatic speech Kearney typically delivered on the empty Sand Lots of California where large crowds could gather. A mixture of Sinophobia and severe economic depression provided a ripe environment for Kearney to stoke fear and rally white labor to reclaim all labor opportunities for themselves. While the industrial North and the large plantations of the rural South welcomed and recruited the hardworking Chinese, West Coast voices demanded that the “Chinese Must Go.”
Kearney made steady progress toward his cause and politicians paid attention. His influence was felt in elections and through a battery of local, state and federal legislation, ultimately leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Nast and his publisher Harper’s Weekly strongly believed in the separation of church and state. No other issue rankled Nast more than the public school issue and no other issue called to define where the line to separate church and state should be drawn. William M. “Boss” Tweed supported Irish Catholic demands for public funds to establish their own sectarian schools. If allowed to stand unchecked and unchallenged, Nast feared the repercussions of all groups and religions dragging their special interests before the state for favors and custom dispensations.
In this marvelously detailed drawing, the scene Nast so feared is put into reality. Each figurehead of a religious state is pulling from behind a pull toy representing their church (or non-church). They approach Columbia at the foot of the state building. Elevated to emphasize her wisdom and revered status, Columbia will entertain none of their appeals, she shoos them away with her hands. Above her head enlightenment and wisdom glows.
On the right, most of what is in tow are miniature churches or religious buildings that resemble playhouses.
A German and Chinese delegation approach together on the left. They are the only two who have brought people, not buildings with them as examples of need. A German smokes a pipe while he waits for his audience with Columbia. He totes a beer-drinking, august regent who sits upon a barrel and raises his foamy mug in the air. Next to him is a Chinese diplomat who has brought along a “Heathen Chinee” kneeling on a padded four-wheeled cart. His posture is erect, and he is naked from the waist up. His long queue falls past his back and behind the cart. The face of the kneeling figure is highly stylized. By mentioning the Chinese as heathen, Nast acknowledges the rights of believers and non-believers to equally petition the government, even if the answer is “no.”
All religions, non-religions (heathens) and factions are on the same level of their appeal – each represents a desire to advocate for their cause and constituency. Columbia rejects their pilgrimage. Columbia rests on her principles, and will not grant or refuse favors on an individual basis. All are accorded the same consideration. All religions are separate from the state.
To the right, Nast draws an array of cupolas, domes spires and steeples and the plain A-frame roof of Mormonism gathered to receive official favor. A Native American stands among the congested crowd of churches, waiting to be anointed with the approval of the state in the same way New York City had blessed the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church at center right, displays the most elaborate replica of a house of worship.
At the center, a Union soldier, and what appears to be a man wearing a Tam o’ Shanter cap, bars the entry to the state steps with crossed rifles.
Nast signed his name at the foot of the Chinese diplomat.
Republican presidential hopeful James G. Blaine was all too aware that Nast’s sphere of influence on the electorate was wide. Nast relished exposing Blaine’s hypocrisy and anti-immigration stance. East Coast, New England tolerance toward accepting newcomers had been a point of Republican pride. Blaine was the first Republican official to defect to the Democratic way of thinking. Nast’s fixation on Blaine was unrelenting, and nearly equaled his Tweed/Tammany days. The 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).
Nast’s Blaine’s Teas(e) shows the dilemma the politician faced. The Evening News Blaine reads, chronicles the West Coast’s growing calls for “The Chinese Must Go.” A savvy politician, Blaine needed votes in the West. All the while working to undermine the legitimacy of Chinese Americans, Nast lets Americans see that Blaine enjoyed the teas and porcelains resulting from U.S. trade with China. Nast calls out hypocrisy and incongruity of admiring Chinese “things” but hating the source of the objects.
The clammy Chinese figure rising before Blaine’s conjures the haunting, ethereal quality of ghosts who confront Dickens’ Scrooge. Whether Dickens’s spirits were an inspiration is unknown. Blaine is visited, in this instance, by a hot steamy specter who rises up from Blaine’s teacup to scold and confront the politician. This apparition will not allow Blaine to enjoy his tea in peace and privacy. Blaine’s hair appears to rise in alarm, but Blaine looks more annoyed that fearful. His right hand has gripped the paper suddenly, indicating he is unnerved, yet he continues to clutch at his truth as he comes to terms with what is before him. Otherworldly, and celestial, the Chinese tea ghost peers directly into Blaine’s eyes with and bears a stiff upper lip.
The cartoon asks a question, which in a century and a half later, Lenore Metrick-Chen made the focus of her book Collecting Objects/Excluding People. “What happens when the exotic refuses to remain our fantasy, our abstraction and instead intrudes into our space?”(1)
Nast’s ghost intrudes, haunts and teases Blaine with the reality of the politician’s actions and xenophobic policies. Nast challenges the worthiness of Blaine’s Republican ideals – his obligation as a member of Lincoln’s Party to tolerate newcomers to the United States.
Nast confronts a reality that Metrick-Chen continues to wrestle with and unpack in her book. Throughout America’s earliest history, spanning across Nast’s era and well into the twentieth century, American and Western culture held a fascination with exotic Eastern objects and artifacts. Blaine wants to enjoy his Chinese tea from Chinese porcelain. He embodies exactly the kind of person who collects objects but excludes people. Nast reminds his audience, and Blaine, that the Chinese people created these cherished goods and services. Blaine deserves to be haunted by his hypocrisy.
Nast’s idea for this cartoon, however, may not be original. A “spectral disembodied head emerges from a magic lamp” in John S. Cook’s 1870 illustration of Money vs.Muscle, or Chinese Emigration. To the Workmen and Trade unions of America, published by the Season Press. It is not known if Nast had access to the book. The images are strikingly similar.
Metrick-Chen writes that soon after the United States was formally recognized as a country under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. eagerly entered into trade with China. “The predominant American view of the Chinese had been laudatory” (19).
With the conclusion of The Opium War (1839- 1842), American superiority (Manifest Destiny) grew. Reports from Protestant missionaries stationed in China relayed to the American people their unsuccessful attempts to convert the Chinese to Christianity. These reports making their way home factored in supplanting favorable views toward China into negative opinions (Metrick-Chen 21-23). Defining Chinese as non-Christian heathens was an important element in disqualifying them as competitive laborers and applicants as citizens and visitors to the U.S.
When Thomas Nast used Columbia in his cartoons, she represented American values in the purest sense and was placed in cartoons to remind readers of American values and morality. Uncle Sam played a different role for the cartoonist. Nast is often credited with inventing Uncle Sam, but he only popularized the figure and Nast often included the tall thin man with a top hat and striped pants as a symbol for the American government and a reflection of the government’s current state of affairs. As this picture above depicts, Uncle Sam can get confused. He finds himself at the mercy of opposing political parties and is often trapped, not by what might be right, but what legislation has passed as the law of the land.
The cover of this issue also shows Uncle Sam with his leg in a snare. In the following issue, he is seen in a full-page cartoon, seemingly confused as he reflects upon his nation. All is not well in his American house.
After the Fifteenth Amendment granted African Americans the right to vote, Southern Democrats continued measures to disenfranchise the African American vote.
Uncle Sam is confused. He is supposed to hate the “nigger” because he has earned the right to vote, and at the same time, he is supposed to hate the “Yellow Dog” because he has not yet earned the right to vote. Uncle Sam does not know how to react. He has lost track of the direction of his government.
The Chinese face a difficult dilemma. Legally prevented from earning citizenship, they cannot enjoy the same rights extended to other immigrants. The Chinese may not testify against whites or marry outside their own race. Since Chinese females are refused entry to the U.S. because they are considered and labeled prostitutes, Chinese men in America had little hope and few prospects to live a normal family life. Prohibited by law to join to American culture, they are additionally penalized for not assimilating to it. The Chinese find themselves in a no-win situation.
The U.S. legislative body spoke and Uncle Sam is forced to wear the mantle of these mandates. California’s state symbol is the bear. The bear trap on Uncle Sam’s leg is a painful harbinger of what is to come to the entire nation. An easy way out does not exist and he is forced to represent these xenophobic and intolerant values. Uncle Sam gets his marching orders from the “White Trash” — free lawmaking men, and there is no pleasing them.
A Chinese launderer is seen to the right. His head is slightly turned as if to acknowledge Uncle Sam’s grumbling. But he goes about his washing tasks, knowing Uncle Sam can do nothing about the current state of affairs.
