Category Archives: Irish Americans

Irish Stereotype

Killing the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg, by Thomas Nast, 11 November 1871. Harper’s Weekly. Source: Museum of Fine Art Houston via public domain license

Negative Irish stereotypes depicting the Irish as beasts or apes prevailed in an antebellum Anglo-America and anti-Irish sentiments permeated throughout the lives of ordinary Americans, not just nativists. Historian Dale Knobel, in Paddy and the Republic, examined the culture of language in everyday American life, taking into account the personal correspondence, political speeches, textbooks, travel literature, newspaper, and magazines, songs, theater and novels that were read, discussed and exchanged.

Knobel discovered that negative attitudes toward the Irish existed in America and were expressed throughout the course of everyday life and strengthened as the Civil War approached, a period where his research concludes.

Considering the Irish in America as “outsiders” rather than “insiders” manifested how Protestant nativists weighed immigrant identity and eligibility as Americans in the early and mid-nineteenth century.

Acceptance as potential citizen material depended primarily on race, religion and political character. As the Great Famine migrations progressed toward America, attitudes about the Irish coalesced into a stereotype known as “Paddy” and his female equivalent “Bridget” and Knobel argues that their creation “was a collection of adjectives applied over and over again to the Irish in Americans’ ordinary conversation. This is the authentic definition of a stereotype” (11).

Long before Thomas Nast came to America in 1846, “Paddy” had been well established and “no mere accumulation of random references” (17). Early Paddy stereotypes drew from perceptions of personal character. Although kinder language did surface in Knobel’s surveys of content material, words like “pugnacious,” “quarrelsome,” “impudent,” “impertinent,” “ignorant,” “wickedness,” “vicious,” and “reckless” accumulate as a frequent part of the American lexicon as it related to Irish Americans.

Nast’s Irish thug, From “The Chinese Question” Source: Walfred/UDel Scan

As the nineteenth century turned past its midpoint, Knobel uncovered a marked change in references to physical descriptions of the Irish over describing their character. Descriptors like “ragged,” “lowbrow,” “brutish,” “wild-looking,” and “course-haired” began to surface more frequently. Knobel’s most fascinating revelation was that in everyday situations in antebellum New York, Anglo-Americans had many opportunities to personally encounter the Irish, especially as servants and peddlers.

In Protestant conversations with the Irish and with each other, “words propagated an image of the Irish and thus an attitude” and became a source of judgment. Even if they did not have these occasions to meet an Irish in person, certain assumptions were made and believed to be true, because Americans had become accustomed to believing them (15-16).

Knobel cautions against the inclination to only blame American nativism for anti-Irish sentiment in mid-nineteenth century America. While Knobel’s primary focus was establishing the locations and frequency of words that formed to shape American attitudes and stereotypes of the Irish, he is correct that these words and the mental images that went along with them were enhanced by visual representation such as stage performances and by cartoons.

These portrayals and images helped to establish what antebellum New Yorkers likely thought and considered as fact in forming opinions about the Irish. Thomas Nast came to age in this hegemony and like other artists of his time continued the tradition. Keeping in mind Knobel’s argument, it is nevertheless useful to look into the origins of the stereotype, which originated in Great Britain.

The Irish-as-ape-stereotype frequently surfaces, as a popular trope, with the English in the mid-nineteenth century.  But, In Nothing But the Same Old Story, researcher Liz Curtis provides plentiful examples that establish anti-Irish sentiment as a centuries-long tradition.

Dehumanizing the Irish by drawing them as beasts or primates served as a convenient technique for any conqueror, and it made perfect sense for an English empire intent on placing Ireland and its people under its jurisdiction and control. The English needed to prove the backwardness of the Irish to justify their colonization (16). When the Irish fought back against English oppression, their violence only perpetuated the “violent beast” prejudice held against them.

James Gillray “United Irishmen in Training” 1798, Source: npg.org.uk

English artist James Gillray had drawn the Irish as an ogre – a type of humanoid beast – in a reaction to the Irish’s short-lived rebellion against England in 1798. Even before English scientific circles had begun to distort Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species later in the century, the English had favored the monkey and ape as a symbol for Hibernians.

