If you are in the D.C. area celebrating our nation’s independence, take a moment to visit the “On the Move” tent at the Smithsonian Museum to hear Jean Pfaelzer talk about the Chinese experience in 19th century America.
It was through Jeanie, then “Dr. Pfaelzer” that I first learned about the Asian immigration experience in the United States, when I took a graduate level course, for no other reason than it fit my schedule. As an East Coast resident all my life, my curiosity swirled around my own region and my own Irish-American ancestry.
Jeanie is an inspiring educator and gifted storyteller. It is because of her this website exists. It is because of her I stretched my perspective and curiosity about the people who formed our American story and the compelling Often heartbreaking story of the first Chinese Americans!
The Chinese Question is full sized cartoon published in Harper’sWeekly, February 18, 1871,
Nast was tolerant of all races, nationalities, and creeds. He was not, however, tolerant of ignorance. He deplored the mob mentality that in his mind, the Irish represented. Their alliance with Tweed and Democratic Party values drove Nast to draw with savage fervor. It wasn’t the Irish per se, but what the Irish did with their political power and alliances that Nast found disturbing. As Patricia Hills points out, “he [Nast] castigates only the ignorant and bigoted who engage in reprehensible deeds” (115).
Unfortunately for the Chinese, the Irish played a major role in Sinophobic hysteria. In her book Driven Out, Jean Pfaelzer quotes a New York Times article on the role of the Irish against the Chinese:
It was well known that the chief objection to the Chinese in California comes from the Irish. It was from this class that the Democratic Party used to draw most of the political capital which it gained by fostering the prejudices against the Negro. Fleeing to this country, as they claimed, to escape British oppression, the Irish immigrant always made haste to join the ranks of the oppressors here. They voted, almost to a man, with the Democratic Party…now that slavery is abolished, we find them in the front ranks of the haters and persecutors of the Chinese. (52-53)
Accompanying this cartoon was a short, but powerful Harper’s editorial, “The Heathen Chinee” which decried the fear-mongering and blame placed upon the Chinese for labor displacement. In a bid to strengthen his Irish constituency, Tweed sought to restrict the use of Chinese railroad labor through legislative means. While a state senator, Tweed sponsored a bill to prevent the Chinese from being hired on projects. Although Chinese population in New York was statistically minute, estimated to be only 200 at the time, Tweed favored invasion vernacular to stoke fear within a male, Caucasian workforce. Harper’s Weekly’s editors observed,
The working-men of this State know perfectly well that no such danger exists as that which is hinted at in Mr. Tweed’s bill. The Chinese invasion, of which he seems to be so much afraid is altogether mythical, as everybody in his sober senses is well aware; and Mr. Tweed presumes too much on the ignorance or the prejudices of the working-men if he expects to delude them with such a flimsy cheat. The general sentiment of the American people on this question is admirably expressed in Mr. Nast’s cartoon. A majority in this country still adhere to the old Revolutionary doctrine that all men are free and equal before the law, and possess inalienable rights which even Mr. Tweed is bound to respect.
Nast featured an imaginary local brouhaha in his cartoon The Chinese Question.
Nast places an angry, defiant Columbia front and center to confront the Workingmen menace and she serves as a reminder of America’s values. She stands over a crouched and defeated Chinese man. In addition, Nast utilizes what would become a favorite technique — to plaster current controversy on a wall of public protest. On the wall, all the various forms of hate speech spouted against the Chinese could be read and considered.
Chinese are in kind referred to as “coolies” “slaves,” “paupers” and “rat eaters.” Rat eaters, in particular, became a favorite and virulent Chinese stereotype deployed to great effect, especially on the West Coast, in order to dehumanize the Chinese and affirm their “otherness.” “Barbarians” and “heathens” are additional descriptive terms prominently displayed. The placards pronounce the Chinese as the “lowest and vilest of human race,” “vicious and immoral” declares another. Nast’s wall is an effective tool. It collects the hate speech used within the local white labor community. Each layer of verbal expression collects and builds like pounds in a pressure cooker. Workingmen would stop at no insult to rid themselves of the Chinese menace. The Chinese must go. “Their importation must be stopped.” Nast plastered the prejudice for all to see their ugly truth and consider the lie.
Nast created a clear visual divide on the issue. The hard edge on the right separates Columbia and the Chinese man from the trouble that is arriving from the other side. Columbia’s body stands in the path as a violent mob approaches. The vertical division creates a tension and theatrical suspense against what comes next and who might prevail.
Whipped up by the Tammany frenzy is New York’s version of the Workingmen’s Party. Led by Nast’s quintessential brawny Irish leader, they angrily turn the corner toward Columbia and the Chinese man. Nast dresses his thugs as would-be gentlemen – his Irish brute wears a waistcoat and top hat. The high fashion does not change his savage character or propensity for violence.
Well-dressed as he may be, his face betrays his brutality. His features are roughly chiseled, his steely stare focuses on the impending attack. He brandishes a club in one hand and a rock in the other. This Irish ringleader is eager for some good old-fashioned mob violence. Behind him, four other men are visible, and by their normal faces, not all of them Irish. All are white and possess guns or weapons and expressions of anger. Behind them, faceless mob members carry signs in the air. One sign reads, “If our ballot will not stop them coming to our country, the bullet must.”
Nast reprises New York Draft Riot imagery of 1863 to recreate a scene in 1871 and give it additional implications. Nast had provided eye-witness drawings of the New York City draft riots and had not overly implicated the Irish in the violence. By including 1863 draft riot imagery to this event, Nast links Irish involvement with racial violence. In the background lies the evidence of their most notorious mob activity–the lynching and destruction of a “colored” community. The Orangemen’s Riots followed later that summer on July 11-12, 1871 and Nast would once again deploy the same lynching imagery against the Irish. During the same riot, a colored orphanage burned to the ground. By including a smoldering orphan asylum in the background, Nast indictes this mob and associating the participants to the crime. A barren tree is seen in the distance. An empty hangman’s noose dangles from a leafless tree. Below makeshift tombstones acknowledge buried rights, blood, and strikes. With the African American issue handled and put in their rightful place, graves, the Irish-led mob turns to provide their answer to the Chinese question. One problem down, one more problem to go.
Nast’s audience understood the significance of Columbia’s inclusion. She appears in Nast cartoons with great effect and is a formidable challenger to thwart Tweed. Having fought and won many battles, she alone has the wherewithal to protect an emotionally defeated Chinese man. Slumped against a wall, framed by “heathen,” “idolater,” and exclamations of paganism, he is confused and helpless against this onslaught of white terror and oppression. He raises one knee to support a clutched hand and lowered head. His eyes are closed and his expression is one of utter despair. Columbia’s long tresses toss as she turns her head, alerted to the approaching mob. Her tiara is marked U.S. Her right hand gently touches the head of the crouched Chinese man. Columbia’s left hand rises above her waist and over her heart into a fist. Her neckline bears a shield of America’s stars and stripes. Her expression is resolute. She will not stand for what is about to go down. She addresses the mob, “Hands off, gentlemen! America means fair play for all men.” Columbia is Nast’s voice.
Columbia defended the downtrodden before. Consider how Nast uses her for “And Not This Man?” on August 5, 1865.
Here, as in the Chinese Question, Columbia advocates for civil rights, this time for a wounded African American Civil War veteran. Although seriously wounded, he stands erect. He possesses a quiet dignity. Columbia touches him at the shoulder and invites him to step up for consideration as an American. She is speaking to his legislative detractors who appear on an accompanying page.
In Nast’s Chinese Question, Columbia touches the head of the Chinese man. Although he Is able-bodied, he cannot stand on his two legs, he is unable to face his accusers as a whole man, even with Columbia by his side.
Nast has intentionally weakened the Chinese man in the face of the mob. The question is why. Is it to evoke empathy for the Chinese man, is it to make the mob look worse than what they were? Could Nast have drawn the Chinese with more dignity? The Irish were afraid of labor competition. Struggling to get established in America the Irish organized in their new home and resolved that they would not suffer the oppression they experienced in their homeland of Ireland. As Timothy Meagher has noted, the Irish had no history of prejudice or exhibited any racist behavior in Ireland. They possessed, Meagher suggests, all of the sensitivities necessary to be empathetic to others who were oppressed. But in nineteenth-century Ireland, the Irish had learned that organization and activism produced results, albeit limited.
The new Irish immigrant in America faced hurdles other immigrants, such as the Germans did not. Because of the Great Famine, they arrived in very large numbers and in the most destitute of conditions. As Roman Catholics, they were considered by the Protestant population as members of a strange cult, unwilling to assimilate to American culture. These built-in prejudices, Meagher argues, forced the Irish to assert their “whiteness” and be demonstratively aggressive to other races, in particular, African Americans and Chinese Americans. Meagher cites the work of Moses Rischin who observed that Irish Catholics who aligned against the Chinese in California, and Irish Catholics who aligned with Democratic anti-abolitionists in the South, found greater acceptance into the white Protestant mainstream of their respective communities if they joined others who expressed racial paranoia.