The concern of Roman Catholic interference in public education is brilliantly rendered in what many scholars regard as Nast’s most famous, and well-executed anti-Catholic image. The image was published twice in Harper’s Weekly. The first, on September 30, 1871, implicated Tweed, and reprised on May 8, 1975, with Tweed removed.
The image is a tour de force of imagination and caricature technique. Nast dehumanized the Catholic bishops by turning them into reptiles. They emerge from the water toward New York’s shore. Two clergies in the foreground have stereotype Irish faces. Slithering out of the water on all fours, their ornate, jewel-encrusted bishops’ mitres (there are three types, one plain and two that are more elaborate), specifically the pretiosa, worn on Sundays or feast days, are drawn as salivating crocodile jaws ready to devour, or feast if you will, on school children. A Protestant minister or teacher, with his Bible, tucked in his waistcoat, and his saucer hat tossed to the ground, stands defiant, guarding several fearful children who are shivering, praying and cowering as certain death approaches. In the middle of the scene, several bishops have come ashore, ready to clamp down on defenseless, and dispensable non-Catholic students.
A Chinese boy on his hands and knees attempts to flee and Native American and African American children press up against the cliff with nowhere to escape. Nast shared a Republican, utopian vision that public schools should be open to all children, regardless of race, creed or ethnicity, and he drew many images of an idealized public school system that included a diverse student body learning in harmony. With the Catholic initiative to create their own schools with the support of public funds expressly underway with support from Tweed, Nast feared separate sectarian schools for all ethnic and racial groups.
“Nast believed that bringing children together into the public sphere, under democratic control, muted their religious and racial differences and molded a unified, multiethnic [sic]American society” (Justice 174). Tweed and the Roman Catholic Church interfered with that vision.
Perched atop the cliff, Tweed and members of his political machine lower Protestant children to the feeding grounds below. Columbia, Nast’s ever- faithful symbol of American compassion and justice, is bound and led away to a hangman’s gallows.
[/caption]At the center top of the image, a U.S. Public School is seen crumbling and an inverted American flag, a sign of distress, flies prominently. On the other side of the river, stands a Vatican shaped “Tammany Hall” (This was changed in 1875 to read “Political Roman Catholic Church.”) Flags of the Papal Coat of Arms, and the Irish harp, fly atop the side domes. Attached to the right of the RC Church is the “Political Roman Catholic School.”
In Harper’s Weekly, the image was accompanied by an essay written by Eugene Lawrence, a nativist and frequent contributor to the periodical. Lawrence blamed the Catholics for the end of the public school system and the Catholic aim “to destroy our free schools, and perhaps our free institutions has been for many years the constant aim of the extreme section of the Romish Church.” The essay continues its attack on Jesuits and the daring aggressive spirit of the ultramontane Irish Catholics who govern New York. The author also touts brave European governments who have dared to challenge Roman Catholic influence of their schools and other institutions.
The institutions that managed New York Public Schools claimed their schools provided non-sectarian education. Catholics disagreed, noting Protestant-based libraries, textbooks and “the daily reading of the Protestant version of the Bible” in classrooms as an unsatisfactory environment for learning (Heuston 54).
“The establishment of a new state school systems in the United states seemed to substantiate Catholic fears that the attitudes of European secularists were taking root in America” (Heuston 169). Prior to the Civil War, Catholics wanted to participate in the public school system without endangering their faith. Catholics were encouraged to pursue the issue after New York Whig Governor William Seward suggested in 1840 that state aid might be given to Catholic schools (53). Henceforth, New York’s Catholic Church, led by Archbishop John Hughes, began strategies to thwart the new school system by working through their political contacts, but these attempts were unsuccessful. A preoccupation with the Civil War and its aftermath diverted attention from the issue of public education and the topic would not surface again until the close of the 1860s.
Catholics once again picked on the issue and “Republican Party and Catholic Church leaders in the late 1860s and early 1870s joined a bitter battle of words over the future of public education” (Justice 171).
Justice suggests the American Public School became a metaphor for the northern lifestyle; “the public school evoked the small-town Protestant backbone of the Republican Party” (180). In 1869, Tweed as head of Tammany Hall and acting State Senator, “snuck a provision in the annual tax levy bill for the city through the state legislature” that provided 20 percent of the city’s excise tax be earmarked to Catholic schools (Justice 182). Tweed’s crafty maneuver set Republicans to outrage in motion and solidified scrutiny by the Republican-based press, such as The New York Times and by Harper’s. Nast’s crusade against Catholic interference in the public school system coincided with his attacks on Tweed’s other political malfeasances. His attacks on Tweed tripled Harper’s Weekly circulation (Hess 100).
Nast’s principal opposition to the Catholic Church rested on what he feared was its aim to subvert the nation’s public school system by diverting public funds to sectarian schools (St. Hill, 70). Benjamin Justice’s research on Nast’s feelings about Catholic interference in the public school system provides valuable insights. Justice feels that American antagonism toward Catholics resulted from its rapid rise due to immigration and the American Catholic Church’s adoption of conservative ultramontane Romanish leadership, which “increasingly insisted on separate, publicly-funded schools, made it incompatible with republican government and unfit to offer mass education at public expense” (175).
Justice surmises Nast’s vicious blasts at the public school issue were a part of a broader attack on the relationship between Tammany Hall and the Catholic Church and were pointed objections to “Catholic political ascendency over the state” rather than an attack on Catholic culture or Catholics as individuals (183).
The image is often used as evidence by Catholics to prove Nast hated Catholics. He did not. After all, it was the faith of his family. Nast produced many similar images, but all of his Catholic cartoons hover over two issues – The New York Catholic Church’s demand for public funds to create their own sectarian schools (which they got thanks to their alliance with Tweed) and the conservative Catholic (ultramontane) concept or doctrine of papal infallibility, wholly adopted by the New York Catholics.
Blind allegiance to an infallible monarch figure perplexed Protestants Republicans. They viewed American Catholics allegiance to the religious figurehead across the ocean as un-American. As Heuston and others have made clear, the Irish-Americans’ devotion to a pope was clear evidence that American Catholics had no desire to assimilate into American culture and behave as independently-thinking individuals.
Most Protestants misunderstood papal infallibility to mean that the pope could not sin. [See Catholic definition] Nast, whose family and religious culture in Germany had aligned with reformed Catholicism, could not fathom that any Roman pontiff could see to be beyond human error. Nast believed what other Republicans and Protestants believed of papal infallibility – that the pope could do no wrong, not make mistakes, and whose word or orders must be carried out by the Irish-Catholic flock. For Nast and most Republicans, it was a doctrine and philosophy with the potential for extreme abuse.
Nast’s campaign against Catholic interference in public schools equaled if not rivaled his obsession with Tweed. Nast saw Tweed and the American Catholic Church in New York as symbiotic and co-dependent. This particularly rankled Nast.
Fritz, a German and Pat, an Irishman, discuss what race should be tabooed next. The Germans and Irish were often adversarial rivals for jobs, but by the late 1870s and 1880s were more unified as white men as the “Chinese Question” hovered over their economic future. Increasingly Euro-centric whites affiliated with groups like the Workingmen’s Party, whose goal to drive out all labor competition, particularly from the Chinese Chinese were often viewed incorrectly, as “coolies” workers who were brought to the United States under duress, or tricked into contract labor.
The caption, “Fritz (to Pat). “If the Yankee Congress can keep the yellow man out, what is to hinder them from calling us green and keeping us out too?””
As these men ponder their victory, they also dwell upon the repercussions of their victory over the Chinese and the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which had in place, a 20-year option to renew.
Nast’s square jawed Irishman in top hat and vest had more to worry about than the German. The Irish had long been considered by other white people as not fully white – a separate race of people who sat on the evolutionary scale above the African American, but below Caucasians. By 1882, the Irish American had made great political gains, but this cartoon infers a certain irony, that people hadn’t completely forgotten earlier perceptions. Seventeen years later, Harper’s Weekly published this scientific-based cartoon.
Fritz the German (smoking a Meerschaum styled pipe and holding a mug of German beer) has a good inkling of who might be next in the pecking order. He directs his question and emphasizes it with a slight touch to the Irishman’s arm. We can see the Irishman is considering the implications.