After the Irish had made great social and political gains in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the view that they were of a different race than white people continued to persist, as can be seen by this cartoon printed in Harper’s Weekly as late as 1899 (not drawn by Nast):

Harper's Weekly, 1899. Artist Unknown, Misusing Darwin's science theories as a basis, the idea of the Irish as less than fully white persisted. This 1899 cartoon showing the notion still persisting 17 years after the cartoon Nast published in 1882.
Harper’s Weekly, 1899. Artist Unknown, Misusing Darwin’s science theories as a basis, the idea of the Irish as less than fully white persisted. This 1899 cartoon showing the Irish stereotype as less evolved, presented as scientific fact 11 years after Nast’s last cartoon was published by Harper’s. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Belief in emerging eugenics also emboldened a place for white European superiority. New York brothers Orson Squire Fowler and Lorenzo Niles Fowler, pioneers of phrenology, touted a philosophy and pseudo-scientific method that rated human intelligence and placement on an evolutionary scale based on the favorable or unfavorable measurements of one’s head.  They opened shop in Manhattan in 1835 measuring or “reading” people’s skulls.

This ad for phrenological services was placed in Harper's Weekly in 1868
This ad for phrenological services was placed in Harper’s Weekly in 1868 Source: Walfred/UD Scan

The Fowlers published several books and manuals on scientific methods of identifying, establishing and securing one’s (white people) superior place in society. The size and shape of the skull and forehead were thought to be indicators of “racial-biological differences” (Tchen 148). The Fowlers and their followers believed the assumption that “skulls divergent from the shape of certain northern and western European types were automatically of a lower order” (Tchen 148).

Nast too had his cranium measured and examined. “Like so many nineteenth-century Americans, Nast believed that genetic heritage, national characteristics, personal qualities, and achievements all manifested themselves in the physical body” (Halloran 51). No one it seemed, questioned the science of the day.

Leach, John. “The British Lion and the Irish Monkey”. Punch, 8 Apr. 1848. Website: http://adminstaff.vassar.edu/sttaylor/FAMINE/Punch/YI/IrishMonkey.gif

In Punch, a popular English weekly illustrated magazine (1841-2002) anti-Irish cartoons were common. In The British Lion and the Irish Monkey, (April 8, 1848) artist John Leach created a tiny monkey (Ireland) who faces a majestic, regal lion (Great Britain). Why a monkey, and not another animal to serve as the preferred animal symbol? The size of the monkey poses no threat to the regal lion. The monkey would have been familiar to the public as a circus or organ grinder’s companion – a demure creature easily trained and controlled. This monkey wears a court jester’s hat. Clearly, to the British literati and readers of Punch, the Irish are a joke. However, the use of the elfin monkey to depict the Irish is less common than the use of an ape.

The ape could be understood as human-like, particularly in terms of Darwin’s new theory of evolution, yet inferior to humans. A beast that could encapsulate rough, unsophisticated behavior conveniently attributed to the Irish. Ape-like features assigned to the Irish soon became the ideal stereotype to emphasize the perceived beastly and violent nature of the Irish.

Irish Frankenstein. by Joseph Kenny Meadows. Punch 1943. Irish attempts to Repeal British Union. Note, “repeal” is spelled incorrectly http://www.Punch.photoseller.com

As early as 1842, Punch’s artists “drew on popular notions of physiognomy that the angularity of a face connoted a lower stage of evolutionary development” (Justice 177) and they adopted the practice to depict the Irish consistently in derogatory terms. A Frankenstein monster, seen left, represents Catholic political activism and protests for emancipation, home rule and repeal of the British Union.  Under the leadership of charismatic, nationalist Irish leaders like Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s Catholic peasants were emboldened to demand change. Punch quickly and effectively shut down these aspirations with ridicule.

Irish as ape stereotype – Punch Magazine, 02 February 1849. By John Leech

Animalistic dehumanization was only one of many techniques designed to oppress the Irish and deny them full, human consideration.  By regarding the Irish as an “other” the English could justify and guiltlessly ignore the repercussions of their oppression and cruelty toward the Irish. Watching the Irish starve during the Great Potato Famine Hunger was one manifestation of this belief system.