The prevailing view of many historians asserts that the Irish feared any form of labor competition. The banding together of white against black would not work to the Irish’s favor in the Northeast, and Meagher offers several opinions that dispute a view that the Irish were afraid of southern blacks seeking northern jobs. Meagher warns against drawing such simplistic conclusions that point strictly at racial tensions or only that only targeted African Americans.
The Irish were hostile to all competitors including other ethnicities. They fought with Germans and Chinese. Real fear existed that a “powerful Republican Party and rich industrialists, would overpower the Irish” (223). Meagher notes that the New York Times was exasperated with the Irish, writing in 1880, “the hospitable and generous Irishman has almost no friendship for any race but his own. As laborer and politician, he detests the Italian. Between him and the German-American citizen, there is a great gulf fixed…but the most naturalized thing for the Americanized Irishman is to drive out all other foreigners, whatever may be their religious tenets” (223). Observations such as these, Meagher suggests, establish that tensions went beyond Irish-African-American tension and violence. The Chinese were easy targets.
As victims of the English oppression and prejudice in their homeland, and again in America, as targets of nativist and Protestant fears in America, the Irish directed their paranoia, distrust toward non-Irish and non-Catholics. Irish Americans battled persistent and ill-informed scientific theory which classified them as a unique and inferior human race. The Irish were not considered white. For Irish-Americans, defining others as inferior was an early step in self-preservation. As other ethnicities began to fear the Chinese, many Irish not only latched on to this common concern but took the lead in ridding the nation of the menace. By attacking the Chinese, the Irish could prove their “whiteness” and earn a legitimate place in American society. Once severely oppressed in Ireland, and again in America, many Irish turned the tables by becoming the oppressors. Nast would never let the Irish forget this irony.
A few months after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (May 1882), this small square cartoon shows a U.S. Customs House official scrutinizing his law books in an attempt to define or clarify the ethnicity of four Asian men appealing for entry into the United States.
Three would-be immigrants are huddled behind a spokesperson, who denies he Chinese, and testifies he is instead Korean (Corean). Above their huddle, a banner testifies to the United States “treaty with Corea.” The sign also says, “Coreans may live at their option throughout America,” a privilege the Chinese once enjoyed under the protection and promise of the Burlingame Treaty.
Above the U.S. emblem reads, “E. Pluribus. Unum. Except Chinese.”
In addition to volumes on duties and antiques, behind the official is a “Vol. 1 on Bribes.”
The official, wearing a bicorn hat (Denis Kearney?)*consults with an open volume which describes the characteristics that distinguish a Chinese national from a Korean one. The volume refers to “color and pigtails.” The men attempting to enter the United States are wearing the Manchurian queues for which the Chinese were well known in America.
The Customs House guard raises his spyglass for a closer look at the petitioners, who exclaim,”You no stoppee me! me no China manee, me Corea manee; allee samee Melican manee.”
The gaggle of Chinese men behind their spokesperson appears to find the claim amusing.
*Denis Kearney was a self-described soldier against the Chinese immigrants. In California, San Francisco Wasp illustrator George Keller frequently depicted Kearney wearing military garb, and in particular, a bicorn hat. Nast also picked up the symbolism when referring to Kearney, though it cannot be determined this was his intent for this specific drawing.
This small, simple cartoon has a powerful message. Irish and German foreigners were allowed to enter the United States as immigrants – climbed the ladder “Emigration” and subsequentlyrose in status in the land opportunity. In the cartoon, the last of the European immigrants scales the wall, his back end visible as he kicks away the ladder of opportunity. The European immigrants who have scaled the wall now declare that Chinese access to America is closed. The man at the top, his arms extended, proclaims nativist sentiment. Another, on the left, with a jutting jaw and top hat, clearly a representation of Nast’s Irish, is triumphant. He is clearly enjoying the Chinese calamity below.
To the right, a flag waves — its message declares the new American territory belongs to Know Nothings, a secret yet a popular group of Americans who vehemently protested newcomers. Interestingly, 30 years earlier, the original nativist Know Nothings protested the arrival of Irish Catholics. The Know Nothing flag reads “1870 Pres. Patrick” and “Vice Pres. Hans.” This inscription signifies great advances for Irish and German assimilation into mainstream American culture as Nast perceived it to be. No doubt, Nast is reeling here from the social and political advances the Irish gained through the patronage and support by William M. “Boss” Tweed. Tweed rewarded the Irish and other immigrants with patronage jobs in exchange for their loyalty at the voting booth.
Five Chinese are seen at the base of a large wall which boldly states, “The “Chinese Wall” around the United States of America.” Demonstrating their knowledge of China, the European immigrants are taunting the Chinese by comparing their wall to the Great Wall of China, built in ancient times to protect their nation from invasion.
Three of the Chinese are wearing doulis, the conical shaped hats, also known as rice or “coolie” hats. All five Chinese are men wearing their native garb and hold onto goods they hoped to bring along as they ascend the ladder.
The cartoon’s caption, “Throwing Down the Ladder by Which They Rose” is Nast’s harsh commentary on the hypocrisy of these new Americans and their willingness to oppress others who are in the same circumstances in which they found themselves 30 years earlier. The once oppressed have now become the oppressors.
This small cartoon appeared on the back pages of Harper’s Weekly. Pre-Chinese Exclusion, the image reinforces stereotypes, both of the Chinese, here shown as “John Chinaman” and his nemesis, the white laborer, here a member of the Workingmen’s Party of California. This worker resembles Nast’s generic representations of Irish white laborers pressing the California public and legislature to legally and socially drive the Chinese out. The worker stands behind a sign that says “Sand Lots.” Sand Lots provided the stage where anti-Chinese agitator Denis Kearney popularized his anthem, “The Chinese Must Go” and rallied white laborers to organize themselves as the “Workingmen’s Party.”
The white laborer is scruffy and unkempt with an unflattering protruding jaw line. On his hat a band reads “A Vote.” He looks directly at the Chinese man. The outline of a cloud in the sky resembles smoke emanating from the man, but he is not smoking. Off in the distance, Chinese workers are traveling to and from a laundry.
Between the two men, a sign “The New Chinese Treaty” has fallen on the ground. The original Burlingame Treaty, enacted in 1868 to protect Chinese immigrants in the United States, and which bestowed most favored nation status to China, had since gone through many revisions, each increasing limitations upon the Chinese.
The Chinese man attempts diplomacy. He approaches his adversary with deferential respect, his hand to his chest in a slight bow. His head dips to acknowledge the working man. The caption reads,
“The Yellow Dragon. “Of course, I did not hope to suit you, but this is for my friend, Uncle Sam, and it will even enable you to get better accustomed to this land of freedom, which you have adopted and which protects you.”
Many Irish-born, anti-Chinese agitators, like Denis Kearney and the working men who followed him, were naturalized citizens and earned the right to vote in elections. The vote empowered the Caucasian laborers to lobby effectively against the Chinese. State and federal laws prohibited the Chinese from becoming citizens and voting.
In these smaller cartoons, Nast frequently shows Chinese figures carrying laundry tubs, washboards and engaging in laundry services. The Chinese did not come to America with any particular knowledge or skill of laundering, but they adopted the laundry industry as a practical matter when populations in western towns exploded. No one else wanted to do the work and it provided income to the Chinese while rendering a valuable service to the community. The availability of well-priced,Chinese laundry service freed white women from the tedious household task. A win-win situation for both white and Chinese families. The figure in the center is going about his business, with a smile upon his face.
Driven out of the mines and infrastructure jobs, Chinese moved into a wide variety of occupations that provided needed services. In addition to laundry, the Chinese were noted as shoe cobblers, cigar makers and tea merchants. Nast’s Chinese launderer may be seen as a stereotype, but by repeating this trope, Nast perpetuates another American perception about the Chinese – their docility.Whether intentional or not, Nast’s background images reinforces the Chinese as peaceful, non-threatening members of society.
Kearney and his his Sand Lot speeches were effective. Despite the Chinese’s limited presence in these service roles, Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party were nevertheless threatened by their existence. They demanded white households to boycott all services rendered by the Chinese.
In his cartoons, Nast alternated the placement of his signature. Here it is on the side of the Chinese diplomat. Plenty of room existed on the left to place the signature. There is evidence to suggest that Nast signed his name next to a person or cause to reaffirm an editorial position.
On March 8, 1979, Nast placed James G.Blaine front and center Harper’s cover with The Civilization of Blaine. A distinguished Blaine is seen at ground level receiving the attention of a subordinate, subservient African American. The black man’s posture is weak. Attired in country clothes, he crouches and cowers with a defensive grin on his face. He has the demeanor of a beaten dog approaching his master. He does not look the white politician in the eye. In his right hand, he clutches “A Vote” and offers this almost obediently to Blaine.
His right leg is drawn up, nervously rubbing the front of his right foot against the back of his left trouser, as if to polish it in the presence of greatness. Blaine’s left shoe tramples on the “Burlingame Treaty.”