A common Nast technique placed proclamations on walls behind his subjects, in this case language direct from the Exclusion Act, on the wall behind the two men as they reflect their future in America. A looming possibility hovers over their casual moment and invades their enjoyment of a legislative victory against the Chinese in America.
Readers of the San Francisco satire magazine The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp did not receive a balanced view of the Chinese in their cartoons or accompanying articles. The readership of the magazine lived with and believed in the terror of white unemployment caused by cheap Chinese labor. They expected and received a press that was sympathetic to their concerns.
“No variety of anti-European sentiment has ever approached the violent extremes to which anti-Chinese agitation went in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Despite laws and treaties promising federal protection, “lynchings, boycotts and mass expulsions still harassed the Chinese after the federal government yielded to the clamor for their exclusion in 1882” (Higham 25).
Steadily, the Democratic Party, fueled by an infusion of “southern exports” and white “Workingmen’s Party” members merged into a powerful force to treat the Chinese and other minorities in the West with “similar brutality in legislation, in land policy, and in labor practices” (Pfaelzer 58-60).
It was easier to justify the violence, the driving out, the boycotts and mistreatment of the Chinese when they could be turned into something less than human. The labor issue, one of the six categories Richard S. West showcases in his book, was the focus of The Wasp’s first anti-Chinese, pro-white labor cover, The First Blow at the Chinese Question. West prefaces the image by acknowledging that 15,000 men out of work in San Francisco alone, added to the white labor agitation. The Chinese immigrant was made to be the scapegoat (West 156).
A sturdy-looking white man wearing a trade apron, and two other laborers behind him have entered Chinatown. They encounter a Chinse man on the sidewalk. In one hand, the lead worker carries a sign, “Working Men’s Procession.” With his right arm, the lead workingman lands a punch directly into the face of the Chinese immigrant. The blow knocks his victim off balance. The Chinese man’s long queue spirals outward from the impact. His oversized tunic extends past his arms, covering his hands. The Chinese man does not curl his fists in to strike back. Keller has neutralized this victim.
Another Chinese immigrant stands behind a storefront door or window and reacts in horror. He is distorted and ethereal. His whole body is aquiver, as if he is being vaporized, like a genie returning to a lamp. His fluid contours suggest he is fading away. This second Chinese figure is startled and his queue reacts in the same manner as the man under attack. He holds a gun by his side, but he makes no attempt to raise the weapon in defense. He is unable to protect his territory, his placement inside the rectangular border limits his power. The frame suggests he is reduced to one dimension, a poster or piece of wall art.
As Lenore Metrick-Chen suggests, it was fashionable for Americans to collect Chinese art, but acceptable to exclude the Chinese people. The Wasp suggests that the Chinese belong on walls, but not in the streets.
Unlike Nast’s portrayals of the Workingmen’s Party, Keller’s representation of Causacian labor are generic and do not possess brutish features. Their behavior says otherwise.
On the eve of the 1880 Republican convention, Nast introduced one of his favorite targets, James G. Blaine, as a”magnetic man “who had attracted many undesirable political features” (Paine 425).
Nast dehumanizes Blaine by removing his human form (with the exception of his face) .
Blaine’s head rests upon a barrel of campaign funds. Nast reintroduces the “Mulligan letters” scandal of 1876 which had cost Blaine the presidential nomination. His personal magnetism draws close to Blaine references of past issues:“A Bloody Shirt Campaign,” Credit Scandal,” “Fort Smith and Little Rock R.R. Bonds,” The Mulligan Letters,” “Machine Politics,” “Grant’s Cast Off Followers.” Center to the drawing, a Chinese man lies lifeless, a metal clip at the end of his queue affixed to the magnet. Next to the Chinese, a man in prison stripes rests his head along a declaration, “For Vice President Denis Kearney” and lastly a silver dollar, acknowledging a controversy about using silver as currency.
As a magnet of dubious attraction, Blaine is also rendered ineffective. His torso is missing. He has lost is manhood – his originality and bravery are neutered. At the end of his magnetic legs, Blaine’s feet are missing, disabling the presidential hopeful to take a moral stand His hands are flat and immobile at his side. Blaine is, in effect, paralyzed by his past positions, and is unable to disassociate or break the hold of his scandalous and immoral past.
As Morton Keller has observed, with Grant no longer in the political arena, Nast lost his sense of passion for Republican personalities and his perception of their shift away from the moral compass where social issues were concerned.
Modern sensibilities and commentary have at times criticized Nast’s “John Chinaman” or “John Confucius” representation as an example of Chinese stereotype. Certainly, Nast could have varied facial expressions and dress. Many Chinese in America had assimilated, particularly in New York City and other East Coast port cities. In repeating his imagery, one might argue that Nast helped to perpetuate and anchor the stereotype which stressed their exotic dress and long hair. For Nast, it was likely a combination of artful economy and providing a recognizable figure for general public identification.
Difficult Problems Solving Themselves shows the balance of Nast’s work and his intention to portray the Chinese in a fair, if not superior light. Here, John Chinaman is leaning against a directional signpost pointing eastward. He is literate. He is reading, in English, the San Francisco Hoodlum’s headline cries to “Go East Young MAN.” He is juxtaposed against another victim of racial discrimination, “A. Freedman” an African American forced or bull-dozed to move westward. Alongside the African American is a mother covered in a shawl and holding a young infant. Alongside of her, is a young boy. The woman and two children appear to be white. The older child appears to wear a tunic instead of a western-style shirt and pants. On his head is a white kufi, a traditional Islamic head covering for males.
The signpost divides the scene and the two travel paths dominate the cartoon. Unlike a regular signpost buried in the ground, this post emerges from roots. The division is firmly planted in the American soil. The signpost occupies the middle ground and blocks compromise. The post is is deeply rooted, like a tree.
In splitting the image the signpost depicts a nation with strong and divided social and political ideologies. The Chinese man’s queue runs parallel to the embedded signpost, and is nearly as long, suggesting a cultural devotion to the queue, but Nast acknowledges the hairstyle’s divisive role in separating Chinese from American. Both African American and Chinese travel toward a region of promise, but the stark reality is that each is merely switching locations with the other. While buildings in the background offer a “welcome” it is unlikely that any region purging one non-white race will likely accept another.
This image could be indicative of a pattern where Nast places his signature in a cartoon and what that placement might suggest. Instead of signing in ample blanks spaces to the left or to the right, Nast signs his work vertically up the signpost. It is the most neutral location and likely purposeful, since it is atypical of Nast’s usual signature placement. See ““The Nigger Must Go” and “The Chinese Must Go”“
Thomas Nast was born on September 27, 1840 in Landau in der Pfalz, then an autonomous region of what is now modern Germany. His homeland is also known as the Rhineland-Palatinate, a region that had historic links and union with Bavaria. He and his siblings were baptized at Roman Catholic Church of Sankt Maria (Saint Mary’s) in Landau (FamilySearch.org). Landau was a Protestant and Catholic region close to the French border. Religious tensions existed – most notably among Catholics. “When the Nast family left Bavaria in the 1840s, events in Europe pitted the Pope and Catholic orders –especially Jesuits–against liberal reformers and radical revolutionaries” (Justice 175). The Jesuits adhered to a traditional or ultramontane dogma that acknowledged papal infallibility and advocated a strong Roman Vatican control over its flock. Though it cannot be firmly established, Nast’s art deriding the Pope’s inability to commit human error, suggests the Nast family sympathized with the reformist camp of Catholics practitioners.
In America, Nast was not a good student, with a language barrier being an early obstacle. His official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, suggests that Nast’s was educated in Catholic schools and that the strictness and “rod and ruler” punishment disturbed Nast and did little to encourage his study habits. There are references to stern-faced female principles, but it is not expressly stated these women were nuns. Nast’s Catholic education came to a close at the age of 13, when “he left when required to confess, regarding his sins as too many and too dark for the confidences of the priest’s box” (13). What dark sins could a boy of 13 have? The passage is ambiguous and an active imagination might draw inferences of abuse. If some level of abuse existed it would explain the origin of negative feelings toward Catholicism or clergy. Harper’s also confirms Nast’s Catholic education in a short biographical profile, written at the height of his popularity and his anti-Catholic attacks (HW Aug. 26, 1871).
