Category Archives: Columbia

Power of the Cartoon Cover

On Monday, December 7, 2015, Bill Bramhall, editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News published the following image of presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, in response to Trump’s announced policy of denying Muslim immigration to the U.S.

The image was placed on the cover of the daily paper, overlaid by an updated and paraphrased version of Martin Niemöller’s iconic and poignant quote from 1963 about his inaction regarding Adolf Hitler:


The image shows the Statue of Liberty as a victim of Trump’s political terrorism. Lady Liberty, the beloved symbol of American values and immigration, is beheaded.  A bloated Trump raises his weapon of choice, a scimitar,  historically associated with Eastern and Ottoman cultures. In effect, Trump balances his own scales of justice with her head in his other hand. The remainder of her majestic body lies prostrate, her torch has tumbled away — her welcoming beacon of light is extinguished.

Bramhall’s image brings to mind Thomas Nast’s 1871 double-paged cartoon,”The Tammany Tiger on the Loose – “What are you going to do about it?””

The Tammany Tiger Loose
“The Tammany Tiger on the Loose – What are you going to do about it?” by Thomas Nast, 11 November 1871. Source: The Ohio State University

Though not a cover, (many of Nast’s cartoons were featured as covers), this cartoon received an equally coveted double-page spread in the center of Harper’s Weekly, the premier illustrated weekly of its era. A portly Tweed, whom Nast dresses as a Roman emperor, sits in his imperial reviewing box and gloats upon his weapon of choice, the Tammany Tiger as it takes down Columbia, Nast’s preferred personification of American values.  Drawn 15 years before the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, Nast favored Columbia as the maternal symbol to represent the American nation. Her cousins, Lady Liberty and Lady Justice, distinguished by a crested helmet and the scales of justice respectively, appeared less often as substitutions for Columbia, but frequently as sisterly companions.

Tweed’s tiger looks straight into its audience and bears its teeth, poised to tear into Columbia’s neck. Columbia often carried a sword, symbolizing the strength of her resolve to protect American values of tolerance, fairness, and compassion. Her weapon has left her grip, broken apart by the force of the beast’s pounce. Like Tweed, the tiger arrogantly asks, “What are you going to do about it?”

Thomas Nast, known as the “Father of American Caricature” or alternately as the “Father of the American Political Cartoon” rose to worldwide attention and wielded significant political power by the deft and powerful strokes of his pen — the ire in Nast’s ink often appeared on the cover of the illustrated weekly magazine, Harper’s Weekly. To get his message across Nast and other great cartoonists of the time employed the ego-cutting tools of caricature: ridicule, physical exaggeration, and careful placement of symbols, to elicit emotions from readers and viewers. Nast is best known for excoriating and bringing down New York politician William M. “Boss” Tweed through these techniques. The visibility and power of Nast images continued for two decades as undeniably effective weapons against corruption.

Few escaped seeing his images. Apocryphally, Tweed is famously quoted as saying, “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”

According to Nast’s biographer Alfred Bigelow Paine, Tweed representatives tried to entice Nast with bribes to tempt the artist to stop maligning the city boss. Intrigued, Nast strung the agent along, seeing how high he could negotiate the bribe. It reached $500,000, a tremendous amount of money for its time. Nast refused to be bought.

This New Yorker cover from 2008 elicited a great deal of conversation and controversy.
This The New Yorker cover from 2008 elicited a great deal of conversation and controversy.

The American editorial or political cartoon in the twenty-first century grasps an uncertain future. The genre thrived in Nast’s era, a time in which photographs could not easily be mass reproduced for the print media.  In the century that followed, modern political cartoons traditionally found their stage off the front page, yet, placed in a venerated position in the editorial sections of daily and weekly newspapers. The photograph took over on covers. There were exceptions, of course, the New Yorker magazine being the most notable, today giving prominence to the cartoon cover with provoking results.

The tradition of home delivery or buying a paper at a newsstand and enjoying that publication at the kitchen table or office desk— physically leafing the pages of content and sharing sections among family and friends, assured these editorial cartoons would be seen multiple times.

With the demise of many print editions of newspapers and magazines, new generations of readers are now able to cherry-pick their news from online offerings. Some fans of the art form fear that these hand-drawn visual commentaries, and appreciation for what Donald Dewey has called The Art of Ill Will, might lose their historic influence, or get lost among the many clickable headlines, losing ground to the altered digital photograph — satire by Photoshop.

Bramhall’s cartoon offers hope that the cartoon caricature is still beloved and still has the qualities to pack a powerful punch. Bramhall’s image rose above the fray and was instantly picked up across media outlets and shared prolifically on social media.