As with most of Nast’s villains, Blaine’s face is not distorted or caricatured. Nast wanted him recognized and consistently depicted Blaine’s facial features realistically in his cartoons. Like Tweed, Nast rarely deviated from a famous face once it had been established as a character. His victim’s bodies, on the other hand, felt the weapon of distortion, but the face never!
In the background and elevated by a storefront step, a Chinese merchant emerges from his store. Nast assigns dignity to this merchant. Nast introduces him as a Chinese diplomat, often referred to as “John Confucius” or “John Chinaman” (the terms are interchangeable) in Nast’s cartoons. It is an important distinction to note, that in Nast’s catalog of images, he pulled from his personal supply of default or stock characters who served a specific purpose.
Some might argue that “John” perpetuates a stereotype. In almost every instance where John appears, he does so in the same manner as Columbia or Uncle Sam, figures in Nast cartoons who represent either a government or national virtues. They are figures, whom by their expression or stance, often provide admonition or displeasure to the scene of injustice they are witnessing. Nast could and did draw Chinese in any number of ways, and some of these are not flattering. “John Chinaman” or “John Confucius” never really changes. His inclusion is purposeful. He is Nast’s relied-upon figure of dignity and outrage toward injustice.
The merchant assumes the elevated position in the drawing. He is on the right, figuratively and morally. The injustice is on the left. The merchant is not shabbily dressed. Interestingly, his hair, though long, is not braided into the queue, which factors in most of Nast’s cartoons of the Chinese. It is a subtle change for Nast to utilize. John is wearing a hat, a crown if you will, a piece of clothing that imparts respect, formality, and distinction. This further validates his dual role as a local merchant and as a representative of the Chinese. His people will be affected by adherence to the treaty that Blaine is obligated, as a U.S. Senator, to protect. John’s arms are slightly outstretched as if encountering a surprise and ready to protest. At the right of his storefront is a sampling of the wares — the teas, silks, china and carvings that had been for years, favored art pieces of in Caucasian homes, bought and placed in homes “as signs of American aesthetic acumen and refinement” (Lenore-Chen 2).
Blaine senses the approach of John Confucius and waves him back with an extended left hand. Blaine’s face is slightly cocked, and his eyes avert to the left as the Chinese merchant approaches from behind. Blaine’s expression is clearly one that intends to discard the Chinese merchant completely, as if to say, “Stay where you are–do not interfere here.” Nast speaks for John Confucius (for his mouth is drawn shut) so the audience can ponder his question placed in the caption, “Am I not a Man and a Brother!”
The cartoon and caption echo an earlier post-Civil War illustration Nast had drawn to advocate on behalf of and provoke emotion for Negro suffrage. Nast’s 1865 illustration “And Not This Man? “shows Columbia resplendent in American symbolism, arguing for the admission of a wounded Negro Union soldier into the American family.
Nast’s experiences and other images he drew on behalf of civil rights had a cumulative and successful effect. “Nast’s sensitivity to the rights of minority Americans would extend to others besides the embattled freedmen” (Keller 107). Nast would never draw African Americans again with the same dignity as this early drawing. However, by evoking the same sentiment, this time on behalf of the Chinese, Nast might have hoped that his pen would wield influential once more on the national consciousness.
These aspirations were misplaced. With each election in the 1870’s, the Democratic Party gained inroads and influence, courting the votes and catering to the demands of a growing white, male labor force comprised of first and second- generation immigrants. “The loss of Republican purity was a loss of Republican power” (Keller 281). Politicians and public sentiment were drifting away from Nast. But Nast and Harper’s Weekly would not give up on minorities. “The Chinese and the Indians, in particular, came under his protective wing” (Keller 107).
This commanding cartoon was published by The San Francisco Wasp approximately one year before the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted on May 6, 1882.
The image appealed to white workingmen’s fears of Chinese takeover of American society and enterprise. Despite the Chinese only occupying 0.002 percent of the population, visual depictions of the Chinese continued to reinforce imagery of infestation and sinister monopolization of industry.
The Coming Man colorfully illustrates the worst in negative stereotyping and Sinophobia. The Chinese man’s over-sized left hand stretches out to the foreground of the image. It is stamped “MONOPOLY” and his fingernails are represented as animal talons, the nails are curled and grow upward like an overhang of a pagoda.
The hand grasps control over trades and services for which the Chinese were most associated – cigar making and sales, laundry, underwear and shirt manufacturing, box factories, clothing and shoes.
Above his blue mandarin jacket (Chinese tunics were commonly blue, purple or black) is the image of a Chinese nightmare for white Americans. The Chinese man’s face is grotesquely distorted and he greets the viewer head on with a sinister expression. As if to focus better on those looking upon him, he closes one eye with his index finger to sharpen his stare. His right eye and brow lurch up at an unnatural angle. His ears and nose are large. A devious smile reveals a single tooth, evidence of his bad health. His tongue dangles from the left side of his mouth.
On his shaven head is a skull cap. From the back of his head, the Chinese queue appears to have a life of its own, and whips out from behind the head. The very end of the hair queue looks like the end of a whip.
This Chinese man is not afraid of the white workingman clientele and readers of The Wasp. Behind him and to the left, six factories smolder with industry, possibly a reference to the Chinese Six Companies, an organization which advocated for the Chinese in America. A Chinese pagoda is seen among the buildings. On the right, a few angry, white, Euro-centric workers appear, faintly drawn. They are disappearing. A bearded man wears an apron and a white hat and holds his fist up in the air. Only two factories are viable on this side of the image.
The dominant colors of the cartoon are red, white and blue. This Chinese Man, this “coming man” has taken over the American Dream. He has pushed American workers into the background.
The implicit message of the cartoon is to stoke fear and uncertainty. This man, and others like him must be stopped from coming.
The caption reads “Alee samee ‘Melican Man Monopoleeee”
This 1870 cartoon is not typical of Nast’s images and his images of the Chinese in America in general. It is uncharacteristically dark in tone and density, and it is the only Nast cartoon that pictures the Chinese as anything other than a human being. China was known as the Celestial Empire. Playing up on the term “celestial” Nast captures the growing curiosity of New Yorkers about Chinese Americans who are arriving in New York City in greater numbers.
The majority of Chinese Americans resided on the West Coast, coming to America in order to escape extreme financial hardship and widespread famine in their native China. “Thousands of Chinese, mostly Cantonese” responded to the 1848-49 California Gold Rush and were recruited to help build the Transcontinental Railroad and the “economic development of the West” (Choy 19).
Soon after they arrived on the West Coast, the Chinese experienced prejudice and legislative roadblocks which prevented them from assimilation, attaining citizenship and enjoyment of rights commonly extended to other immigrants. Most white labor interests in the U.S. considered the Chinese “sojourners” or temporary workers with no desire to earn citizenship or assimilate to American culture. Since existing laws prevented naturalization, the Chinese were forced and locked into this perception.
In 1873, the United States suffered a severe economic recession and the economic uncertainty permeated at state and local levels. The growing white population in the western states, particularly in California, increasingly viewed the Chinese as unfair economic competitors. Employers appreciated the Chinese. They were industrious, productive employees, often willing to work for less. However these Chinese were not “coolies,” or “slave labor” and would strike for better working conditions and wages when they felt unfair conditions existed. The recession fueled white angst regarding labor issues – the leading factor driving the “The Chinese Must Go” anthem.
Before the Civil War, a very small Chinese population (as low as 38 or as high as 60 depending on sources) resided in New York, in close proximity to “the impoverished, Irish-dominated Fourth Ward to the east of Five Points” (Anbinder 396). These New York Chinese lived quietly among the other immigrants and rendered services such as selling rock candy and cigars. Due to a lack of Chinese women in America, and Irish women’s lack of suitable Irish partners, Chinese-Irish marriages, though rare, did exist and were tolerated. As experienced sailors, many Chinese males settled in the port city. Some Chinese were escaped “coolie laborers” who had been forcibly or unfairly tricked to work on ships. New York provided an escape to deplorable working conditions that existed along the southern Atlantic (Anbinder 396).
Eighteen hundred and seventy was not the first time that crowds of New Yorkers had encountered the Chinese however. In the eighteenth century, Americans were curious and respectful concerning the nation and people of China. In the mid-nineteenth century, attitudes about the Chinese declined in the aftermath of the Opium Wars (1839-1842). As early as 1847 New Yorker’s attitudes about the Chinese had “shifted dramatically.” In the summer of 1847, New Yorkers “were treated to a spectacular sight: a 160 foot Chinese vessel called the Keying” (Tchen 63).
Tchen describes the arrival of the Keying into the Battery area of New York Harbor where thousands came to watch, and later pay twenty-five cents to tour the unusual looking trading ship. Newspapers offered daily coverage and an estimated 4,000 people a day came to see or tour the craft. In addition to the goods and surroundings of the Keying on display, New Yorkers were promised a spectacle of the strange religious practices by the Chinese crew – “a once in a lifetime chance of seeing something authentically Chinese.” A variety of creative license and speculative promoting had led New York spectators to expect sacrificing, dancing, rituals, and examples of opium-induced stupor. It was as Tchen describes, a “packaged otherness” (67). The New York Herald observed, “They [the Chinese] are peculiarly attached to old notions, and will not permit the slightest innovation in anything” (qtd. Tchen 68). Later, a labor argument between the Chinese crew and the captain resulted in violence, which the New York press took note of and blamed squarely on opium-induced behavior.