During the height of the Great Famine, Punch published the English Labourer’s Burden  (Feb. 24, 1849) complaining on behalf of England’s outlay of ₤50,000 of famine relief, given to silence Irish protest and demands for assistance.

The Irishman is depicted as a gruff simpleton, getting a free ride on the back of an ordinary English laborer. The English government displayed little sympathy or compassion for the Irish or their famine–related predicaments and despair.

Numerous objections to the Irish proliferated in America as well. Like the English, American Protestants viewed Irish Catholics as “a separate people” (Heuston 82). Irish-American historian Timothy Meagher agrees. “The new Irish American was Catholic. Irish Protestants began melting away into the broader Protestant mainstream” making an effort to vehemently distinguish themselves from the Catholic Irish and preferring to define themselves as Scotch-Irish.  See Orangeman’s Riots.

“Most Protestants in America by this time had abandoned the definition of “Irishmen” in order to distance themselves from the Irish Catholic (295). The feeling was mutual.

Irish Catholics saw themselves differently from Protestants and, as an embattled people, “in competition with and fighting against all Protestants, Irish or otherwise.” In New York, politician William M. “Boss Tweed” seeking votes, helped the Irish Catholics gain legitimacy and this alliance of Irish Catholics, Tweed and Democratic politics propelled Nast to attack.

Nast was also deeply influenced by the cartoons of English artist John Tenniel who drew for Punch. Tenniel enjoyed star status as Punch’s lead illustrator for several decades. Tenniel also received high praise for his illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. He was later knighted and enjoyed a privileged life in England.

According to Nast’s biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, Nast and his colleagues at Harper’s Weekly were keenly aware of what other artists abroad were drawing, particularly at Punch. Nast had access to John Tenniel’s snarling, aggressive, simian-faced Irishmen (28). Nast borrowed heavily from Tenniel both in concept and technique A startling example of Tenniel’s effect on Nast’s art can be seen in the following two cartoons, first Tenniel’s and then Nast’s.  Compare:

Anti-Irish Catholic Cartoons were common in England. John Tenniel drew this for Punch on 28 December 1867. Tenniel was a major influence on Nast when the latter moved into caricature for Harper's Weekly.
John Tenniel drew this Guy Fawkes for Punch on 28 December 1867. Tenniel was a major influence on Nast when the latter moved into a caricature for Harper’s Weekly.
Nast places a drunken Irishman atop a gun powder barrel
Nast heavily borrowed from Tenniel’s 1867 cartoon to create his version of an Irish-Catholic scandal.Nast charged hypocrisy when the Catholic Irish rioted to protest Protestant Irish’s right to parade in New York City. Whether once sees this cartoon as effective or as offensive, Nast’s visual attack could hardly be called “original.”The Usual Way of Doing Things, by Thomas Nast, 1871. Source: The Ohio State University.

Today, the name Thomas Nast bears a particular infamy among American Irish Catholics. His body of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish work is quite substantial and brutal. Nast’s reasons for attacking Irish Catholics directly resulted from his perception of four issues which demanded response through his visual commentary:

  • 1.) Irish Catholics relationship with William M. “Boss” Tweed – and the many issues that stemmed from that alliance,
  • 2.) The role of the Catholic Church (thereby Irish) involvement in the New York Public School controversy (also involving Tweed),
  • 3.) American Roman Catholic Church and Democratic Party’s stance against abolition, and lastly,
  • 4.) Irish-Democrats pro-labor violence against Chinese immigrants.

Whether Nast was justified in his decision to attack Irish-Catholics is complicated and modern sensibilities judge Nast harshly.  For these reasons, he remains the subject of passionate debate. Nast drew positive images of the Irish, but these representations often blend into the background. Modern lobbying efforts to keep Nast out of the New Jersey Hall of Fame have so far been successful.

“The Chinese Question” 1871

“The Chinese Question” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Feb. 2, 1871, Source: Walfred scan

The Chinese Question is full sized cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly, 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.