The Nast family arrived in New York City in 1846, just before the largest numbers of Irish Catholics arrived to escape the Famine. Nativism, an anti-foreign sentiment felt by many American-born Protestants toward new immigrants, was in full swing. Nativism grew as a direct response to increased immigration to America and peaked, when immigration did, during the Famine era. Between 1845-1855, an estimated one and a half million Irish, most of whom were Catholic, flared nativist concerns of Catholic takeover and prompted nativists to organize into secret societies, such as the Know Nothings.
When the Nast family established their American home, distrust of foreigners in general had narrowed to fears of Irish Catholics in particular. The Nast’s family’s attitudes for or against the Irish cannot be established. If they were reformist Catholics, the conservative brand of American Catholicism would not have been to their liking. There are other circumstances to consider as well.
Historians William Meagher, Kerby Miller and others agree that German immigrants fared better than most of their European counterparts at the time, possessing education or skills in trades that enabled them to quickly find employment and better living conditions in New York City. Paine makes a point to describe the first Nast family dwellings in New York City as being on west side and “respectable.” Most new immigrants occupied the Lower East and Lower Central part of Manhattan.The Nast family may have considered themselves in a higher class, than Irish who, as immigration progressed, arrived with less skills and options, and were forced to live in destitute conditions in notorious neighborhoods.
If the Nast family were reform-minded Catholic practitioners, they may found the Episcopalian faith an attractive alternative to practice and a means to distinguish themselves from Irish Catholics who observed a more conservative or ultramontane doctrine. Immigration historian Kerby Miller theorizes many early Catholics made the religious change in order assimilate into dominant Protestant culture in America.
A clue to their religious shift might be indicated in burial place of Nast parents, who are interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (Hayes 4). “The fact that she [Nast’s mother] is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, a non-sectarian cemetery might be somewhat of a clue,” wrote Father Morris of the New York Archdiocese, “It was rather rare, at least until prior to the Ecumenical Council for Catholics to be buried in unconsecrated ground. If so, special dispensations were required” (Email 30 Apr. 2012).
According to research done by Benjamin Justice, when Thomas Nast and his wife relocated to Morristown, New Jersey in 1871, they became members of the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and their children were christened in that faith.
Whatever his religion was at the time, Nast began his professional career at the age of 15. In New York City, the most notable weeklies were Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, the New York Illustrated News, and the most respected and prominent, Harper’s Weekly. Nast had worked for them all–and in that order– but happily achieved his goal to work full time at Harper’s in 1862 (Paine 28).
Established press organizations in the northeast promoted Protestant-based, pro-Republican ideals, and during the Civil War, adopted a pro-Union stance in their editorial positions. The two leading daily papers, The New York Tribune and the New York Times, were Radical Republican and mainstream Republican.” The publishers and staff of Harper’s Weekly, including cartoonist Thomas Nast, were mainly Protestant or secular liberals” (Kennedy, HarpWeek). The more progressive Tribune led as an early advocate for abolition and “attacked Lincoln daily, demanding emancipation” as a cause for Lincoln to adopt (Paine 79). Other media followed suit. Harper’s was “strongly Methodistic in trend” (Mott 86) and part of a publishing center that “loathed the political culture and style of the Democrats and resented their control of the metropolis,” (Fischer 8).
Northeastern Methodists joined other Protestants in a strong alliance of moral authority and civic duty that sought freedom of slavery. “No single issue had greater power than slavery to shape Methodist political responses,” (Carwardine 597) and Northeastern Methodists, like most Protestants in that region, were Lincoln supporters. In 1861, a year before he began as a staff artist at Harper’s, Nast married Sarah Edwards, the daughter of English-born parents. Nast figuratively and literally, as historian Robert Fischer suggests, “married into old-line Yankee culture and embraced it with the fervor of the prodigal son come home” (29). His background, the culture of his employers (cartoon historian Donald Dewey writes that the Harper family had an established anti-Catholic bias) the American Catholic stance against abolition, and marriage into an Anglican family all coalesced to shape Nast’s Republican views, steering him to a conviction of Protestant superiority.
For his book, Paine interviewed Nast toward the end of his life. His anti-Catholic drawings are not discussed in detail in the large biography. But in an effort to explain away the anti-Catholic reputation that had obviously followed Nast, Paine echoed an earlier Harper’s profile piece and wrote, “He was inspired by no antagonism to any church–indeed he was always attracted by Catholic forms and ceremonies” (150).
Outrage over Nast’s treatment of Irish Catholics continues to permeate in modern Hibernian societies and is the primary reason that “the Father of the American Political Cartoon” has been kept out of New Jersey’s Hall of Fame.
A month after drawing the Martyrdom of St. Crispin, Nast returned with another unflattering cartoon about the Chinese entering the shoe making profession. Here Nast takes advantage of several puns.
A demonic Chinese laborer is at his cobbler’s bench, he has replaced St. Cripin as the cobbler. Western-styled shoes in various stages of progress surround him, but the Chinese man does not wear the product he makes. The Chinese artisan wears his native mandarin jacket and loose pants. Nast will always draw the Chinese in native dress, including Chinese footwear, often with thick grass or straw soles and topped in cloth or hide.
The cobbler is clearly annoyed by the soul or “sole” of the displaced St. Crispin, the Catholic patron saint of shoe cobblers and leather workers. The insect, named St. Crispin, is not happy. He is distressed to see a Chinese take the place of his usual patron, a Christian or Catholic white shoe cobbler. A halo hovers over its head, formed as the heel of a shoe. Its large wingspan is troublesome. Two of its six legs are clenched in fists, ready to attack the foreign cobbler.
The Chinese man cowers at the insect’s arrival. Because his large hat or douli hangs on the wall out of reach, he grabs the closest weapon he has, the end of his long queue to swat or “shoo” the shoe fly away. The shorter hairs on the top of his queue bristle. It is hard to determine if the cobbler is angry or afraid His posture would indicate defeat, but his expression, particularly the raised eyebrow and sideways glance, indicate a determination to get rid of the pest. A partially opened umbrella stands at the opposite end of the bench.
He clearly wants to be left alone to sell his “Cheap Shoes” to the public. In case the message is not clear, “Cheap Shoes” appears twice in the cartoon. Because Chinese workers were considered cheap and often slave or “coolie” labor, they were able to undercut the prices of their competitors. The Chinese were in fact brought in as strikebreakers against the interests of the Knights of St. Crispin labor union. See Martyrdom of St. Crispin. In Massachusetts, threats of violence and rock throwing were thwarted by heavy police protection. Nast’s signature, which varied in its placement and size in his cartoons, was prominently shown on a large rock at the foot of the cobbler’s bench. Nast typically had many options to insert his signature. By placing it upon the rock, does it mean he is willing to throw the first stone?
Harper’s Weekly sided with pro-capitalist positions and therefore consistent as a pro-Chinese publication. Like a the majority of post-Civil War, eastern Republican dailies and weeklies, Harper’s viewed the overall benefit of trade and utilizing a Chinese workforce to benefit progressive American venture capitalists. In their view, the Chinese benefit to business interests outweighed any concerns that Democratic labor might have (Tchen 181).
That summer in the streets of New York City, Mayor Oakley A. Hall, a Tweed associate and inside member of the Tammany Ring, spoke before a rally. Oakley joined many pro-labor speakers who convened a rally to fire up “The Chinese Question” among the workingmen constituency in the city. “Hall opposed the “importation of tawny slaves” by the “wicked combination of capitalists” and “man-stealers” (Tchen 179).
The outcry from these rallies often blurred the distinction between willing competitive labor, cheap labor and coolie labor. Democrat charged the Republican leadership with hypocrisy – a group who fought against slavery, but were too willing to use slave labor in the Chinese.
Other New York papers, particularly the New York Herald, with largest daily readership in the nation, went back and forth on its opinion of the crisis. Its editor, James Gordon Bennett held his finger to the political wind and initially “waffled on the Chinese laborers, but ultimately landed for tolerance on the Chinese question” (Tchen 181).
Disagreements and concerns between labor and capital interests never reached the sustained conflicts that were soon to be stoked in California Sand Lots later in the decade. Capitalists on the West Coast did not have an alliance of local media to alleviate concerns and or suggest positive images on behalf of the Chinese.