Throughout the Keying’s stay in New York City, western culture scrambled to exploit the “exotic foreignness” and racial differences of the crew (Tchen 70).
Whatever the circumstances of their arrival, regarded either as coolie escapees or as a people driven out of California due to Sinophobic hysteria, when the Chinese settled in New York City they began to organize. Their community leaders sought out properties to rent or purchase/ in order to establish an enclave where the Chinese could live and operate businesses and receive mutual support. This concentration of Chinese residences and storefronts, despite being statistically very minute, commanded New Yorkers’ attention. “It seemed to many observers that Asians had overrun the neighborhood” (Anbinder 399). Lower Mott Street in the Sixth Ward became the foundation of what by 1880 was known as China Town (Anbidner 398).
Nast sympathetically depicted the Chinese in six prior renderings. This particular Nast’s drawing may represent his desire to capture the mood that Anbinder references – the local reaction, awareness, and curiosity of a changed presence in the largely white, Euro-centric community. This atmospheric arrival from another world drove families out of their homes so that they could get a god look at the occurrence – the Chinese novelty – streaking against the dark, starlit sky.
A smiling Chinese face, with a smug expression, comprises the large comet head. The tail of the comet, a Chinese pigtail or queue, is emblazoned with “Cheap Labor” a message that is met with mixed reaction to the fascinated audience below.
The reaction of witnesses to the celestial arrival is divided. They are in halves, welcoming and wary. Spread out across the scene, large telescopes labeled “capitalist,” “the police,” “the press,” and “working man,” focus their lens upon the”phenomenon” as it enters their world.
A characteristic technique of Nast’s was to visually split his scenes and feature opposing views – pitting his subjects against one another to visually differentiate contrasting attitudes. This cartoon is no different.
The left side of the illustration represents the pro-capitalist (and progressive) stance toward the Chinese’s arrival. A tall factory frames the scene. They clearly rejoice at the prospect of what the Chinese arrival might contribute to progress and industry. Signs rise from the crowds and declare, “Let Them Come,” “We Want Servants, Cooks and Nurses,” and other positive messages welcoming the addition of Chinese labor. The people on this side of the harbor bring out their families to witness the event. A child and a man are seen throwing up their hands in exclamation. A woman clutches her hands to her chest in a hopeful posture.
There is no joy on the right side of the cartoon. Here the reaction of the crowd registers displeasure, fear, and skepticism. Present are members of the Workingmen’s party and other similar labor groups that saw the Chinese as an enemy of the Caucasian laborer. The telescope far right is labeled “Working Man” and unlike the others, does not show the graduated, collapsible structure of the lens. It is a fixed focal length. This telescope resembles a long gun or cannon. It has the closest view or shot of the approaching Chinese menace. One ghostly looking woman can be seen pleading with a man who wields a large ax. Behind this man, a small child looks away from the scene. At top right, a portly priest with a halo above his head writes pro-trade union messages. His words sermonize that “The Chinese Will Destroy Us.” Signs proclaim that the Chinese “Must Be Resisted.” Buildings advertise slogans that sell resentment and fear, “Down With Cheap Shoes,” and “Down With Capital.”
Tchen observes that Nast is not taking a position with this cartoon. Nast simply documents the two differing states of mind in his hometown. Perhaps, it is for this reason that Nast has chosen to objectify the Chinese as a comet – not because he feels the Chinese are other-worldly – but because the New Yorkers already feel this way.
Tchen speculates upon this same possibility, for he does acknowledge the pro-Chinese positions and convictions seen in Nast’s later cartoons. Yet, Tchen is not completely comfortable that Nast did all he could with his body of work to convey a progressive attitude toward the Chinese and encourage further understanding of the obstacles they faced in America. In particular, Tchen finds it hard to explain Nast’s reasoning behind the creation of “The Martyrdom of St. Crispin,” drawn a month earlier.
Lenore Metrick-Chen disagrees, pointing out that this particular issue of Harper’s Weekly refer to the Chinese no less than eight times and feels that the magazine advanced a negative feeling about Chinese immigration and general unease of the Chinese (39).
We may never know what existed in Nast’s mind or heart – and indeed he may have felt as curious and as astonished as the general public. This particular drawing is often shown to depict Sinophobia and as an example of turning a minority race into an “other.” Seen alone, without Five Points back story, modern viewers may not appreciate how the approach of the major change or perceived phenomenon resonated in the community. Right or wrong, Nast piece records that New Yorkers at the time they took notice, and while the newcomers were viewed as strange and different, attitudes about the Chinese were divided.
As a documentary image, Nast’s Chinese comet head is better understood. It captures the public reaction and sensationalism that existed and should be seen in that light, rather than as a reflection of Nast’s personal beliefs or prejudices. Nast was not 100 percent consistent or admirable with his depictions of the Chinese, but if this example is to be viewed as an editorial, it is an accurate depiction of how New Yorkers felt about the Chinese arriving, and not an offering of Nast’s personal beliefs. As a Radical Republican, Nast would have aligned with capitalists and welcomed the Chinese as a valuable addition to the workforce and overall commerce in general. In The New Comet, Nast accurately captures the pro and con attitudes that together objectified and sensationalized an increased presence of Chinese in New York City.
For this 1879 cover, Nast used his signature technique of division and created an image with two clear sides, regions or points of view. The title reflects the state of two unwanted American ethnicities residing in America. Often Nast employed visual division for contrast, but here, the African American in the South and the Chinese man in the West share a similar dilemma – pawns in a volatile debate regarding their right to vote, access to work, and be accepted into the larger American society.
The placement of Nast’s signature is also interesting. With ample room to place his traditional Th.Nast to the left or right, as was his practice, he centers his sign off and allows it to be divided, the only time in a cartoon that it is halved..In this image he is equally sympathetic to the African American and the Chinese American.
Nast’s cartoon reacts to two noteworthy election-related acts of violence which took place on both coasts. In each case mob violence shaped the outcome of the election.
With their backs facing each other, an African American on the left and a Chinese man on the right find their home region hostile. The men grimly walk away into a direction other than their point of origin.
Signage on the wall (a favorite technique of Nast’s) indicates that mob rule influenced election results in Yazoo, Mississippi and San Francisco, California respectively. The cartoon and accompanying Harper’s editorial voiced displeasure at the election results manipulated by violent methods.
With the ratification Fifteenth Amendment of 1870, the United States conferred voting rights to African Americans. Yet among the majority of many Southern Democrats, the legitimacy or permanence of black suffrage was not widely supported in southern Democratic circles. Leadership in the Democratic Party believed in white supremacy and sought to control labor, particularly in the cotton producing states of the Deep South (Foner 421).
“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 also looked to punish African American labor and reduce dependance on black labor’s earning power and manipulated their access to jobs by encouraging Chinese and other immigrant labor to apply for jobs normally filled by blacks. 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).
Violence in Mississippi
Captain H.M. Dixon, referred to by Nast on the wall notices, was a reformist Democrat who ran for office as Sheriff of Yazoo City, Mississippi. His opponent was Democratic favorite James Barksdale. Harper’s commented,
“An armed and drunken mob compelled Dixon to withdraw. Some time afterward, upon going into Yazoo City, he was met by James Barksdale, the Democratic candidate for Chancery Clerk,who hailed him, and stepped into the street armed with a double-barrelled shot-gun. Dixon drew a pistol, but Barksdale firedand killed him.”
Harper’s lamented on their prediction that election thuggery and violence would become the norm in the South, usurping federal law.
Nast’s wall posters brand Dixon a hero, “the bravest of the brave” against the bull-dozing, albeit successful efforts of mob rule,
A dejected African American laborer carries his meager belongings in a knapsack as he stands in front of a scene of violence. His attire is clean, complete, modest, but dignified. There are no patches or holes in the clothing. By his appearance, he has been able to work and afford certain refinements. He finishes off his shirt with an informal kerchief tie. Now displaced from his job, he pulls the brim of his hat over his eyes to assure a quiet escape from location where he is no longer wanted. Beyond the wall, a pair of feet from an unknown victim can be seen. In his frame, Nast places the African American in an adversarial position to the Chinese man. But this Chinese man does not appear to seek southern employment. His destination is unknown.
Like the African American, the Chinese man is drawn in profile, in front of the melodrama of Irish-born Denis Kearney’s Sand Lot speeches and Workingmen’s proclamations that “The Chinese Must Go.” Nast’s Chinese man bears a somber expression, his one hand clutches a open fan, the other hand dangles like a claw in mid-air. Nast’s chides Kalloch’s religious background by couching the anti-Chinese rhetoric as a prayer, mocking the legitimacy of Kalloch’s divine appeal, “We Thank Thee, Oh Lord, That the Chinese Must Go.”