Irish brute
Nast’s Irish brute

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.

And not this man? Columbia argues for Civil Rights for a wounded African American veteran. Harper's Weekly, August 5, 1859. Library of Congress
And not this man? Columbia argues for Civil Rights for a wounded African American veteran. Harper’s Weekly, August 5, 1859. Library of Congress

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.

Proving a positive: Thomas Nast and the simian stereotype

I use “Google Alerts” to keep abreast of Internet conversations, events and posts about Thomas Nast. This week I came across this masters thesis written by Laura Woolthuis, Utrecht University, Netherland

Getting Nasty: Thomas Nast and the simianization of the Irish in late nineteenth-century America.

dspace.library.uu.nl:8080/handle/1874/323536

I was honored to be included in the citations. Woolthuis’ thesis is well-written, well-researched and provides a thorough history of the Irish-simian stereotype. Woolthuis provides excellent resources on Irish physiognomy and background on Irish “whiteness” studies.

But the blanket assessment that Nast always drew the Irish as beasts or thugs, or that he felt a singular hatred in his heart for Irish or Catholics has foundational problems. Nast was a man of images, not of letters – correspondence that might shed valuable light on inner feelings do not exist on the subject.  His personal thoughts toward the Irish are simply not known.

Nast’s perceived attitude toward Irish and Catholics comes solely from his images published in Harper’s Weekly. These images reflect political controversies and positions and are editorial reactions to specific events in the public arena. In fact, at the height of Nast’s popularity (peaking with his anti-Tweed, anti-Catholic content), at a time when being Catholic was not popular, Harper’s nevertheless places Nast’s personal Catholic roots front and center in a biographical feature of their “special artist.”

Decades later, his contemporary biographer, Alfred Bigelow Paine, quite possibly sensing Nast’s vulnerable legacy as a Catholic-hater, goes to great length to correct the perception that Nast held an instinctive, deep-seated hatred toward Catholics or Catholicism.

Simply put, Nast called out hypocritical behavior, violence, and corruption wherever he saw it, and he saw it within groups of people who had loud voices who steadily voiced an ambition for political power and recognition. A growing demographic in New York City, Irish Catholics were often players in these controversies.  In mid-nineteenth century New York City, real-life examples of political activism flourished.  Participants, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion came to public attention through the harsh caricatures of cartoonists, of which Nast was the most famous during this era.

Coming from a German-Catholic background, his issue was not the religion nor its participants, but rather, the American leadership of the Roman Catholic Church’s and its foray into local politics and public funding, the Irish-Catholic alliance with Tweed, and the rank and file Hibernian alignment with the Democratic Party’s anti-abolitionist platform. Nast drew favorable images of Catholic clerics, most notably Father Dollinger, who held progressive Catholic views. Later, the Irish’s visible and organized attacks toward the Chinese in America renewed and reinvigorated further scrutiny by Nast on Irish behavior.

Detail of Irishman and wife at Thanksgiving table

In 1869, Nast included the Irish at Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner, the one Irishman’s facial features shown as slightly simian, so viewers and readers could not mistake his message that the Irish, as well as other ethnic stereotypes included in the drawing, deserved a seat at the uniquely American  celebration.  The Irish wife is devoid of stereotype and is most pleasantly drawn.

Columbia rewards valor
Columbia rewards New York City police for their valor during the Orangemen riots

Later, in “Something That Will Not Blow Over,” Irish policeman (their admirable service reported by Harper’s) receive laurels from Columbia for their valor in serving the public during the religious, tension-filled Orangeman riots. These Irish public servants look like any other American with a western-European ancestry.

As he evolved from illustrator to political caricaturist, Nast zeroed in on trouble and troublemakers. This embodied his raison d’être. In addition to what he perceived as controversial behavior surrounding Tweed, Nast implicated the Irish (and to a lesser extent his fellow Germans – see The Chinese Question) for their oppression and cruelty toward the Chinese. It is an inconvenient and unpleasant truth, that a notable portion of the Irish-Americans in New York at the time, held and defended white supremacist beliefs that today would be viewed as morally reprehensible. Had Tweed not strategically stroked the strings of the Irish harp, and had the Irish not danced to Tweed’s tune, it is doubtful that Nast would have found motivation to draw the images of the Irish for which he is vilified today.