But Nast was anything but positive with “The Latest Edition of Shoo Fly.” Nast could be counted on, almost with a knee-jerk reaction, to strongly counter any position or issue that Tammany, its cohorts or white Irish, pro-labor constituents would support. In fact, Nast’s next cartoon on the topic The Chinese Question, issued a strong indictment against Tammany support of white labor positions. The six months that elapsed between the two cartoons shows a significant evolution in Nast’s thinking. This may be a direct result Nast’s developing investigation of Tweed and a distaste for anything that was condoned by the Tammany touch. Nast’s subsequent Chinese cartoons offer a stronger defense of the beleaguered Chinese Americans, though he would occasionally regress into employing crueler stereotypes, Nast kept his pen focused on the hypocrisy of white immigrants, most of whom Nast defined as Irish, who viewed themselves as the definitive Americans charged with protecting the country from a Chinese threat.¹
But in this cartoon, Nast had yet to find conviction with his position. He decided to portray cheap shoes and cheap labor through the eyes of the Chinese’s detractors. If Nast meant to poke fun at white labor, it was a cheap joke, made at the expense of the Chinese. In 1870, as the shoemakers controversy trampled up and down the East Coast, Nast appears to have been swept up in their sentiment and found a use to exercise satire. This example is not representative of his evolved sensibilities that Tweed’s alliance with white labor interests helped only helped to focus.
¹For more explanation on Irish-Chinese conflicts click here.
In his A History of American Magazines Frank Luther Mott, credits Harper’s Weekly as the most important magazine on the East Coast in the nineteenth century. The management of the Harper brothers, the writing and editorials of George W. Curtis and the drawings of Thomas Nast “combined to make Harper’s Weekly popular and powerful” (40).
Exactly how powerful is difficult to quantify, at least in terms of circulation numbers. Mott makes a point to establish that publishers of this era did not maintain circulation statistics and were offended by inquiries into same. The information was deliberately mysterious. “There was something sacrosanct about circulation figures.” But by 1874, Mott had determined that Harper’s monthly and weekly publications had subscription lists of more than 100,000 each (6).
This of course does not account for newsstand purchases, and pass-along readership shared with a neighbor or friend. According to an Ohio State University website that maintains a measure of Harper’s scholarship, the weekly had a circulation of 120,000 in 1861. Perhaps owing to the circulation mystery to which Mott alludes, Wikipedia quotes circulation figure of 200,000. HarpWeek, the official website for the magazine states, “Its circulation exceeded 100,000, peaking at 300,000 on occasion, while readership probably exceeded half a million people.” Whatever the figures were, by the standards of its time, Harper’s Weekly stood as a successful publishing venture. Nast’s artwork, particularly his political caricatures, is widely acknowledged to be the major ingredient of the magazine’s growing prosperity.
Images mattered. The illustrated weekly format provided an alternative conveyance for messages that resonated with the public, sometimes more effectively than the word. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1870, the first year such data was recorded, illiteracy rates for whites was 20 percent and for blacks, nearly 80 percent.
With a weekly deadline, illustrated magazines grew in popularity complementing hard daily news with images. Photos were reproduced by copper plate etchings and illustrations were drawn to scale, often in reverse to be transferred from paper, or drawn directly on, a large cross-section of boxwood. The areas not receiving ink– the white areas– meticulously carved out by a staff of engravers, leaving only the black lines in relief to press against the page. (A mind-boggling feat given the prolific crosshatching in Nast’s work). In New York City, the most notable weeklies were Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, the New York Illustrated News, and the most respected and prominent, Harper’s Weekly. Nast had worked for them all–and in that order– but happily achieved his goal to work full time at Harper’s in 1862 (Paine 28).
Established press organizations in the northeast largely promoted Protestant-based, pro-Republican ideals, and during the Civil War, adopted a pro-Union stance in their editorial positions. The two leading daily papers, The New York Tribune and the New York Times, were Radical Republican and mainstream Republican.” The publishers and staff of Harper’s Weekly, including cartoonist Thomas Nast, were mainly Protestant or secular liberals” (Kennedy, HarpWeek).The more progressive Tribune led as an early advocate for abolition and “attacked Lincoln daily, demanding emancipation” as a cause for Lincoln to adopt (Paine 79). Other media followed suit.
Harper’s was “strongly Methodistic in trend” (Mott 86) and part of a publishing center that “loathed the political culture and style of the Democrats and resented their control of the metropolis,” (Fischer 8). Northeastern Methodists joined other Protestants in a strong alliance of moral authority and civic duty that sought freedom of slavery. “No single issue had greater power than slavery to shape Methodist political responses,” (Carwardine 597) and Northeastern Methodists, like most Protestants in that region, were Lincoln supporters. In 1861, a year before he began as a staff artist at Harper’s, Nast married Sarah Edwards, the daughter of English-born parents. Nast figuratively and literally, as historian Robert Fischer suggests, “married into old-line Yankee culture and embraced it with the fervor of the prodigal son come home” (29). His background, the culture of his employers (cartoon historian Donald Dewey writes that the Harper family had an established anti-Catholic bias) and marriage into an Anglican family all coalesced to shape Nast’s Republican views, steeped in the conviction of perceived Protestant superiority.
Journalistic historian Thomas C. Leonard offers the term “visual thinking” to describe the effect Nast’s woodcuts had on Harper’s readership. The public had learned to rely on Nast’s cartoons as a legitimate form of truth telling. “Harper’s Weekly drew power from common knowledge of illustrations as well as the public’s hunger to see more of them” (102). Leonard cites the Nast’s series of anti-Tweed images as the most effective use of visual thinking. Nast’s images resonated and were eagerly awaited by Harper’s readers. Many Nast scholars maintain that his “dammed pictures” led to Tweed’s downfall and to his eventual arrest in Spain by someone who saw the fugitive’s likeness in the magazine. The illustrations added to the overall dialogue. “Harper’s verbal descriptions often missed the visual clues and the radical elements of [that] Nast’s images” were able to capture (Hills 111).
Nast’s power and popularity gave him free artistic reign at Harper’s. He drew what he wanted. “Nast drew only what he was moved to draw for Harper’s Weekly, having no editorial or ownership responsibilities. Nast refused to draw anything he didn’t believe in” (Dewey 10). Nast enjoyed artistic autonomy under Fletcher Harper, but this artistic freedom dissipated after political editor George W. Curtis assumed the managing editor role after Fletcher’s death in 1877.
 Citing various modern sources, the consensus is that printed magazines are “passed along” on average four times. This figure may be conservative for the late 19th century.
 There are numerous references to Nast as a major contributor to Harper’s success. Paine, his biographer, quotes Colonel Watterson as saying, “In quitting Harper’s Weekly, Nast lost his forum: in losing him, Harper’s Weekly lost its political importance” (528).
 Tweed is reputed to have said, “I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!” This quote appears in almost every account of Nast’s work. It may be true, it may be apocryphal.
In almost every biography or reference to Thomas Nast, he is described as a Protestant – and in some cases more specifically as a Lutheran. One scholar, Roger A. Fischer, deviates from this mold. In his book Them Damned Pictures, Fischer writes:
“Nast, born a Catholic in Bavaria and raised Catholic in a German neighborhood in New York City, converted to the Protestant faith as an adult.” Fischer speculates that Nast’s marriage to Sarah (Sallie) Edwards was an entry into old world Yankee culture and embraced it (29-30).
Fischer also credits Charles Press and Draper Hill for also acknowledging Nast’s Catholic roots. Most reporting on this has been lazy, with researchers repeating Nast’s Protestantism while overlooking his original family faith and traditions.
But if we are to fully understand Nast’s anti-Catholic drawings, his religious roots should not be overlooked, for this was the faith of his parents.
In nineteenth century America there were many reasons for Catholics to convert. Love may certainly have been one of the reasons. In my own family history, the reverse seems to have been true. My paternal great grandparents, Bavarian Lutherans, were very upset that their daughter (my grandmother) fell in love with, and at the turn of the twentieth century, decided to marry an Irish Catholic and convert to Catholicism.
Without precisely knowing when Nast converted, likely, there was more to it than just amoré. Nast emigrated to New York City in 1846, about the same time the potato crop was failing in Ireland. The Irish had been coming to America long before then – but most Irish emigrants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (about 70 percent) were Presbyterian (Scots or Ulster Irish) and 30 percent percentage were were other Protestants, such as Anglicans or Dissenters (Baptists or Quakers, William Penn being the most famous of the latter). Kerby Miller’s research indicates Roman Catholics comprised a small minority of Irish emigres, and there were social, cultural and economic pressures for pre-Revolutionary Catholic emigrants to convert to Protestantism, typically to the very similar Episcopalian faith. As the American colonies were still very much under the influence of England, Catholics were afforded few property rights, an exception being Maryland and small parts of Pennsylvania.