Violence in San Francisco
Ongoing anti-Chinese hysteria fueled the debate to exclude or greatly restrict a Chinese labor presence in California. The Rev. Isaacs S. Kalloch, a Baptist preacher and candidate for Mayor of San Francisco was an outspoken Democrat and ally of Denis Kearney, Sand Lot instigator who coined and championed the phrase “The Chinese Must Go” throughout the country, but most effectively in California. With this alliance secured, Kalloch confidently counted on Kearney’s followers to win him the election.
Prior to the Civil War, Republicans had dominated local California politics. A charismatic and motivational speaker, Kearney and his Workingmen’s multitude hammered away at public opinion and ultimately tipped the balance away from Republicans. Once Democrats controlled the legislature, anti-Chinese legislation proliferated and factored into a revision of the California state constitution in 1878.
Charles M. De Young, co-founder and managing editor of The San Francisco Chronicle and ardent capitalist, appreciated the value of Chinese labor and advocated against the revised California Constitution. De Young sided with Kalloch’s opponent. De Young had originally aligned with Kearney, but despised the Irishman’s penchant for violent tactics and soon broke off the friendship. De Young considered the Workingmen’s Party platform as anti-business, De Young and a small group of capitalists and monopolists, whom Kearney called “The Honorable Bilks” grew more vocal against Kearney’s platform to drive the Chinese out of California. De Young wanted the Chinese to remain.. It was good business.
De Young discovered that Kalloch had only recently shifted his position against the Chinese. Despite his recent conversion to Kearney, Kalloch was a charismatic and effective candidate. “Kalloch’s growing legion of followers hung on his every word” (West 23).
This worried De Young. He considered both Kearney and Kalloch threats. With the power of the press behind him, De Young had learned that Kalloch left behind a “checkered past” in the East, and delighted in exposing the news. De Young published salacious rumors about Kalloch’s background. Kalloch retaliated. The scorching rhetoric went back and forth and continued for weeks. When Kalloch stated that De Young’s mother ran a brothel, De Young unraveled and shot Kalloch. “The attempt at ending Kalloch’s life instead gave added energy to his candidacy” and Kalloch survived and won the election (West 24).
De Young went into hiding for a short while and with his influence, avoided prosecution for attempted murder. Undaunted, he continued to assault Kalloch in the columns of the Chronicle. Kalloch’s son, incensed by the murder attempt and continued vitriol toward his father entered the offices of the Chronicle, found and killed Charles De Young. Kalloch’s son was not prosecuted for murder.
The front cover with the placcards containing hateful vitriol, was Nast and Harper’s reminder to the public that America was a very different place outside New York City.
Thomas Nast applies irony and a direct hit at hypocrisy to this 1882 commentary on the eve of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“Uncivilized” and “barbaric” were leading accusations (two of many) hurled against the Chinese. Always defined and depicted as outsiders, sojourners and others, the Chinese were not accorded the rights of other immigrants and in many locations, especially in the West, were specifically prohibited to integrate or assimilate into normal white American culture. Nast assumes this voice of normal America and suggests, if only they could be like us, behave like us, if the Chinese could only “embrace civilization” the Euro-American brand of civilization, then maybe they could stay in the U.S. Nast throws this brand of tolerated American civilization right in the face of his critics and illustrates the baseless hypocrisy of anti-Chinese sentiment.
Nast’s use of humor is effective. The center image is a direct hit at the Irish, whose penchant for whiskey was an oft-repeated stereotype. Perhaps, if the Chinese could drink like the Irish, then maybe they could stay.
Or, how about good old fashioned pugilism? For decades, the Irish had earned a reputation for bare-knuckle prize fighting. White men considered Chinese men docile. As boxers, the Irish had organized violence into a popular entertainment and sport. Did the public really want to see the Chinese taking up fights?
Cheap, competitive labor kept the Chinese busy and productive. If they raised their rates and joined the labor unions – they could join the ranks of civilized men and strike, starve and loaf about the city streets. Many white working Americans viewed the Chinese as a threat because they worked hard, kept to themselves and aided capitalist interests.
Nast offers an alternative. He invites the reader to consider the reality and dangers of getting what one asks for. Would pro-labor prefer drunk, idle, unproductive Chinese beggars? Is this how the Chinese must behave in order to join the ranks of civilized men? Through this a collection of visual tales, Nast exposes the irony and the hypocrisy of white accusations and demands placed upon the Chinese. Must Chinese emulate Irish behavior to be accepted?
By 1882, Nast grew disgusted with U.S. Senator James G. Blaine – a Republican from Maine who sided against the Chinese for Exclusion legislation. The image of a Chinese man as a U.S. Senator, doing nothing but “talk,” “talk,” “talk” is a stab at the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of public service.
The labor question was uppermost in the publics’ mind during the latter 1870’s. It was a political question. Nast chided Republican Senator from Maine, James G. Blaine, for his willingness to forgo promises made to the Chinese with the Burlingame Treaty, in order to secure a Chinese Exclusion measure (Paine 412)
Blaine was a three-time presidential hopeful. With corrupt scandals of the Grant administration surfacing and swirling in political circles, and with no signs of public sentiment shifting in favor of the Chinese, Blaine courted Democratic voters and advocated for a revision of the 1868 Burlingame Treaty. The treaty was the product of negotiations between the Chinese Six Companies, “the most important association representing the Chinese community and the federal government” (Takaki, 113).
The more groundbreaking articles of the treaty included measures that promised the Chinese the right to free immigration and travel within the United States, and allowed for the protection of Chinese citizens in the United States in accordance with the most-favored-nation principle” (U.S. State Dept.). The treaty was “a major victory for the Chinese” (Takaki 114).
Republican politicians who wavered and bowed to the growing anti-Chinese mob pressure alarmed the artist. “Nast never had the slightest sympathy with any sort of organization or movement that did not mean the complete and absolute right of property ownership, as well as the permission to labor, accorded to every human being of whatsoever color or race. His first real antagonism to James G. Blaine began with the latter’s advocacy of Chinese Exclusion” (Paine 386).
Nast viewed the attempts to abrogate the treaty, and Blaine’s role in that shift, as deplorable and an unforgivable breach in Republican values. As Nast’s biographer points out, Nast frequently lampooned Blaine in order to expose his hypocrisy, a reality that made Blaine “heartsick” given his national ambitions. Nast was for Blaine, a painfully persistent pest.
Blaine was all too aware that Nast’s sphere of influence on the electorate was wide. Nast relished exposing Blaine’s hypocrisy. Nast’s fixation on Blaine was unrelenting, nearly equaling his Tweed/Tammany days. The adverse attention worried Blaine, who “attempted to explain and to justify his position, but the artist could see in the Chinese immigrant only a man and a brother, trying to make a living in a quiet and peaceful manner in a country that was big enough for all” (Paine, 413).
The cartoon also capitalized on the popularity of a popular 1870 poem, Bret Harte’s “Plain Language from Truthful James,” with Nast exploiting James Blaine as Harte’s fearful and deeply suspicious character.
Blaine is seen center at the top of an equal rights podium, welcoming an Irishman on right, and giving him space on the platform by kicking off a Chinese worker. The irony that both ethnic groups arrived in the U.S. to flee famine, was not lost on Nast. All of the accusations leveled at the Irish by Protestants, e.g. cult religion, large numbers (hordes) of poor and diseased people of a different race (the Irish were thought to be of a different race) who would ruin and dilute American culture, and an unwillingness to assimilate, became the exact charges the Irish leveled against the Chinese.
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 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 attack those he had previously championed if he saw what he perceived as hypocrisy, corruption or stupidity surface within their ranks. The fact remains that Nast’s most famous targets: Tweed and the Irish-Americans Catholics who affiliated with and benefited from the political boss, did have 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 to come of age, and form his own 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 in the new Republican Party. 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, 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.
This cartoon, published on July 16, 1870, is one of the more curious of Nast’s Chinese pieces. The cartoon addresses the issue of using Chinese labor as an efficient, lower cost labor, thus blurring the definition of contract or forced slave labor known as “coolie” labor. For a nation still coming to terms with the issue of slavery and slave labor, “coolie” labor was viewed as suspect, and a threat to replace free white labor for the betterment of capitalist or business interests. For another perspective click here.
Two Chinese workers stand behind a shoe cobbler. They carry sabers marked “Cheap Labor” on the blades. The cobbler is St. Crispin, the patron saint of leather workers. The cobbler’s hair is styled in a tonsure and a halo hovers over his head. Whether intentional or not, the cobbler bears a strong resemblance to Nast’s hero, Abraham Lincoln. He concentrates on his work and appears to be unaware of his Chinese visitors lurking behind with their swords raised. A violent attack is eminent.
The Chinese man at the far left has an abnormally elongated face and slanted eyes that upturn at an unnatural angle. He clenches two weapons, but he has yet to lunge toward St. Crispin.