It is easy to pick out a Nast negative. What would a positive Irish-Catholic look like in a Nast drawing? They are there. They blend into the background. In the nature of the Nast beast, it is much harder to prove a positive.

Myth or truth of “Irish Need Not Apply”

Interesting article about Rebecca Fried who debunked an academic debunker claiming that the Irish were not discriminated against upon arrival in America.  The eighth-grader has Kirby Miller on her side, a preeminent Irish historian, one who I have heavily cited in my research.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/01/the-teen-who-exposed-a-professor-s-myth.html

Nativism

Immigration historian John Highman suggests that American nativism “should be defined as intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e.,”un-American”) connections. He observed that feelings or intensities of nativism rose and fell as a barometer to overall nationalistic feelings (4). In America, Highman distills this down to three themes that ran through nativist sentiment in the early nineteenth century: Reformation and the hatred of Roman Catholicism, fear of foreign radicals and political revolutionaries, and racial nativism, which led to the belief America belonged to people of the Anglo-Saxon race. The United States was their domain. The Irish were viewed as a different race and this belief continued to permeate long after the initial Protestant-driven nativist sentiment had considerably weakened.

Harper's Weekly, 1899. Artist Unknown, Misusing Darwin's science theories as a basis, the idea of the Irish as less than fully white persisted. This 1899 cartoon showing the notion still persisting 17 years after the cartoon Nast published in 1882.
Harper’s Weekly, 1899. Artist Unknown, Misusing Darwin’s science theories as a basis, the idea of the Irish as less than fully white persisted. (Not drawn by Nast)

As immigration to America increased in the early 1820s and 1830s, nativist organizations sprouted all over the country and especially in locations with higher immigrant populations. Some met in secret. The Know Nothings are the most well-known of these secret societies, their name derived from their desire to remain secret. When asked about the organization, members would claim not to know anything about it. Nast would affix another meaning to their name, that of ignorance. At first, nativist xenophobia targeted all foreign immigrants, but their real concern quickly shifted to Irish Americans who practiced the Roman Catholic faith, particularly in the 1840s when the Irish began arriving in greater numbers due to increased oppression and the potato blight.

Protestant faith and culture shaped early America.  For the New York City Protestant ruling class, Irish Catholics were seen as a threat to the status quo. In the two decades before and after the Civil War, expressions of nativism in the United States focused almost exclusively toward the Irish Catholics.  The Irish were “nonetheless subject to prejudice, discrimination, and bitter hostility by many Americans for their Irish background or Catholic faith or, more often, both” (Meagher 221).

“American writers, cartoonists, and so-called scientific experts hammered away at Irish violence, emotional instability, and contentment in squalor” (Meagher 217). In the eyes of Protestants with ancestral ties to England, the Irish were no better than animals.  The Irish presented a triple threat. Their growing numbers, allegiance to strong, organized religion ruled by a foreign monarch, and political gains within Tweed’s Democratic Party, all posed a serious concern to the Protestant elite.

Protestant nativists fought for their survival and painted the Irish as “others.” They eagerly adopted and repeated the British trope of the Irish as unsophisticated, violent-prone animals, a lower being on the evolutionary scale. The Irish’s faith, and in particular their blind allegiance to a foreign pontiff, unsettled nativists.  Protestants Americans remembered the hard-fought revolutionary history of their young nation. During the peak years of the potato famine migration (1845-1855) nativists portrayed the Irish in invasion terminology. Nativists predicted the American way of life would end.

By 1880, by and large, the Irish successfully pulled themselves out of their “lowlife” status in a number of ways. They gained respect through their service in the Civil War on behalf of the Union, and in New York City, through political positions awarded by William M. “Boss” Tweed in return for their loyalty and vote.  With these gains in respectablility and power, the Irish emerged as a sought-after voting bloc. But politics alone was not enough to counter nativist prejudice. Most significantly, the Irish fought hard to define themselves as white. To do so meant practicing their own brand of nativism. and align with other xenophobes. The Chinese were a convenient target.

