I use “Google Alerts” to keep abreast of Internet conversations, events and posts about Thomas Nast. This week I came across this masters thesis written by Laura Woolthuis, Utrecht University, Netherland
Getting Nasty: Thomas Nast and the simianization of the Irish in late nineteenth-century America.
I was honored to be included in the citations. Woolthuis’ thesis is well-written, well-researched and provides a thorough history of the Irish-simian stereotype. Woolthuis provides excellent resources on Irish physiognomy and background on Irish “whiteness” studies.
But the blanket assessment that Nast always drew the Irish as beasts or thugs, or that he felt a singular hatred in his heart for Irish or Catholics has foundational problems. Nast was a man of images, not of letters – correspondence that might shed valuable light on inner feelings do not exist on the subject. His personal thoughts toward the Irish are simply not known.
Nast’s perceived attitude toward Irish and Catholics comes solely from his images published in Harper’s Weekly. These images reflect political controversies and positions and are editorial reactions to specific events in the public arena. In fact, at the height of Nast’s popularity (peaking with his anti-Tweed, anti-Catholic content), at a time when being Catholic was not popular, Harper’s nevertheless places Nast’s personal Catholic roots front and center in a biographical feature of their “special artist.”
Decades later, his contemporary biographer, Alfred Bigelow Paine, quite possibly sensing Nast’s vulnerable legacy as a Catholic-hater, goes to great length to correct the perception that Nast held an instinctive, deep-seated hatred toward Catholics or Catholicism.
Simply put, Nast called out hypocritical behavior, violence, and corruption wherever he saw it, and he saw it within groups of people who had loud voices who steadily voiced an ambition for political power and recognition. A growing demographic in New York City, Irish Catholics were often players in these controversies. In mid-nineteenth century New York City, real-life examples of political activism flourished. Participants, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion came to public attention through the harsh caricatures of cartoonists, of which Nast was the most famous during this era.
Coming from a German-Catholic background, his issue was not the religion nor its participants, but rather, the American leadership of the Roman Catholic Church’s and its foray into local politics and public funding, the Irish-Catholic alliance with Tweed, and the rank and file Hibernian alignment with the Democratic Party’s anti-abolitionist platform. Nast drew favorable images of Catholic clerics, most notably Father Dollinger, who held progressive Catholic views. Later, the Irish’s visible and organized attacks toward the Chinese in America renewed and reinvigorated further scrutiny by Nast on Irish behavior.
In 1869, Nast included the Irish at Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner, the one Irishman’s facial features shown as slightly simian, so viewers and readers could not mistake his message that the Irish, as well as other ethnic stereotypes included in the drawing, deserved a seat at the uniquely American celebration. The Irish wife is devoid of stereotype and is most pleasantly drawn.
Later, in “Something That Will Not Blow Over,” Irish policeman (their admirable service reported by Harper’s) receive laurels from Columbia for their valor in serving the public during the religious, tension-filled Orangeman riots. These Irish public servants look like any other American with a western-European ancestry.
As he evolved from illustrator to political caricaturist, Nast zeroed in on trouble and troublemakers. This embodied his raison d’être. In addition to what he perceived as controversial behavior surrounding Tweed, Nast implicated the Irish (and to a lesser extent his fellow Germans – see The Chinese Question) for their oppression and cruelty toward the Chinese. It is an inconvenient and unpleasant truth, that a notable portion of the Irish-Americans in New York at the time, held and defended white supremacist beliefs that today would be viewed as morally reprehensible. Had Tweed not strategically stroked the strings of the Irish harp, and had the Irish not danced to Tweed’s tune, it is doubtful that Nast would have found motivation to draw the images of the Irish for which he is vilified today.
It is easy to pick out a Nast negative. What would a positive Irish-Catholic look like in a Nast drawing? They are there. They blend into the background. In the nature of the Nast beast, it is much harder to prove a positive.
Interesting article about Rebecca Fried who debunked an academic debunker claiming that the Irish were not discriminated against upon arrival in America. The eighth-grader has Kirby Miller on her side, a preeminent Irish historian, one who I have heavily cited in my research.
In October 2011, Thomas Nast, (1840-1902) appeared among a list of distinguished individuals nominated again for induction into The New Jersey Hall of Fame. The nomination, Nast’s third in four years, would not result in his induction. Despite Nast’s legacy as the “Father of the American Caricature” (Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 20, 1902), the accolades and fame earned for his series of approximately 50 cartoons exposing the corrupt New York City Tammany Hall boss William Meager Tweed would not be enough. Rather, it would be another Nast legacy, his anti-Irish and anti-Catholic cartoons drawn primarily in the late-1860s to mid-1870s, which determined Nast’s failure to be included in the Hall of Fame roster.