At center and directly behind the cobbler is another Chinese man. His facial features are more normal and do not appear exaggerated. His look is intent on what he is about to do. With a two-handed grip, he hurls his “Cheap Labor” blade high over his head, ready to strike the first blow upon cobbler oblivious to the danger.
Nast identifies this as a “New Issue – The Chinese – American Question” and that question is how to reconcile the Chinese into the labor force.
The next issue of Harper’s Weekly reported on an uprising that may have been breaking at the time Nast executed his drawing. In that issue, Harper’s reported on Mr. Sampson, owner of a New England shoe factory. Experiencing financial difficulties, Sampson sought wage concessions from his factory’s labor force. They agreed to consider his request provided Sampson open his books to make sure the owner had done all he could and operated his business above board. Sampson refused this request and instead arranged to recruit Chinese workers from San Francisco. The article makes an explicit distinction that Sampson recruited Chinese workers already in the U.S., unlike that of an individual by the distinctive name of Mr. Koopmanschoop, a labor broker, and capitalist who dealt directly with China for his labor force. The article infers that the methods to import Chinese labor from China were nothing more than disguised slavery. Coolie labor became a subject of everyday discussion and concern, but Harper’s argues, Mr. Sampson was well within his rights to seek out cheaper labor to save his business.
The Harper’s Weekly article takes a favorable view of the Chinese workers. “Since their arrival…their deportment has been excellent, and the prejudice at first existing against them is said to be gradually giving away” (Harper’s Weekly, 23 July 1870). The article included two large illustrations, not drawn by Nast, showing where the factory was situated, and an interior scene of Chinese men working inside the factory without incident. The scene was clean, peaceful and unremarkable.
Presumably, as news of Chinese workers entering American factories in New England reached New Yorkers, Nast quickly created this small cartoon, placed near the back of the issue in the advertisement section. Cartoons of this size, roughly 5 inches by 5 inches, were typically nestled near the advertisements. This section of the magazine may have been blocked out, ready to receive a quick image for breaking news. This would explain why there is no article in the paper about Chinese shoemakers that week, but appeared in the next issue.
The pro-capitalist position of Harper’s Weekly does not describe the Chinese as strike breakers, but according to John Kuo Wei Tchen, this maneuver in Massachusetts and a similar one in New Jersey was a deliberate attempt to break a strike of the shoe labor union known as the Knights of St. Crispin. “The Crispins were one of the largest trade unions in the country, claiming some forty thousand members in Massachusetts alone.” Using Chinese labor in such a manner made national news, and reinforced the perception of the Chinese as cheap, possibly indentured or forced labor. Willingly or not, by undercutting the price of white labor, and working to the satisfaction of employers, the manipulation of Chinese labor played a crucial role in how their racial identities were formed within a Euro-centric America (Tchen 175-176).
As a Radical Republican, Nast believed in the capitalist point of view that saw a benefit by adding Chinese labor to industry. Yet, Nast drew an unflattering portrait of Chinese labor with this cartoon. As John Kuo Wei Tchen notes, “Chinese cheap labor” had become a “war cry” and that was reflected in cartoons and in contemporary poetry, such as Bret Harte’s “Plain Language from Truthful James.” The poem depicts a Chinese character, Ah Sin, as a cunning heathen. Nast would revive Ah Sin nine years later, but this 1870 cartoon reflects the idea infused in the poem that allowing the Chinese to have “unfettered entry” into America was dangerous (Tchen 196). Nast would also play on the poem’s title with his pro-Chinese cartoon “Blaine Language” one of many cartoons which criticized U.S. Senator James G. Blaine for his anti-Chinese positions.
Whether Nast believed in the danger or merely reflected what was discussed on the street—as a topic for conversation— is unknown. The cartoon is inconsistent with the majority of his Chinese cartoons. The figures, however, closely resemble the Chinese men who taunt Denis Kearney in Nast’s 1880 cartoon, Ides of March.
John Kuo Wei Tchen speculates that Nast likely did not have any real knowledge or exposure to the Chinese in New York, and adds that his cartoons “indicate familiarity with the representational conventions of Chinese in literature and on stage, but not much other knowledge” (211). Tchen’s assessment makes sense. The question remains, does that excuse Nast from drawing images like this – or was characterizations like this one purposeful because Nast was simply incorporating the popular view?
This is Nast’s first cartoon of a Chinese immigrant or sojourner in the West Coast. The cartoon establishes Nast’s sympathies toward the Chinese.
Pacific Chivalry sets the western locale and places a central focus on the unique hairstyle or “queue” of Chinese men. During the Manchurian takeover of the Ming Dynasty, it was decreed that Chinese men shave their heads with the exception of a part of the back of the head where a long ponytail, often braided, would remain. In times of battle, the “queue” helped to distinguish Manchu warriors from the enemy. Chinese men faced execution if they did not grow a queue (Spence 38).
In the United States, the queue was a subject of fascination that added to the mystique and perceived feminization of Chinese men who were often “depicted as lacking virility.” In the male-dominated world of western gold mining “Chinese men became targets of white men’s fears of homosexuality or the objects of their desire” (Pfaelzer 13).
Unknown terror awaits this Chinese figure as he attempts to flee from a white aggressor. Wearing a hat that bears the name California, the white laborer bears his teeth in a determined grimace. In his right hand, he raises a whip – a variation of a cat-o-nine whip, believed to have originated to punish African slaves during the U.S. slave trade. He has lifted his left leg to counterbalance his swing and prepares to strike his Chinese victim. His left hand grips the Chinese queue and prevents the Chinese from escape. The force of pulling on the hair elongates the Chinese man’s head.
Shapes of skulls were thought to be indicative of intelligence and placement in an evolutionary hierarchy by stretching out the skull of a Chinese man, the perpetrator, and perhaps the artist offers the Chinese different than the standard perception for human normality. Though he is not drawn as overtly Irish, the working man fits the look that Nast establishes for white labor – gruff, bearded, burly and dominating. The look was repeated in The Chinese Question, 18 February 1871. and other cartoons. It should be noted that the Knights of Labor, an organization formed for white labor interests in western states and territories, and often the instigating agent for violence against the Chinese, did have a large Irish Catholic membership. (See Here’s a Pretty Mess).
The Chinese man is startled by his capture. His fearful expression further distorted by the pulling from the back of his scalp. His sun hat, the douli, has fallen to the ground and his hands are open in a defensive posture, though the threat has come from behind.
To the right, along the railroad tracks rests a small building on the edge of what resembles a small mining camp. The words on the building declare, “Courts of Justice Closed to Chinese. Extra Taxes to Yellow Jack.”
Nast, of course, is mocking California’s definition of justice and the battery of local laws passed by the new state to scare, threaten and restrict Chinese and opportunities in the gold mines, in society and in business.
What fate awaits this Chinese man is up to the reader to decide. Will he be beaten, robbed, driven out of the mining camp, out of town, or sexually abused is not known. With this image, Nast clearly asserts something terrible will occur. “Nast condemned this treatment as an affront to the values of an open society” (Keller 108).
One of Thomas Nast’s last cartoons featuring the Chinese was published in the fall of 1885 as a reaction to the Rocks Springs Massacre of Chinese miners, “one of the most violent racial episodes in the history of the West” (Pfaelzer 209).
Harper’s Weekly addressed the massacre in two separate issues, each with an illustration and unsigned editorial commentary (likely by George W. Curtis). While Nast contributed full-sized images on other topics, his sole cartoon on the massacre was a quarter-page-sized image near the back of the issue.
The cartoon lacks the passion and sophistication one would expect from Nast in reaction to the largest racial attack in U.S. history. Perhaps the cartoon was hastily drawn as events became known. The image may have replaced another cartoon slated for the spot – the advertising section always blocked out the area for one or two small cartoons.
Nast’s image may provoke different reactions from those who view it. One common reaction is that the cartoon adopts a pro-Chinese stance, but depicts a sarcastic Chinese tone or voice – one which emphasizes Chinese civility over Western “enlightenment.”
Two Chinese diplomats stand upon higher ground and overlook a scene of mayhem below. They witness the Rock Creek massacre in progress. An assortment of white laborers are pummeling Chinese laborers whom Nast identifies with long hair queue.
The primary Chinese figures are styled in the same manner as the “John Confucius/John Chinaman” diplomat, however, one holds a fan in front of his face. One diplomat stands in profile and faces the massacre directly, the other crouches behind his colleague and appears to whisper in his ear. The fan emphasizes the secret nature of their conversation.
The detail of the cartoon is centered on the Chinese men, and not on the violence below, which is more crudely drawn. Of all Nast’s images of the Chinese, this depiction, particularly of the Chinese man in profile, are strongly feminized. With some minor costume details, these men could be women. This is an unusual tact for Nast to adopt.
It is the caption, and not the image, which drives the satire and ironic definition of civility. White America repeatedly favored the term “barbarian” in describing the Chinese. The caption reads, “Chinese Satirical Diplomat.”There’s no doubt of the United States being at the head of enlightened nations!””