The New York Daily News use of Bramhall’s cartoon as its cover, therefore, is in the best tradition of an excellent and scathingly successful takedown of a public figure by an editorial or political cartoon, drawn and delivered, much like Trump’s sword, as a blunt yet an effective courier of raw truth. In the best New York City media tradition, the cartoon exposes both the disturbing and the ridiculous.

In our saturated and specialized markets, editorial cartoons must compete for broad attention. But when they are timely and deftly drawn, these black and white lines of editorial expression expose stark realities through exaggeration. Ah! To dish out the glorious tool of ridicule, a technique Trump wields with expertise and lately, to great effect.

Like Nast and Bramhall’s cartoons, the crème de la crème of caricature will always rise to the top — viral-worthy, these images and the artists who create them, serve the public good by striking a tender national nerve.

If Nast were around today, he’d be proud, and perhaps, a little envious.

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.

Celebrating Thanksgiving: two coasts – two interpretations!

A direct contrast of how the American East and West coast differed toward the Chinese, and other immigrant groups, is shown in two illustrations of an American holiday, both titled Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.  These two cartoons demonstrate how a.) influential Harper’s Weekly was as a publication across the entire nation and b.) how differently these regions approached the issue of immigration and communicated their opinions to their audience. (Double-click images to enlarge viewing).

Harper’s enjoyed a national circulation. The San Francisco Wasp catered to the proclivities and prejudices of its local readership. Wasp historian Richard West writes that there is little evidence that The Wasp was distributed east of the Rockies, though a few issues must have been transported by long distance readers. Nast’s comings and goings were documented in California newspapers. As Nast’s popularity and celebrity grew, other artists, including those employed at The Wasp, enjoyed poking fun of Nast in caricature. Eight years after Nast drew his utopian drawing of an all inclusive America, The Wasp responded with its own version.

In 1863, Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. However, the Civil War interrupted national observance of the holiday as southern resentment lingered, preventing old Lincoln adversaries from fully accepting the proclamation. Nast’s Thanksgiving illustration was published one year before it became a national holiday in widespread practice.

Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner, 20 November, 1869, by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, Source: Library of Congress
Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner, 20 November 1869, by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, Source: Library of Congress

Nast’s large woodcut encapsulates the artist’s Radical Republican vision of America after the Civil War. “Nast, Harper’s Weekly and the Republicans they represented did not or could not acknowledge the value of different cognitive, verbal, and social styles, or the sociology behind those differences. They assumed that a universal standard of civility was both natural and necessary” (Hills 118). Nast forms this ideal into an all-inclusive American feast. In the lower corners the sentiments, “Come One Come All,” and “Free and Equal” set the inclusive tone.

At the head of the table is Uncle Sam. He carves a large turkey while an array of nationalities and immigrants politely wait to be served. Universal suffrage and self-governance are featured as the decorative centerpiece. On the back wall, Nast includes his heroes Lincoln and Grant, who flank a center portrait of George Washington, framed by Liberty and Justice. At the table, opposite the host, is Columbia, Nast’s favorite personification of America’s values and promise. Columbia’s kindly face is turned toward her Chinese male guest and his wife and child. It is a very unusual scene since most Chinese in America were men whose families remained in China.

imageRounding out the holiday banquet are representatives of an array of races and religions waiting patiently to begin the feast. The work is more an illustration than an editorial cartoon, the genre from which Nast would later earn international fame with his caricatures of William A. Tweed. Only the Irishman exhibits any hint of mild caricature that could be seen as derogatory. Nast would become highly critical of Irish Americans, but he includes an Irish couple as deserving guests. Nast includes the stereotype to make clear to his audience of Protestant Americans, that Irish Americans had right to be at the table. Nast does not draw the Irishman’s wife in “Bridget” caricature and she is attractive.[1] Babies speckle the drawing. This is a family portrait.

The guests represent many races and ethnicities and they dine at the table as equals. Nast does not insert them as mere tokens. He imbues them with respect and dignity. They are people capable of relationships and human emotion. The guests at this American banquet are all different, yet bounded by their common humanity.

Covered dishes everywhere wait to be unveiled. At America’s table, there is enough for all to be served. Behind Uncle Sam is a large painting titled “Welcome” which depicts Castle Garden, the processing center for all immigrants in New York City at the time.

This image represents Nast’s true political, utopian philosophy —his belief in a united America and the potential for the nation’s promise.