After the Revolution and the enactment of The Bill of Rights, Catholics in American could relax. After the Napoleonic Wars, Irish immigration to America picked up. From 1815 to 1840, a second wave of Catholics left Ireland for better opportunities. These Catholics, generally speaking, saw the writing on the wall as their native Ireland fell sway to British oppression. Increases in tithes and taxes and decreases in land ownership rights, particularly for Catholics, fueled their immigration to America, and also to Canada and Australia. Emigration to the latter two countries was encouraged by the British government who often underwrote the travel expenses.
These pre-Famine Irish Catholics arrived in America with agrarian skills and a bit of money in their pockets, poor, but not destitute. This small distinction enabled them to move out of East Coast port cities toward opportunity in the American West (at that time east of the Mississippi), and to the South. They did not congregate in large cities as the Famine immigrants were forced to do. Whether they converted or not, Miller suggests this second wave of Irish immigrants, were for the most part, accepted into American mainstream, in part because population numbers did not make them conspicuous. They did not stand out or appear to have congregated in large enough numbers to be alarming to the Protestant status quo which still dominated in the expansive American West.
This perception changed with the Great Famine and its aftermath. While historians like Kirby Miller estimate about a million Irish of mixed faith came over from 1815 to 1845, they did so over a 30-year span and spread out all over the country. During the Famine years of 1845-1855, one and a half million destitute and desperate Irish emigrated to the Northeast region of the U.S., usually New York City, and there they conspicuously remained. Almost entirely Roman Catholic, the third wave of new arrivals had no money, nowhere to go, and few relatives to claim them. The first impressions these Irish Catholics left upon the New York and Protestant status quo was anything but positive.
They came to be known as the “shanty Irish” who are depicted in Gangs of New York (book and film) Sante’s Low Life and also Tyler Anbidner’s excellent, factual account of Five Points neighborhood, the most notorious of the the quickly built, inadequate tenements of the Fourth and Sixth Wards. Most Irish had little choice but to call the city tenaments home. They lived in slums under the most horrible of conditions with few skills or opportunities to improve their lot. As a result, many were forced to adopt vice and crime as a means of survival. If the Irish Catholics did find honest work, it was the most demeaning and menial of work as domestic help or as low paying textile workers and shirt makers. From a Protestant perspective, the Irish arrivals practice of a strange, cultist form of Christianity, and their inexplicable worship a foreign man on a Roman throne, further solidified the notion that the Irish stuck together like glue and didn’t want to assimilate or become “American.”
Consequently, the terms “Irish” and “Catholic” became synonymous —absolutely interchangeable and derogatory in usage.
As a result, Protestant Irish no longer self-identified as Irish, preferring to make the distinction as “Scots/Scotch Irish” or” Ulster Irish” and some affiliating as “Orangemen” in honor of William III of Orange who subdued Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne, or better yet, just plain American. They did not want their Protestant Irish ancestry associated with the slum Irish. The Germans immigrants who arrived before and around the same time as the Famine Irish, emigrated mostly for political reasons and left their homelands with money as well as useful skills — artisans with a trade which advanced their livelihood and living conditions in America. Although many nationalities and races were present at Five Points, the majority of skilled Germans lived in neighborhoods on the west side, in areas that are today known as Greenwich Village and Tribeca.
Nast’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine (also Mark Twain’s biographer) makes a point to place the Nast family in a “respectable” house on Greenwich Street. Paine does not mention the Nast family faith at all, but early on provides a hint of where Nast’s Catholic problem may have had originated:
His [Nast] early religious impressions were confusing. There were both Protestants and Catholics in Landau, and once at a Catholic church he saw two little girls hustled out rather roughly for repeating some Protestant prayers. This incident disturbed him deeply. He resented the treatment of these little girls. It may have marked the beginning of a bitterness which long after was to mature in those relentless attacks upon bigotry which won for him the detestation, if not the fear, of Pope and priest (6).
In New York City, Nast was educated in the Catholic faith, at least until the age of seven. Never a promising student, his parents moved him to different schools to see if an academic spark would ignite. Paine continues,
A little later, by advice of his father he attended a German school though only for a brief period. He left when required to confess, regarding his sins as too many and too dark for the confidences of the priest’s box. A brief period at another German school followed, and a term at a Forty seventh Street academy, considered then very far uptown. It was all to no avail. (14-15).
The mid-nineteenth century (1840-1860) saw a fervent rise in nativist sentiment and anti-Catholic rhetoric. The Know-Nothings rose and gained political power by essentially feeding into a growing anti-foreign, anti-Catholic paranoia.
“Catholic traditions continued to look dangerously un-American partly because they did not harmonize easily with the concept of individual freedom embedded in the national culture” (Higham 6).
They also drew very strong political lines — and politics would play a huge part in defining the anti-Catholic sentiment. Aside from their strange faith and odd practices and preoccupation with politics in their native Ireland, Catholics were successfully recruited by and subsequently aligned with the Democratic Party, which among other things, was staunchly anti-abolitionist. The Catholic Church took the unpopular position of not wanting to rock boat in their new home, on the issue of slavery. The Catholic Church was very keen to earn headway and inflfuence in the U.S. They believed in the law of the land and that law included slavery. The official position of the church was to let slavery continue.
Republicans, the Know Nothing factions among them, found the Catholic position on slavery reprehensible. During the Civil War, the Democratic Party affiliated and aligned with the Confederate South, and despite exceptions and Union loyalists, the majority of Irish and Catholics sympathized with Confederate side.
These pressures may have propelled a young Thomas Nast, and others like him, to convert. It may have been in pursuit of love (his intended was Espicopalian), the taint of Irish Catholicism, or from a desire to ascend and better assimilate in New York society. Given Nast’s staunch abolitionist views, it is not unreasonable to assume the American Catholic Church’s position on slavery had a lot to do with his conversion and continued skepticism of Irish Catholics in New York.
Nast did not hide his Catholic roots however. At the height of his fame during the Tweed era, Harper’sWeekly introduced their star artist to readers with a brief biography and engraved photo. Nast was described as Catholic, a fact that Harper’s clearly felt bolstered Nast’s integrity and the real purpose of his attacks on the American Catholic Church’s relationship with Tweed and New York City finances. It was the issue at hand, and not the people or faith that Nast attacked.
The pro-slavery position of Northeast Catholics during this time is not something that is well known among today’s Catholics. Modern Catholics might find the revelation of their history on this issue in America shocking. Certainly, it is not a part of a history that American Catholics choose to highlight and brag about. Nonetheless it is an ugly part of the American Catholic past that did factor into perceptions of the time. The Democratic Party was on the wrong side of a pressing moral issue. Irish Catholics strengthened the Democratic Party and therefore had a indirect role in blocking the progress for civil rights. Abolition attitudes ran very strong in Republican and Protestant circles, and may have contributed to social and moral pressures for Nast to abandon his ancestral family faith, and view American Catholics – Irish Democrats with increased scrutiny.
Nast’s images about Catholicism are brutal, but they erupt from specific issues (public school funding) and the social policies of dominant political figures (Tweed). The Irish’s persecution of Chinese Americans likely factored into Nast’s attention and sarcastic scrutiny.
Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was an amazingly talented and controversial artist during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Illustrator, painter, engraver, he is best known for his scathing caricatures and political cartoons that appeared in Harper’s Weekly’s Journal of Civilization, and which called out corruption and hypocrisy in American and especially New York City politics.They often referred to Nast as “Our Special Artist.”
Nast remains controversial today. His most recent nomination for induction into New Jersey’s Hall of Fame (Nast lived the majority of his time in Morristown) was doomed after a flurry of outrage and has been tabled for another year. With our politically correct fixations, he may never get in.
I first learned about Nast when I began exploring my family’s genealogy on sites like Ancestry.com. My lineage is 75 percent potato famine Irish, 25 percent Bavarian German. Raised in the Roman Catholic faith, if asked, my family identified ourselves as Irish-Catholic, but it was never a zealous, over-the-top kind of thing. I grew up thinking we were just “American” like everyone else. A sense of ancestral family history was never conveyed in our home. I was unaware of the experiences of my immigrant ancestors.