At first glance, the contrast is quite clear. Who are these white people calling the Chinese heathens, barbarians and a race unfit for American citizenship? Look at how Americans behave! This is quite a spectacle of enlightened behavior. On this score, the cartoon is successful.
With a deeper look, the viewer may realize that these Chinese diplomats do nothing but observe the melee. They watch as their countrymen are murdered and driven out. The Chinese are denied the right to earn an honest living – a living they were recruited for by American business and invited to participate in.
One might interpret the Chinese men are gleeful for this opportunity to make a cultural comparison between East and West. Does Nast suggest the massacre serves a higher purpose – an occasion upon which the diplomats can prove their superiority? If so, they make their point at the expense of their countrymen. Still, Nast portrays the two men as inactive. Shock is absent. They feel no outrage by what they witness. Neither is Nast.
Nast chose the cartoon to be sardonic and sarcastic – and on one level, he succeeds in showing his viewers who the real barbarians are. But Nast could have made his point and at the same time, infuse his Chinese observers with a sense of sorrow or anger. Why did Nast not weigh in on the moral argument, as he had done many times before, by simply adding Columbia to the scene? By standing alongside her Chinese guests, shedding tears, Columbia her fist raised in defiance, the maternal icon of American morality might elicit sympathy from the viewers.
Nast followers knew what Columbia meant in his cartoons. Nast chose not to take her to Wyoming. He did not employ her as a moral agent. Columbia’s values and message are absent in this composition. Nast also refused to demonize or detail reports of a predominately Irish-labor mob as the perpetrators of the massacre. While his drawing depicts white upon Chinese violence, Nast chose not to exploit the Irish nature of the mob. Nast’s infamous Irish ape is not present as instigators at this scene.
In reality, response to the massacre by the Chinese government was immediate and persistent as they complained to Secretary of State Thomas Bayard, and argued for prosecution of the murderers and reparations (Pfaelzer 211-214).
Harper’s Weekly’s brief editorial commented on the outrage, expressed in part:
The massacre of the Chinese laborers in Wyoming is one of the crimes which disgrace a people, because it is due to the jealousy and hatred of a race. In excluding the Chinese from the country by law we have especially stigmatized them, and common decency and humanity should lead us to protect those of them who unfortunately happen to be among us, and whom the law shows that we wish were somewhere else.
Perhaps Nast’s state of mind had grown tired of an issue on which he and the progressive Republican base had repeatedly experienced defeat. As Morton Keller has surmised, Nast’s passions were linked to the utopian principles of the Radical Republicanism he championed. “When that spirit faded, so did the force and fire of Nast’s art” (Keller viii).
In the next issue Harper’s Weekly published a full-page engraving based on a photograph taken at the scene of the massacre. Nast had no part in the illustration.
Nast contributed a full-paged cartoon in the same issue, but it did not address the massacre. Commentary on the massacre was left to others. Nast’s career at Harper’s Weekly was coming to a close.
Historical background on the Rock Creek Massacre
In 1862, the United States Congress authorized an act to construct railroad and telegraph lines connecting East and West. The Central Pacific Rail Road (CPRR) was in charge of construction from Sacramento, California to the East. In order to fulfill the enormous labor demands and meet financial incentives offered by the federal government, Chinese labor was recruited. The principals of the CPPR were known as the “Big Four” Leland Stanford, president; C.P. Huntington, vice president; Mark Hopkins, treasurer and Charles Crocker, engineer (Storti 10).
Despite early reluctance from his partners, Crocker recruited thousands of Chinese as railroad laborers, and due to their experience as miners, hired them as coal miners to support the fuel needed for the rail effort. “Crocker brought them in by the trainload” and by 1868, the Chinese “made up 80 percent of the Central Pacific’s work force.” Crocker happily called them “the best road builders in the world.” They were known derisively as “Crocker’s pets” (Storti 12).
Rock Springs was located along Bitter Creek tributary and in an area rich with coal. The path of the Union Pacific Railroad was slated to go right through the coal-rich area. Coal was “a discovery of almost incalculable value to the company” (Storti 34). On the surface, the land, which the Indians had negotiated away seemed inarable and desolate – the poorest tract of land in Wyoming. What lay underneath the soil made it valuable. Rudimentary mining towns quickly sprang up in the area and by 1871 Rock Springs had become central headquarters to the Wyoming Coal and Mining Company (Storti 54).
The year 1873 began a sustained era of severe economic depression which affected the railroad, and other supporting industries including coal mining towns like Rock Creek.
A Wall Street investor, Jay Gould, “had his hands in virtually every major business undertaking of the day” and this included the coal mines at Rock Springs. Gould ordered a series of wage cuts for coal miners in the region. Various labor organizations and miner’s associations threatened and carried out sporadic strikes across many mining camps in the country that supported the transatlantic railroad effort. As these strike continued to percolate on and off, Chinese miners were used as strike breakers or “scabs.”
In 1875, 150 Chinese workers reported for duty as strikebreakers, under the protection of U.S. troops (Storti 71).
Coal mining was “astonishingly dangerous work.” Storti’s book on the Rock Creek massacre provides valuable insight into the details and dangers of the coal miner’s (or colliers as they were known) exhaustive toils. Storti describes it as a “tightly knit brotherhood” of men who risked their lives – rarely saw daylight or breathed in clean air. They were protective of each other and of their wages. They knew the risks they undertook and expected to be paid well for that sacrifice.
Nevertheless, Storti explains, labor management wanted profits to increase and did not think twice about humiliating their labor force. When Chinese miners arrived, they “were routinely given the most productive rooms and were always allowed first choice of rooms when a new entry was opened” (Storti 83). The Chinese were not above flaunting their privileged position, deepening further resentment and competition.
As in other locations where the Chinese gathered to work, a supporting society was quickly established. A Chinatown near Rock Springs flourished.
With the help of Chinese labor, the Rock Springs mining camp tripled its coal production from 104,000 tons in 1875 to 302,000 tons in 1884.
In the fall of 1884 threats of strikes across the region were instigated by invigorated union interests and new pro-labor affiliations, such as the Knights of Labor. Rock Springs avoided these threats and colliers from Rock Springs did not partake in Knights of Labor meetings. But by the summer of 1885, Chinese -White labor tensions reached a breaking point regarding the continued preferential treatment of Chinese workers, with the Chinese gaining the most concessions.
When disputes arose, the Chinese stood their ground and offered no concessions. The confrontations, which took place deep inside the mines, came to blows. Word of the fights made their way to the surface as white laborers began to collect in the streets, “shouting anti-Chinese slogans” (Storti 108-113).
In the 1880s, the Knights of Labor stood as the most powerful labor union in the nation (Storti 103). The Knights of Labor were strong proponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act and their membership was predominately Catholic (Catholic University of America). The Knights of Labor organized 1886 events that led to the Chicago Haymarket demonstration and massacre, though violence was never planned and did not directly involve Chinese laborers.
The white miners had asked the Chinese to join them in a strike. Unwilling to strike, violence erupted. “A force of about 150 Irish-born miners marched to Chinatown armed with shotguns” (Pfaelzer 210).
The mob first fired into the air, demanding that the Chinese leave. As they began to do so, Chinese were shot at directly. Several homes and businesses in Chinatown were burned to the ground. An estimated 400 to 500 Chinese were forcibly driven out, many escaped to the outskirts of town without food, water or shelter where “about 50 died of exposure and starvation as they tried to reach the Green River and escape from the mine” (Pfaelzer 211). The final death toll was put at fifty-one, the highest ever for a race riot in American history” (Storti 142).
Nast drew this full-page cartoon at the height of his attacks on Tweed. Nast took exception to the Democratic politician’s granting of public funds to the New York Roman Catholic Church for the establishment of sectarian schools.
Nast strongly believed in the newly formed public school system and saw the institution as a utopian organ of education – a place where all religions, creeds, cultures, ethnicities and races could attend.
While not a Chinese cartoon per se, at the top and bottom panels, a Chinese child experiences differing educational possibilities and potential treatment that depend on whether or not public or sectarian schools are allowed to prevail. With the establishment of special treatment for Catholic schools, Nast predicts a domino effect that will result in mayhem and violence among New York City schoolchildren.
Still hopeful for an implementation of Radical Republicanism in the era of Reconstruction, in the top panel Nast includes a happy, Chinese boy, joining a multi-cultured group of children at play in front of the “Common School.” Racial stereotypes are applied to all the children in an effort to emphasize the diversity of the student body. The school and its playgrounds are “Free to All,” and “All Hands Round.” With his queue happily tossed in the wind, the young Chinese lad is but one of many that is enjoying play, each child drawn in an obvious way to represent his or her culture. It is the children’s version of Nast’s Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner. In both cartoons, the theme and message are the same. The “Union in Strength.”