In assessing the work of several “whiteness” studies, historian Timothy Meagher asserts that self-identification as “white” went beyond skin color. “It was not clear that the Irish were white” (217). To be white required a sense of belonging to a community and culture (215). Being a part of anti-racial groups, or affiliation in a secret society was solidifying factor.

The Irish, Meagher writes, arrived in America with “lessons” learned from their British oppressors. Their past shaped the way they thought of race and they arrived in a new nation with revenge buried in their subconscious. Meagher quotes whiteness historian Theodore Allen who wrote of the Irish, “no immigrants ever came to the United States better prepared by tradition and experience to empathize” with other oppressed minorities. But to the contrary, the Irish developed an adversarial role with other races (216).

Meagher concludes that the Irish made a conscious decision to leave the classes of the oppressed and strategize that their best means of survival in a new homeland required a redefinition as members of a superior class. To identify oneself as superior  required a new inferior victim.. The Chinese in America fit the bill. Meagher believes Irish antipathy toward the Chinese went beyond labor competition.

Exemplified by individuals like Denis Kearney, groups of Irish Americans repackaged the same accusations nativists had leveled upon them onto the Chinese. The depictions  and accusations all too similar: practice of a strange form of worship (or lack thereof), unwillingness to assimilate to American culture, a desire to keep to themselves, preferences for living in squalor, and members of a invading force, intent to usrup and redefine the American way of life. For Irish Americans, being anti-Asian helped them become more white.

“Blaine Language” 1879

“Blaine Language” by Thomas Nast, 15, March 1879

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.

Thomas Nast and the New Jersey Hall of Fame

Opinion:

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), his accolades and fame for his series of approximately 50 cartoons exposing the corrupt New York City Tammany Hall boss William Meager Tweed, 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.

An apelike Irishman and greedy Catholic cleric raid the golden goose of public money, one of many anti-Irish, anti-Catholic images created by Nast, and which will keep him out of New Jersey’s Hall of Fame. “Killing the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs, Nov. 18, 1871, Harper’s Weekly

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.

Detail of a New York Irishman preparing to exploit a Chinese immigrant in New York - From
Detail of a New York Irishman preparing to exploit a Chinese immigrant in New York – From “Thr Chinese Question,” 18, February 1871

Thomas Nast had a well-established history of fairness and equity, and 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 Tweed, 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 for 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, but as he matured, he found a passionate solidarity with 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 balance 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. Nast appears not to have considered any background material which could have furthered his understanding of their collective behavior in America. He did not appear to be sympathetic to their dire living conditions in New York City. He may have adopted a common attitude that Germans were better than 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 was 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).

Detail
Detail

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 their new gains in civil rights and entered into compromise with southern Democratic politicians who Nast knew to be insincere.

Blacks, who Nast once drew with dignity and respect, later became guffawing simpletons who didn’t know better and were 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 tarnished Nast’s aura, 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’s purpose was to fire 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 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).

Bravo Bravo close upWhen 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’s Weekly (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.

Pacific Chivalry, Harper's Weekly, 7 August, 1869
Pacific Chivalry, Harper’s Weekly, 7 August 1869

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.

“”Here’s a Pretty Mess!” (in Wyoming)” 1885

Here’s a Pretty Mess!” (in Wyoming) – 19 September, 1885 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly.Thomas Nast Source: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

“The Massacre of the Chinese at Rock Springs Wyoming” 26 September, 1885. Engraving from photo. Wikipedia Commons

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).

“Now “The American Must Go”” 1882

“Now “The American Must Go”” – 1 July, 1882 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Source: UDel-Walfred. Public Domain

Two months after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Nast included this small cartoon — a commentary on his belief of the Irish Americans’ continued thirst to exert power over the government.

Nast’s stereotyped Irishman, dressed in top hat, shamrock embroidered waistcoat and parade sash,  holds a stick in one hand and beckons to James Russell Lowell that he is a possible victim of expulsion or exclusion.