In 1877,  eight years after Nast’s work, George Frederick Keller produced an identically titled cartoon, undoubtedly a direct spoof of Nast’s holiday illustration. This tattered example (the only apparent extant copy) is seen below:

Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving, by G. F. Keller, San Francisco Wasp. Library of Congress, Collection: The Chinese in California 1877

The two artists differed in the power and autonomy their editors extended. By 1869, Nast had become a local celebrity had little editorial oversight. Unencumbered by owner/general editor Fletcher Harper (much to the chagrin of Harper’s news editor George Curtis who wanted more artistic control) Nast enjoyed free artistic rein. It is generally accepted among Nast and Harper’s scholars that Nast’s images reflected his personal beliefs rather than a directive from his editors or publishers. Richard West has suggested that The San Francisco Wasp artist G.F. Keller only drew what he was assigned. The fact is, little is known about the artist’s political feelings and there is no indication that Keller had the editorial impunity that Nast enjoyed.

Keller’s image includes several international cultures present at the holiday table. Each male guest at the table is feasting upon his national dish, indicating a refusal to assimilate. There are no wives and children joining them.

Keller's Chinese man dines on a rat
Keller’s Chinese man dines on a rat

Front and center, an Englishman with long sideburns and hand-held spectacles is aghast as he watches a Chinese man begins to dine on a rat.

Columbia, wearing the outfit of a cook, sassily stands at the threshold of the kitchen and dining room. Her character is the most faintly drawn. No one is dining on the same food. Hats of many countries dangle from hooks on the wall. A very racialized African American butler preens as he serves Uncle Sam the holiday meal —the turkey. Interestingly, it is not cooked, indicating a lack of civilization and raw hunger. Uncle Sam represents the ruling Republican government and prefers the company of barbarians. Keller’s Uncle Sam leans back, utensils at the ready, eager to dig into his bird. The holiday meals and experiences are not shared at this table. Unlike the Nast drawing, where everyone waits until Uncle Sam carves the turkey, here the guests dig into their own individual feasts. No one is waiting for the host to start. They have no manners. They possess no decorum. The message is clear: it is a mistake to include these outsiders at America’s table.

[1] The prevailing Irish stereotype in New York was of lower-class, monkey-faced simpleton. Nast likely employed the slightly simian look in this work because his audience would not have been able to distinguish the Irish from the English without the stereotype. This was one of Nast’s kinder renditions of the Irish. His animosity toward the Irish would be developed or artistically realized when New York politics saw a larger Irish role.

2. For a very fine account and amazing examples of The Wasp illustrations, I recommend Richard West’s book The San Francisco Wasp An Illustrated History. It is a must have for anyone interested in political art or nineteenth century cartooning and illustrations. West remains the definitive historian on The Wasp and he is often cited in many scholarly works on editorial cartooning, including Nast.

“Devastation” – 2 October, 1880

cartoon showing Chinese as pigs devouring a farm
“Devastation” 2 October 1880 by George Frederick Keller, The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp

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).

Detail of Keller's Chinese pigs in Devastation
Detail of Keller’s Chinese pigs in Devastation

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.

Bibliography of quoted sources.

“The Youngest (America) Introduces the Oldest (China)” 1868

“The Youngest Introducing the Oldest” 18 July, 1868 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Source: UDel-Walfred

In his contemporary biography of Thomas Nast, Albert Bigelow Paine describes Anson Burlingame, seen seated right behind Columbia, as “one of America’s noblest diplomats” who served the U.S. as Minister to China. In the late 1860s, Burlingame, at the behest of Prince Kung of China, undertook a role as special ambassador charged with the mission to introduce China to other nations of the world.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, the United States had its eye on technological and manufacturing advancements and territorial expansion.  New York, as a major port city, would soon become an economic and cultural center.

As historian John Kuo Wei Tchen explains, the Chinese were forced by the Opium Wars to accept certain international markets, and “sought to gain reciprocal rights for the Chinese in the United States” (168). The result was a diplomatic envoy led by a New England lawyer, Anson Burlingame, who ultimately negotiated the treaty named in his honor, The Burlingame Treaty in 1868.

In Nast’s highly detailed wood engraving, Ambassador Anson Burlingame, assumes a modest role, content to allow Columbia to offer the international introductions. A photograph of the meeting served as a resource for Nast’s first depiction of the Chinese diplomat. The diplomat would become prototype for Nast’s symbol of China, as Columbia was for America. “John Chinaman” or “John Confucius”  subsequently appears in many future cartoons. In this depiction, he shares the stage and equal ground with Columbia.

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

Columbia extends an affectionate gesture, and touches the Chinese man on the shoulder. It is reminiscent of her poignant request of the American people during Reconstruction to consider the African American Civil War veteran into the American community – an image Nast drew three years earlier.

As a whole, world leaders approach the Chinese guest with respect. But Victoria and Albert, representing Great Britain, stand in the back of the group, on the right and in the shadows. They appear apprehensive. A fearful looking pontiff represents the Vatican. He is shocked by the heathen’s presentation to civilized society. The Pope hides behind a giant column.