After seeing the 2002 film Gangs of New York, directed by Martin Scorsese, and watching an interview about the making of the film on Charlie Rose, I learned about a book titled Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante (1992) and I decided to get a copy. It was a fascinating account of the American immigrant experience during the Gilded Age of New York City. It was through this reading that I first learned about Thomas Nast. I was surprised to discover that the Irish were looked upon as low life and wrote about it in an early blog.
For my first graduate course, American Art and Culture in Context, each student was assigned to select an artist to represent each century of American history and determine the cultural context in which it was created and why it was significant. I decided to narrow my focus to a particular genre, political/editorial cartoons, and selected Benjamin Franklin as an artist for the eighteenth, Thomas Nast for the nineteenth, and Patrick Oliphant for the twentieth century. Cartooning has always held a fascination for me. As a teenager, I was an amateur pen and ink artist. I fancied myself as a cartoonist and envisioned my career landing in newsprint. I had every intention of selecting art as my major in college and formally honing my skills and artistic voice – but when I found out that all the art classes began at 8 a.m. in the morning, I decided to switch my major to English. True story. Such is the wisdom of a 17-year old that puts sleeping in late at the top of her priorities!
Nevertheless, for me, an appreciation for art, and a particular enthusiasm for the oeuvre of Thomas Nast endures. It coincides well with my curiosity about nineteenth century American history, family heritage, politics in general, and how art influences culture and vice versa.
Thomas Nast is misunderstood. Given my heritage, I claim every right to put Nast on a $hit list, but I have chosen not to do so. I am not pleased to see my ancestors depicted as apes. I want to know where this comes from and why the stereotype, which originated in Great Britain, migrated to the United States and continued to thrive here for generations. I want to understand what made him draw images like this. Nast did not invent this stereotype, but he certainly perpetuated it. The image at right, The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things has made many appearances on the Web as an example of his vile Irish defamation. It is not a flattering portrait. The image is usually cropped to remove the story below, nor is it considered in the context of events that caused Nast to create the image. To fully understand the image, we need to understand the back story (which I will elaborate on in a future post).
One of the benefits of being trained as a journalist (aided by my position as a middle child) is to make oneself aware of all points of view, and present facts in context. It’s easy to stand on a soap box or slip behind a screen and keyboard and rant and rave about policies and positions – an advocate who is right and who is wrong. It would have been very easy to emotionally react to these images and be offended by what at first glance appears as cruel, salacious and mean spirited drawings spewed from Nast’s pen, brush, and pencil. Those were “my people” he maligned. Few would blame me for jumping on the “outrage” bandwagon.
I did not react with anger or outrage. Instead, I’ve chosen to ask “why?” Was Thomas Nast a racist? A hater? And if so, how does that happen to someone? Bigotry doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is learned. How did his time, place and circumstance shape his views? Why does he appear to turn against the faith he was born into and raised for a time? Perhaps my minority Bavarian DNA has something to do with an internal need to find balance and explanation. I wanted to get as many sides of the Thomas Nast story as I could. As these pages and blog posts unfold, I will share the images in historical context, supported by academic research and established differences of opinion, including my own. Fair assessments based on facts. Those afternoon courses in good old fashioned journalism did not go to waste! You are welcome to draw your own conclusions, and by all means, share them.
Therefore, it is the purpose of this site to define who Thomas Nast was, what his politics were, his general philosophies and determine what exactly was his beef with the Irish and the Catholics? How did he treat other minority or immigrant groups? Scholars and students of Thomas Nast will generally agree he was a product of his time, he adopted and practiced a new form of Republicanism that was hard won by Abraham Lincoln, which advocated toleration for all races and creeds. When Nast called out the Irish or the Catholics, he did so to protest specific behaviors or practices that he felt were an abuse of power or ran hypocritical of American democratic ideals.
In Nast’s world, Irish and Catholics are inexorably intertwined with William Meager Tweed, the Tammany Hall Sachem or “Boss” that ran a corrupt “Ring” in New York City. Tweed was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian, and as a younger man was no admirer of Irish Catholics. All of that changed when Tweed quickly figured out the political value of this massive immigrant population. He cultivated the allegiance of the Irish and the Roman Catholic Church for expedient political reasons. In the view of many at the time, especially for the Republican, Protestant ruling elite, Tweed’s arrangement was a malodorous quid pro quo – votes for favors. That the Irish allowed themselves to be so manipulated by Tweed and how a particular church grew and benefited directly as a result of Tweed’s support with public funds is at the heart of Nast’s ink and ire.
Thomas Nast did not have a fundamental problem with the Irish or with Catholics. His family faith was Catholic! Nast was consistent in calling out corruption and hypocrisy wherever he saw it emerge. Had it not been for their political alliances, which in Nast’s view involved stolen elections and misappropriated public funds, there would be little reasons for Nast to attack the Irish Catholics. His pen would turn on anyone, or any group, who he felt had turned on his or her principles or moral code. I will examine Nast’s use of symbols and stereotypes and seek to explain, rather than excuse their employment in his work and commentary. Everything Nast drew, was executed with deep conviction. One may not agree with Nast’s conclusions, but those who are informed of his life and times find it difficult to question the well of integrity and consistency from with which Thomas Nast drew his creative inspiration.
Thomas Nast drew Something That Will Not Blow Over, a double-paged illustration in Harper’s Weekly, in direct response to the Orangemen’s Riots of July 1871. It features a large central drawing, with various smaller vignettes surrounding the main picture.
Like many of Nast’s larger images, good and evil is divided, shown in the left and right images respectively.
In the mid to late nineteenth century, for the Protestant ruling class in New York City, percieved “Irish” and “Catholics as synonymous terms. Irish meant Catholic and Catholic meant Irish. Italians and eastern European Catholics also arrived in New York, but were not as visually prominent as the Irish. German immigrants, the second largest immigrant group, tended to reside alongside other Germans from the same region. German Catholics worshiped separately from Irish Catholics, and had their own Catholic churches and communities (Nadel, 29, 37-39).
At first, the Nast family did not live near the largest German community, Little Germany or kleindeutschland, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but resided further west on Greenwich Street. Bavarian immigrants were scattered across several wards in New York (Nadel 37). Later the Nast family moved to William Street in the Fourth Ward, closer in proximity to the Sixth Ward that included a large Irish constituency. Irish American historian Timothy Meagher asserts that the Irish often tangled with Germans, and anyone they saw as competitors (223). Nast’s attacks against Catholics may have grown from this experience, but more likely formed from his observations of the Irish and their political positions. As his biorgrapher Paine suggests, Nast appears to single out the Irish “for the reason that a large percentage of the foreign immigration–an important political factor–professed that creed” (Paine 150). Tweed was the thread that wove many Irish and Catholics together in what Republican Protestants viewed as one neat, corrupt package.
For Nast, the Orangemen’s riots of July 11-12, 1871 confirmed the violent Irish stereotypes that his German culture and neighborhood may well have believed and pre-disposed him to adopt. The 1871 street riots provided Nast with the excuse to not reprise his 1863 draft riot imagery, but strongly reinvent or embellish it.
For several years, Irish Catholics in New York City celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with an annual parade. New York City’s Protestant Irish, calling themselves “Orangemen” — members of the Loyal Order of Orange named in honor of British King William III, Prince of Orange. William III had defeated a Catholic James II for dominion over Ireland, wanted an equivalent celebration. The Protestant Irish insisted their own parade to celebrate their own history. In 1870, they had gotten their wish, a parade of Protestant Orangemen-Irish. This first parade resulted in mild disturbances — and future Orangemen parade permits were banned.
Nevertheless the Orangemen petitioned for another public celebration for the summer of 1871. A permit was extended. Irish Catholics were outraged. Tweed succumbed to his constituents’ demands and ordered Mayor A. Oakley Hall to retract the permit for the Orangemen to celebrate.
The vacillation of official approval only proved to stoke Orangemen’s desire to exert their rights.
After Protestant outcry and pressure, Governor Hoffman issued Order 57, allowing the Orangemen to publicly march in the streets of New York City. The July parade would go on, and like its predecessor a year prior, the parade was not a peaceful assembly. Several hundred Irish Catholics heckled the paraders and disrupted the procession, hurling bricks, stones, clubs, and shot at women and children waving to the parade from their homes. The violence escalated to murder.