Caricature can be a cruel expression of contempt. Cartoon historians Stephen Hess and Milton Kaplan refer to caricature as the Ungentlemanly Art; Donald Dewey, the Art of Ill Will. As an editorial caricaturist, Nast relied on techniques to exaggerate physical features, employ personal ridicule, symbolism, and stereotype to expose what he saw as “a struggle between good and evil” (Dewey 7). Nast viewed Irish Americans and the Catholic Church in the post-Civil War era as direct threats to the Republican values of inclusion, unity, toleration, and fairness. He saw the rise of Tweed’s Democratic Tammany Hall Ring, the Irish immigrants, and American Roman Catholics as inexorably linked, one group enabling the others’ prominence.
Nearly a century and a half after they were drawn, Nast’s Irish and Catholic depictions continue to deeply offend. Reprising an English tradition of depicting the Irish as beasts, most typically as apes, Nast’s Irish was a brutish, violent- loving, jaw-jutting aggressor.
Nast, who was born and baptized in the Catholic faith, and received early Catholic education, frequently drew sinister-looking Catholic clergy, usually elaborately robed and surrounded by riches. Recently, these images have resurfaced as a retort to Nast’s 2011 Hall of Fame nomination. The cartoons appear in numerous blogs and editorials – examples offered to prove that Thomas Nast was a racist and a bigot. These images should not be viewed in isolation, without historical context to explain their purpose.
Thomas Nast had a well-established history of supporting fairness and equity, but he would quickly attack those he had previously championed when he perceived hypocrisy, corruption or stupidity within the ranks of previous favorites. Nast’s most famous targets: Tweed and the Irish-Americans Catholics who affiliated with and benefited from the political boss, had questionable alliances and political stances. As emerging actors in New York City Democratic politics, Irish-American Catholics under Tweed’s protection provided a critical backdrop in which a six-year-old Catholic immigrant from Germany came of age, and formed a political identity. Nast witnessed extraordinary characters and cultures, indeed he was part of New York City’s immigrant identity. As Nast matured in this cultural and political soup, he found a passionate solidarity within the progressive politics of the new Republican Party. In particular, after the Civil War, Nast identified his enemies as Democrats and their positions on key social and political issues fueled the ire in his ink.
Nast critics deserve a hearing, however. For example, in his 1863 Emancipation drawing, Nast took great effort to present an optimistic vision of African Americans contrasted against a reminder of African American slavery and oppression. It was important for Nast to present the two together. But when it came to the Irish-American experience, Nast did not explore or comment on the Irish’s long history of oppression in Europe. Nast appears not to have considered any background material which could have furthered his understanding of their collective behavior in America. His work is not sympathetic to the Irish’s dire living conditions in New York City. Nast may have shared a common attitude held by most Germans Americans that they superior to the Irish.
If Nast felt superior, he was not alone. Dale Knobel explains that the rank and file Americans, prior to the war at least, believed that environment was a direct result of a defect in character – in this case, the native Irish character, and character developed from one’s environment. The prevailing view among Protestant Americans held that the Irish had made poor life decisions (marrying early, too many children, following a pope and superstitious religion) and therefore deserved their troubled lot in life (82). Irish-American historian Timothy Meagher writes that Ireland’s troubled history is often overlooked when explaining subsequent Irish American behavior. The Irish didn’t act like Germans because “they were from Ireland and had learned “lessons” there that shaped their reaction” to other races religions and cultures (224).
Had Nast fully studied and appreciated the Irish’s history of oppression and the extraordinary circumstances that caused them to emigrate to America, would he have excused the intertwined relationship of Irish Catholics with Tweed? Probably not. As sympathetic as he was to African Americans, Nast later resorted to racial caricatures and lampooned African Americans when they (in Nast’s opinion) too easily gave away new civil rights gains in the early days of the Restoration. Nast felt they hurridly compromised with southern Democratic politicians — a ruling class Nast felt to to be insincere and corrupt.
Blacks, who Nast once drew with dignity and respect, later became guffawing simpletons who didn’t know better — incapable of navigating through the complex and murky waters of southern politics. As tender as Nast could be in an image like Emancipation, he could be unmerciful in his treatment of minorities in images like The Ignorant Vote. These depictions couldn’t be any more inconsistent.
Albert Bigelow Paine, (1861-1937) was Nast’s only contemporary biographer and penned a reverential 600-page tome published two years after Nast’s death. Paine interviewed Nast toward the end of his life, and he does not challenge the recollections of his subject and the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic drawings are weakly examined.
In an effort to explain away the anti-Catholic reputation that had obviously lingered and threatened to tarnish Nast’s legacy, Paine wrote, “He was inspired by no antagonism to any church–indeed he was always attracted by Catholic forms and ceremonies” (150).
Extraordinary and divisive national events shaped Nast’s persona and outlook. In his adopted country, Nast embraced and championed a Republican political view — a position reinforced by his employers at Harper’s Weekly and the at-large intelligentsia of the day. His attitudes about the Irish were not at all unusual. This was the era when “Irish Need Not Apply” signs proliferated across storefronts and businesses. Knobel’s convincing research makes this very clear. In this atmosphere of an evolving America, Nast transitioned from an illustrator to a caricaturist; the latter’s prime purpose was to expose, within his immediate environment, malfeasance, corruption, lapses in morality, etc. To be successful and effective as a visual commentator and observer, his caricature needed to shock and startle. Caricature provokes and elicits conversation and debate.