Lowell, a Republican, early abolitionist, political essayist, and highly regarded American poet, is depicted in his role as ambassador to the Court of St. James, serving at the pleasure of President Arthur.  According to a report in Harper’s June 10th issue, Lowell influenced the U.S. government to grant American citizenship to Mr. O’Mahoney, an Irishman who served in the American Navy, but afterward conducted business and ran for office in Ireland.

Harper’s reflected on the controversy, “The Irish-Americans complaint of what they call Mr. Lowell’s `flunkeyism’ is as absurd and ignorant as it is vulgar. Mr. Lowell, though personally popular, has always been criticised [Sic]in London society for his marked and often combative Americanism.”

With the anti-Chinese campaign successfuly resovled by the Exclusion Act, Nast’s Irishman turns to attack a new target, the freshly minted American poet  living in England. Emboldened by “The Chinese Must Go” champion Denis Kearney’s victory over the Chinese, this Irishman is brazenly confident that Irish power can decree who gets to be an American and who does not.

To remind his readers of Irish involvement in national politics, Nast places a framed picture of an Irishman raising a club above a Chinese man in an effort to drive him out of the United States. The caption reads,

“We have a new gospel of Americanism in this evening of the nineteenth century – a gospel that declares Kearney shall be supreme in California, and shall close the ‘golden gate’ against the Chinaman; and which prescribes that in the East the commissions of our ministers shall be countersigned by an Irish ‘suspect.’ ‘The American must go'” – From The Hour””

Nast warns that no one is safe. The Irish American beast must continually feed its lust for power. Who will be next?

Why Thomas Nast?

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was an amazingly talented and controversial artist during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Illustrator, painter, engraver, he is best known for his scathing caricatures and political cartoons that appeared in Harper’s Weekly’s Journal of Civilization, and which called out corruption and hypocrisy in American and especially New York City politics.They often referred to Nast as “Our Special Artist.”

Photograph of Nast by Napoleon Sarony, taken in Union Square, New York City. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Nast remains controversial today. His most recent nomination for induction into New Jersey’s Hall of Fame (Nast lived the majority of his time in Morristown) was doomed after a flurry of outrage and has been tabled for another year. With our politically correct fixations, he may never get in.

I first learned about Nast when I began exploring my family’s genealogy on sites like Ancestry.com. My lineage is 75 percent potato famine Irish, 25 percent Bavarian German. Raised in the Roman Catholic faith, if asked, my family identified ourselves as Irish-Catholic, but it was never a zealous, over-the-top kind of thing. I grew up thinking we were just “American” like everyone else. A sense of ancestral family history was never conveyed in our home. I was unaware of the experiences of my immigrant ancestors.

After seeing the 2002 film Gangs of New York, directed by Martin Scorsese, and watching an interview about the making of the film on Charlie Rose, I learned about a book titled Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante (1992) and I decided to get a copy. It was a fascinating account of the American immigrant experience during the Gilded Age of New York City. It was through this reading that I first learned about Thomas Nast. I was surprised to discover that the Irish were looked upon as low life and wrote about it in an early blog.

For my first graduate course, American Art and Culture in Context, each student was assigned to select an artist to represent each century of American history and determine the cultural context in which it was created and why it was significant. I decided to narrow my focus to a particular genre, political/editorial cartoons, and selected Benjamin Franklin as an artist for the eighteenth, Thomas Nast for the nineteenth, and Patrick Oliphant for the twentieth century. Cartooning has always held a fascination for me. As a teenager, I was an amateur pen and ink artist. I fancied myself as a cartoonist and envisioned my career landing in newsprint. I had every intention of selecting art as my major in college and formally honing my skills and artistic voice – but when I found out that all the art classes began at 8 a.m. in the morning, I decided to switch my major to English. True story. Such is the wisdom of a 17-year old that puts sleeping in late at the top of her priorities!

Nevertheless, for me, an appreciation for art, and a particular enthusiasm for the oeuvre of Thomas Nast endures. It coincides well with my curiosity about nineteenth century American history, family heritage, politics in general, and how art influences culture and vice versa.