Referring to the incident as the Tammany Riots, Harper’s reported that two soldiers and one policeman with Irish surnames protected the parade participants and were killed along with 44 civilians. But the New York media could not help but fixate on the apparent hypocrisy that Irish Catholics could have a parade, but Protestants could not. Along with the 46 fatalities, anadditional 26 police and soldiers and 67 civilians were wounded (Harper’s July 29, 1871 p. 564).
Nast relied on his arsenal of elaborate visual commentary and symbols to convey the layers of complexity and political maneuvering that surrounded the incident Like his Emancipation drawing of African Americans in 1864, Nast used a montage to depict the ancillary events that culminated in the central image. On important occasions or events of conflict, such as this riot, Nast called upon the imagery of Columbia as America’s advocate of fair play, morality, and when appropriate, admonition to wrong doers.
As an Irish Protestant-Catholic conflict. racial prejudice were did not contribute to the Orangemen’s riots. Religious, not racial tensions were involved in the argument or the violence that ensued. Nevertheless, Nast resurrected the images of the 1863 draft riot lynching and violence as the central ingredient in which to examine a completely different incident. Nast’s 1871 revision hardly resembled his original eyewitness account of 1863, where he is ambiguous about Irish involvement on Clarkson Street, a scene of racial lynching in 1863. By linking the Orangemen’s riots to the draft riots, Nast loses the ambiguity of Irish and Catholic involvement in the public violence. In the eight years that elapsed, Nast’s views against Irish Catholics changed and intensified. Something That Will Not Blow Over is a strong condemnation of the Irish and the Catholic religious hierarchy whom Nast viewed as meddlesome instigators. What had changed in the transpiring eight years that led Nast to strongly implicate Irish Catholics? Politics. William M. Tweed entered Nast’s arena and dominated three years of his artistic and professional life, beginning in 1869.
Something That Will Not Blow Over exposed what Nast perceived as a destructive trinity of Tweed-Irish-Catholic partnership. Nast laid the blame squarely upon all three. The cartoon ran at the climax of his three-year tirade against Tweed.
In the center image, an African American hangs lifeless under a lamppost marked with the date of the draft riots. The Colored Orphanage that was destroyed during the 1863 riots once again smolders in the background. A mob bearing raised weapons shout in outrage. To the lower right of the murdered African American, a Roman Catholic cleric faces his flock. His hat designates he is Monsignor or a Bishop. He does not give a blessing to the soul hanging by a rope nor to the dead and injured piling up on the ground. He is not heading off the crowd. This priest is not a figure of comfort. He clutches his crucifix close to his body and his posture, with his head down-turned, face unseen, and his shoulders raised in a hunch, suggest a devious and cowardly role in the midst of the melee. The mob is his congregation, his faithful, and he does nothing to stop their attack.
To the right, a diverse group of people walk away from the mob scene. Uncle Sam, a symbol of the federal government, is front and center, but he is withdrawn, either putting away his sword or is second guessing his impulse to draw it forward. The wiser course may be not to engage or incite the mob, but defuse them by walking away. Only the Chinese man, on the right, flees from a sense of fear. The rest of this crowd turns away from the mob, and looks back at the instigators as they do. Their faces and body language show dejection rather than fear. They are not making a hasty retreat. The feathers of a Native American Indian, Kaiser helmets, Italian fedoras, a saucer cap and queue of the Chinese man are all part of Nast’s Republican “come one come all” symbolism used in other cartoons that advocate a utopian vision where different races and cultures can live together in harmony. Nast included heads of state, such as a morose Queen Victoria, to help to express his view that the whole world might be ashamed by the Irish-American state of affairs in New York City. A violent outburst like this would never have been allowed to happen in her country. No wonder Victoria looks so dejected.
In the back of the crowd to the right, two banners are visible, one reads “Liberal Catholic Dollinger and Hyacinth.” It is important to note that Nast placed a Catholic element on the positive side of his drawing. Ignatius von Döllinger, a progressive Catholic scholar and priest from Nast’s native Bavaria, vehemently and publicly opposed the dogma of papal infallibility. He was excommunicated by the Pope, which raised him to the rank of exalted hero at Harper’s (June 17, 1871) and in several Nast images (July 17, 1871). A courageous, independent thinker was a Catholic to be admired! Only a month before the Orangemen riots, Harper’s had saluted Dollinger’s moral courage and position as moderate Catholic, “Dr. Dollinger declared that the dogma of papal infallibility contradicted both Bible and tradition, and would create interminable conflicts between state and church” (Harper’s June 17, 1871).
In Nast’s view, heroes like Dollinger were a rarity. Conservative, ultramontane Catholics set policy in the Vatican. On the left side, the American flag is upside down, a clear signal that the nation is at peril. The overarching statement, “Has no caste, no sect, any rights that respect the infallible ultramontane Roman Irish Catholic is bound to respect” reinforced the widely held Protestant notion that the Irish did not have minds of their owns, nor did they respect any tenets except those preached by the Catholic Church. Directly opposite, a Catholic flag, adorned with the Irish harp, a very Irish looking Tammany Tiger, Nast’s animal symbol for the political power of Tweed’s machine, and the papal standard, fly high over the land. Here, Nast suggests that the menace will become transcontinental – what starts on the East Coast will soon blow westward. Beware California, the Irish Catholics are coming! Public schools are seen crumbling on the Irish side, Nast’s snide reminder of the municipal funds which poured into Catholic schools at the behest of Tweed and at the expense of public interest. To the right, the Protestants must contend with the spires and steeples of Catholic cathedrals, churches, and schools supported by tax dollars.
Other smaller scenes show the series of events that led up to the Orangemen’s riot. The top right image’s theme is honor or lack thereof. King William III, Prince of Orange, with two police escorts, shows his written permission to parade to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Irish Catholics. It is not offered meekly, slipped across the floor as Tweed has done with his documentation (see lower left and right images). King William’s authorization is placed on a pedestal. William is trying to reason as one leader to another. He offers a compromise – a quid pro quo – promising that the Protestants will abandon their parade if the Catholics will do the same. He asks for fairness as if to say, we will give up our rights, but will you? Despite any animosity, he is approaching his adversary as an equal. Nast does not extend any artistic courtesy toward St.Patrick. Nast laid an array of stereotypes upon St. Patrick. Nast creates an obstinate figure who will not listen to reason. Despite his higher position he delivers his “Nivir” in heavy Irish brogue. Although he wears the robe of Catholic hierarchy, he looks like an ape. His attitude is anything but saintly. Hands on hips, exposing his vestments and crucifix, he turns away from William, according him no respect.
Below, Tweed grovels on the ground. He and his cowardly cohorts take orders from their beastly Irish masters. The Irish are not afraid to fight for their cause. The Irishman’s saber is central to the image. He stares down his subordinates. Finally, the lower center image shows a dejected, perplexed, and once powerful Tammany Ring; Boss Tweed, Sweeney, Connolly and Hall, are on the ground trying to figure out what went wrong. Tweed can’t win. He and his cohorts are losing ground. Over them hovers a rhetorical question, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”
Harper’s represented two perspectives in the form of prose. The author(s) are unknown, but they were likely written by the editorial staff.
And Pat’s Complaint:
Columbia appears as Nast’s voice. Columbia freely rewards valor, shames cowardice, and highlights hypocrisy. She does not suffer fools, particularly Tammany fools, lightly. Put into service by Nast, she will do his bidding, rising to a noble call to defend her country without hesitation. While these vignettes are important,Nast’s deployment of Columbia on the issue’s cover image, Bravo Bravo, deserves special attention.
Complimenting Harper’s reports of Irish policemen serving valiently during the riots, Columbia places laurels upon the heads of the police who aimed to keep the peace between the warring factions. Are these public servants Irish? They could be.
If so, the image defies the allegation by some scholars that Nast always drew the Irish as beasts and thugs. It is easy to pick out the Irish that Nast criticizes. He uses stereotype and caricature to call out their crimes. How does Nast show an Irishman in a favorable light? Policemen in uniform would not be wearing the waistcoat or a top hat. In the line of civic duty, It could be argued that whenNast drew Irish policeman, he drew them to look like any other American from a European ancestry. It is easy to prove a negative. Far more difficult to spot the everyday ethnicity, including Irish, whom Nast felt behaved admirably.