While this website does not focus on Nast and the public school issue (See Benjamin Justice’s fine article Thomas Nast and the Public School of the 1870s.) It would be negligent not to mention Lady Justice, a relative or incarnation of Columbia, who Nast draws for the first and only time as an Irish woman. Lady Justice may be blindfolded, but she has been bought off by the Irish Catholics, tipping the scales toward the source of the money – and in Nast’s opinion, the corruption. The Protestant side is shown defeated as “Death to Us” hovers over a dejected public school system. Their buildings crumble. Roman Catholics however are elated and exclaim “Fun For Us.” They enjoy the fruits of their influence on the education system and the fine institutions built with taxpayer money. The division of public funds is lopsided.
In the third panel, Nast presents the repercussions of a special school for each ethnicity or race, the consequences that began with Irish-Catholic special interests. Each building in the background brands its own school identity. Everyone places claim on their differences and these differences result in competition and bitterness. The play area is a battleground. Children do not hold hands. Chinese queues do not spin in merriment. The queue, once again has become a tool for oppression – a handle upon which to grip, restrain and torment.
In this scene, Nast shows another victim of oppression becoming the aggressor. An African American child has gripped the queue in his hands and prevents the Chinese child from heading toward his school.
San Francisco artist George F. Keller struck again, aided by The Wasp’sincreased investment in color lithography, with AStatue For Our Harbor, November 11, 1881. Although the Statue of Liberty and its base had yet to make a physical appearance in New York’s harbor, discussions about the statue and controversies in fundraising and artists’renditions, were broadly covered in East Coast media and beyond. Keller’s image serves as a reminder that he and or The Wasp kept their attention on their eastern counterparts and applied regional topics to switch focus on West Coast concerns. The image is a cry for attention to examine West Coast immigration issues.
The image was preceded by a popular book, The Last Days of the Republic (1880) written by newspaper editor Pierson Dooner who “described immigration as a “vicious conspiracy” against the U.S. by the Chinese, and illustrated his point with Keller’s drawings” (Tchen/Yeats, 231).
No warm welcome from a copper French Lady Liberty here, immigrants to San Francisco’s harbor are welcomed by a menacing Chinese effigy. His clothes in tatters, this slimy figure, with his long queue wafting with the breeze, illuminates the American way for Asian immigrants. A few steamboats rest in the harbor, but a larger number arrive via antiquated Asian sail boats or “junks.”
The implication is clear. Modern European immigration has acquiesced in deference to an infiltration of backward, invading forces from Asia. A full moon with a Chinese likeness sneeringly supervises the scene. His celestial light bathes the night sky. Six beams of light emanate from the statue’s unseen torch or lamp.They illuminate the harbor with “Filth,” “Immorality,” “Diseases,” and requiring three beams,“Ruin to White Labor.” In the statue’s other hand is an opium pipe. The Chinese man‘s foot is triumphantly perched upon a human skull, presumably that of a white human, and behind the skull is a rat’s tail. The rodent has picked the skull clean.
The Wasp’s readers knew all too well that the Chinese ate rodents. Western press delighted in repeating the disgusting stereotype. In Keller’s illustration, the Chinese have ascended to the top of the food chain. A position that is complicit with the cannibalism of white humanity. Rodents thriving along the embankment collect at the base of the star-shaped pedestal, which is also strewn with trash.
While labor issues were one of the six categories that predominated The Wasp’s view of the Chinese, the overarching theme in this image is one of disease and immorality. The Wasp suggests there can be no question that the Chinese are to blame for dark and dismal polluted condition of San Francisco’s harbor.
Light and dark divides the image. As a “celestial” the Chinese figure is awash in light as he extends his arm and face toward the source of his “otherness” the celestial sky. The clouds part in his presence. The colors darken as the figure connects with the earth and his roots and foundation into his new San Francisco home.
The Chinese Must Go, But Who Keeps Them? was drawn by George F. Keller and published on May 11, 1878. The cartoon is The Wasp’s interpretation of the Workingmen’s Party’s rallying cry against Chinese presence in California. Front and center is a donkey in military garb, an indication of a war- war against the Chinese, and liberal immigration policies. On the epaulets of the donkey’s uniform, the initials “D.K.” represent the faction’s self-styled military leader, Irish-born Denis Kearney and chief crier of “the Chinese Must Go” mantra. Kearney, a charismatic Irish American “began his infamous outdoor “Sandlot” meetings on vacant lots…and understood how to turn rage about unemployment, the price of food, and the huge land grants to the railroads against the Chinese” (Pfaelzer 77).
The cartoon’s title question has a double meaning. Kearney and his Workingmen’s Party were clear on one goal. They wanted the Chinese out of California- out of the West Coast – out of the labor market. Go back to China, go East – as long as they went. They cared little about who would take care of the Chinese afterward.
The title challenges the readers to look within. Who was taking care of the Chinese in California? Who was keeping them, enabling them, to stay in California? The Wasp pointed the finger at their readers.
Surrounding the braying Kearney, six vignettes show the consequences of white citizens patronizing Chinese business; a cigar shop, shoe cobbler, laundry, horse livery and meat butcher. All professions that the Chinese successfully established and sustained through white patronage. White dollars kept the Chinese in place. By asking, “But who keeps them?” the cartoon places the blame directly upon white households. The editorial called for widespread boycotts of Chinese goods and services.
White woman in California were reluctant to give up the freedoms they had enjoyed by subbing out the domestic work to Chinese businesses. “Their freedom to travel east, to visit friends and family, and their time for church and artistic clubs – all the result of inexpensive Chinese servants – was in jeopardy” (Pfaelzer 66).
As the 1873 economic collapse persisted well into 1876, anti-Chinese zealotry organized into groups, such as the Supreme Order of the Caucasians, who vowed to “annihilate” white people who did not follow their “hit list” of boycotts (Pfaelzer 67).
However, the image is not entirely flattering to Irish-born Kearney and his followers. According to Richard Samuel West, The Wasp abhorred mob violence and the paper adopted the editorial position that while it believed in the true threat of Chinese labor at the expense of white labor, Kearney’s method lacked dignity. Unlike Nast who drew Kearney’s realistically, The Wasp rarely used Kearney’s face in their magazines and in this particular instance, preferred to use the Democratic donkey in his place. “The animal appealed to illustrators for its jackass connotations” (Dewey 17).
Nevertheless, Kearney’s Sandlot speeches resonated with California Democrats and the working class who comprised Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party. “Just two years later, the new party managed to rewrite local anti-Chinese codes into the second California constitution” (Pfaelzer 78-79). Other anti-Chinese measures would follow in California, and loomed on the federal horizon. Back east, Thomas Nast took notice as he watched the Democratic Party gain influence over the electorate and contribute to the shifting public policy against the Chinese. To Nast’s horror, Republicans came under the influence, as well.
It should be noted that Keller’s donkey wears a bicorn military hat. A few of Nast’s anti-Chinese cartoon figures contain a military figure wearing a bicorn hat. This may or may not serve as a symbol for Kearney. In the context of Nast’s cartoons, the suggestion seems plausible.
George Frederick Keller used the invasion theme once again with the Burlingame Treaty as the subject. West called Keller’s Devastation, October 2, 1880 “the best drawn of the many cartoons that Keller created decrying Chinese immigration…The tattered ineffectual scarecrow is Denis Kearney, the leader of the Workingmen’s Party”(148).
Instead of insects used in Uncle Sam’s Farm is in Danger, here the Chinese immigrants are dehumanized and represented as pigs bursting through an Asian gateway, named “Burlingame Treaty.” The brown, hairy, porcines with Chinese faces make a bee-line toward Uncle Sam’s cornfield, and devour everything in sight. In addition to their tails, a queue grows from the back of each of the pig’s head. Cornstalks, represent the job-rich industries of “watch making,” “laundries,” “shirt factories,”” broom factories,” and “cabinet makers,” to name a few, that fall victim to the crunching, ravenous appetite of the pestilent pigs.
Kearney’s scarecrow is left in tatters. He swings around a pole emblazoned with “The Chinese Must Go!!!!!!!” Uncle Sam, exasperated, watches from his lawn on the other side of his fence. Columbia peers out a window of their modest American home. Both she and Uncle Sam are minimized, weak and ineffectual. The Chinese have caused utter devastation.
Employing agricultural symbolism to suggest that the Chinese would destroy California agriculture is deeply ironic. California agriculture owed a great deal to Asian Americans.
Ronald Takaki explains that the Chinese were at the very center of California’s success as an agricultural producer. “Their work boosted the value of the land from twenty-eight dollars an acre in 1875 to one hundred dollars an acre two years later” (89).
As livestock animals, pigs or hogs were considered the lowest form of animal because of their greedy, rooting nature (McNeur 641). In the early nineteenth century, particularly in New York City, hogs were believed to be the carriers of disease and pestilence.
“Swine were closely tied to the filth and unpleasant smells that characterized the streets and public places of the city. Hogs and garbage, after all, went hand in hand” (McNeur 643). It is not unreasonable that these attitudes traveled westward. Comparing the Chinese to swine helped to define them as “others” and cement a perception that the Chinese were unsanitary and disease ridden – a pervasive stereotype attributed to the Chinese.