Drunken Irish sitting on top of a gunpowder barrel
The Usual Way of Doing Things, by Thomas Nast, 1871. Source: The Ohio State University

Thomas Nast is misunderstood. Given my heritage, I claim every right to put Nast on a $hit list, but I have chosen not to do so. I am not pleased to see my ancestors depicted as apes. I want to know where this comes from and why the stereotype, which originated in Great Britain, migrated to the United States and continued to thrive here for generations. I want to understand what made him draw images like this. Nast did not invent this stereotype, but he certainly perpetuated it. The image at right, The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things has made many appearances on the Web as an example of his vile Irish defamation. It is not a flattering portrait. The image is usually cropped to remove the story below, nor is it considered in the context of events that caused Nast to create the image. To fully understand the image, we need to understand the back story (which I will elaborate on in a future post).

One of the benefits of being trained as a journalist (aided by my position as a middle child) is to make oneself aware of all points of view, and present facts in context. It’s easy to stand on a soap box or slip behind a screen and keyboard and rant and rave about policies and positions – an advocate who is right and who is wrong. It would have been very easy to emotionally react to these images and be offended by what at first glance appears as cruel, salacious and mean spirited drawings spewed from Nast’s pen, brush, and pencil. Those were “my people” he maligned. Few would blame me for jumping on the “outrage” bandwagon.

I did not react with anger or outrage. Instead, I’ve chosen to ask “why?” Was Thomas Nast a racist? A hater? And if so, how does that happen to someone? Bigotry doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is learned. How did his time, place and circumstance shape his views? Why does he appear to turn against the faith he was born into and raised for a time? Perhaps my minority Bavarian DNA has something to do with an internal need to find balance and explanation. I wanted to get as many sides of the Thomas Nast story as I could. As these pages and blog posts unfold, I will share the images in historical context, supported by academic research and established differences of opinion, including my own. Fair assessments based on facts. Those afternoon courses in good old fashioned journalism did not go to waste! You are welcome to draw your own conclusions, and by all means, share them.

Therefore, it is the purpose of this site to define who Thomas Nast was, what his politics were, his general philosophies and determine what exactly was his beef with the Irish and the Catholics? How did he treat other minority or immigrant groups? Scholars and students of Thomas Nast will generally agree he was a product of his time, he adopted and practiced a new form of Republicanism that was hard won by Abraham Lincoln, which advocated toleration for all races and creeds. When Nast called out the Irish or the Catholics, he did so to protest specific behaviors or practices that he felt were an abuse of power or ran hypocritical of American democratic ideals.

William Meager Tweed photographed in 1870. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In Nast’s world, Irish and Catholics are inexorably intertwined with William Meager Tweed, the Tammany Hall Sachem or “Boss” that ran a corrupt “Ring” in New York City. Tweed was a Scots-Irish Presbyterian, and as a younger man was no admirer of Irish Catholics. All of that changed when Tweed quickly figured out the political value of this massive immigrant population. He cultivated the allegiance of the Irish and the Roman Catholic Church for expedient political reasons. In the view of many at the time, especially for the Republican, Protestant ruling elite, Tweed’s arrangement was a malodorous quid pro quo – votes for favors. That the Irish allowed themselves to be so manipulated by Tweed and how a particular church grew and benefited directly as a result of Tweed’s support with public funds is at the heart of Nast’s ink and ire.

Thomas Nast did not have a fundamental problem with the Irish or with Catholics. His family faith was Catholic! Nast was consistent in calling out corruption and hypocrisy wherever he saw it emerge. Had it not been for their political alliances, which in Nast’s view involved stolen elections and misappropriated public funds, there would be little reasons for Nast to attack the Irish Catholics. His pen would turn on anyone, or any group, who he felt had turned on his or her principles or moral code. I will examine Nast’s use of symbols and stereotypes and seek to explain, rather than excuse their employment in his work and commentary. Everything Nast drew, was executed with deep conviction. One may not agree with Nast’s conclusions, but those who are informed of his life and times find it difficult to question the well of integrity and consistency from with which Thomas Nast drew his creative inspiration.