In using caricature, Nast purposely fired a weapon clearly meant to exaggerate, upset, and call attention to a specific issue or crime. Exaggeration was precisely his point. Nast argued for diversity and illustrated these differences with recognizable symbols his readers would immediately grasp — an artist’s version of shorthand.
How would Nast have drawn a positive image of an Irishman? Perhaps he did, and these white, Euro-centric faces simply blend in. How would we recognize a positive Nast Irishman if he did not use stereotype? Wouldn’t the Irish look like any other Anglo-American? When something was wrong, went wrong,, Nast drew out his pen and pencil and fired off an attack. The Irish and Catholic alliance with Tweed and the growth of their political prominence and activism (including adopting a pro-slavery political position) provided the fodder — the examples for Nast to run with his preconceptions.
In his book the Irish stereotype, Paddy and the Republic, Dale Knobel quotes Harold Lasswell, a content analyst who helped compile period material for the book,
It is impossible to get inside the mind and observe attitude as one might observe conduct. We obtain insight into the world of the other person when we are fully aware of what has come to his attention(qtd. Knobel xv).
When one browses the Internet and grabs one of Nast’s drawings do we know the full story? Nast drew more than 2,200 cartoons for Harper’sWeekly (Kennedy) alone. A vast majority of his images focused on the people, groups, and religion of my Irish ancestors. In these pieces, I see a slice of history as it was, not how I wish it would have been! His images are historic and possess intrinsic value. Nast came of age during events, controversies, drama, and a cascade of cultures. In order to assess the layers of meaning, and do it with justice, involves an extraordinary commitment of time and affection for history. To fairly evaluate these documents (and Nast’s images) involves having an open mind and a curious nature willing to explore the many backstories and cultures that shaped individual attitudes and behavior during Nast’s career. Every detail — the meaning behind every symbol, the tradition and origin of each stereotype, and the significance of the words, placards, and captions that accompany his caricatures all play a vital role in understanding these cartoons.
Caricature and editorial cartoons go beyond mere illustration. Simple illustration captures the obvious action along with the ingredients that everyone recognizes. Caricature captures an unseen truth — a truth exposed, an opinion perhaps, that many would prefer to brush under the carpet. Caricature peels back the layers of illusion and exposes a starker reality.
Had it not been for particular political alliances, which in Nast’s view involved stolen elections, misappropriated public funds, and an enormity of ego and arrogance, there would have been few reasons for Nast to have attacked Irish Catholics. Every line Nast drew, he executed toward achieving or arguing for a Republican political view. One may not agree with Nast’s political thinking, but those who are informed about his life and times find it difficult to question the well of integrity from with which he drew his creative inspiration and the evidence of corruption that swirled all around him compelled him to take action. See Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.
Nast took to task the people he saw as villains, and as a result, in the eyes of many, became one himself. Nast did not glamorize the villains and threats of his day. He obliterated them through the exposure of black lines on white paper. As wrong as these perceptions and images might feel today, the truth is, most people felt that way toward the Irish. Because of his ability to visualize the way ordinary Americans felt, Thomas Nast now bears the brunt and identification of owning this attitude lock, stock, and barrel.
Today, Americans with an Irish heritage often react with anger at Nast’s nomination, and may not fully understand nor be willing to accept the knowledge that a sizable portion of our ancestors, horribly oppressed in Ireland, became oppressors in America. Ignorance is bliss. In the Irish-American struggle to fit into mainstream America, other immigrant groups were mistreated, most notably the Chinese, by the Irish and other white groups. In climbing the rung and elevating one’s status from a low life meant another group had to occupy the lower tier. Horrible things were done to the Chinese in caricature and more importantly, in everyday life. In a large part of organized Irish activism, the Chinese faced a battery of restrictive legislation and were officially excluded from immigrating to America with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Historical figures like Nast should not be kept out of museums or halls of fame any more than Mark Twain’s use of the N-word should be erased from modern editions of Huckleberry Finn. Our history is full of unique people who did not all get along. The beginning of the immigration era of American history is complicated, extraordinary and often cruel. Nast deserves to be in New Jersey’s Hall of Fame because he earned a place in history through his exposure of political corruption and for documenting the Civil War, national elections, minority struggles and visually capturing and recording northeastern Republican attitudes of a still young nation seeking to reconcile after the Civil War. His art shaped ideas. Not all of us are going to like what he did, and that is fair, but we can’t pretend it didn’t happen.
Today, Thomas Nast’s controversial images are an important educational tool for explaining how and why images matter, how stereotypes are developed, used or misused. Caricature is not illustration and it is not meant to be viewed as such. It is sarcasm, it is an over-the-top exaggeration. Its very nature is controversial and Nast executed that art form as few others could, and for that reason alone, regardless of content, he deserves a spot in New Jersey’s Hall of Fame.
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.
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.
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 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.