As the voice of America, Columbia steps up to remind the assemblage that China is an ancient and civilized nation worthy and entitled to full respect. Columbia is the bridge across fear, and the agent of cultural exchange as she declares, “Brothers and Sisters, I am happy to present to you the oldest member of the Family, who desires our better acquaintance.”

The “Family” includes other European leaders. In addition to England and the Vatican, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and a representative from the Ottoman Empire, suggested by the Fez, all step up to approach the Chinese diplomat. They extend all due diplomatic courtesies. The Chinese man wears a hat of the Manchu court, a skull cap with a wide, upturned brim and a mandarin-styled tunic with a large crest or seal. In his left hand he carries a partially opened fan. His right hand grips Columbia’s right hand.  A star-like halo glimmers atop Columbia’s tiara. She is the enlightened one in the room.

Out of respect, almost everyone has removed their head coverings, with the exception of the Catholic pontiff, Queen Victoria and the Ottomon representative at rear, left – all of whom have yet to emerge from the back of the group for a closer look. An Irishman can be seen far right, his top hat placed upon his chest. His smile is pleasant. Everyone else basks in the novelty and significance of the event, albeit with mixed looks of curiosity and anticipation.

A brief editorial ran with the illustration. The editor acknowledged the perception of China as a backward country, yet felt that China deserved of all the rights extended to other nations,

It is, as our picture in this issue shows, the youngest nation introducing the oldest to the friendship of Christendom. It is, indeed, strange to hear a Yankee speaking for China, and claiming for her that kind of regard and respect which the world has not been accustomed to feel for the old empire.

Despite all that we hear and know of its ancient and elaborate civilization, there is still the feeling that it is the most grotesque of barbarous nations, and that there is wholly wanting that plane of common interest and knowledge and sympathy upon which the nations of Christendom are accustomed to meet. The popular image of China is an enormous country surrounded by a high wall, probably with broken bottles strewn along the top, where the people wear their hair in a long tail, squeeze the feet of the women into deformity, cultivate tea, and eat rats and dogs. The world at large has much the same feeling toward China that the genuine cockney John Bull of eighty years ago had toward France. It was a country in which the people spoke a vile lingo that nobody could understand, wore wooden shoes, and ate frogs.

This introduction of the Chinese to the world’s civilized nations served as a respectful way to introduce China to Harper’s Weekly’s readers. The magazine attempted to counter some misconceptions and feelings of “otherness” which swirled around American perceptions of Chinese people. Nast and Harper’s Weekly made an effort to show America that China while different, possessed a history and tradition that afforded China with recognition as “most favored nation” status expressed in the Burlingame Treaty of 1868.

“Church and State – No Union Upon Any Terms” 1871

“Church and State – No Union Upon Any Terms” 25 February, 1871 by Thomas Nast. Source: Library of Congress

Nast and his publisher Harper’s Weekly strongly believed in the separation of church and state. No other issue rankled Nast more than the public school issue and no other issue called to define where the line to separate church and state should be drawn. William M. “Boss” Tweed supported Irish Catholic demands for public funds to establish their own sectarian schools. If allowed to stand unchecked and unchallenged, Nast feared the repercussions of all groups and religions dragging their special interests before the state for favors and custom dispensations.

In this marvelously detailed drawing, the scene Nast so feared is put into reality. Each figurehead of a religious state is pulling from behind a pull toy representing their church (or non-church). They approach Columbia at the foot of the state building.  Elevated to emphasize her wisdom and revered status, Columbia will entertain none of their appeals, she shoos them away with her hands. Above her head enlightenment and wisdom glows.

On the right, most of what is in tow are miniature churches or religious buildings that resemble playhouses.

Detail
Detail

A German and Chinese delegation approach together on the left. They are the only two who have brought people, not buildings with them as examples of need. A  German smokes a pipe while he waits for  his audience with Columbia. He totes a beer-drinking, august regent who sits upon a barrel and raises his foamy mug in the air. Next to him is a Chinese diplomat who has brought along a “Heathen Chinee” kneeling on a padded four-wheeled cart. His posture is erect, and he is naked from the waist up. His long queue falls past his back and behind the cart. The face of the kneeling figure is highly stylized. By mentioning the Chinese as heathen, Nast acknowledges the rights of believers and non-believers to equally petition the government, even if the answer is “no.”

All religions, non-religions (heathens) and factions are on the same level of their appeal – each represents a desire to advocate for their cause and constituency. Columbia rejects their pilgrimage. Columbia rests on her principles, and will not grant or refuse favors on an individual basis. All are accorded the same consideration. All religions are separate from the state.

To the right, Nast draws an array of cupolas, domes spires and steeples and the plain A-frame roof of Mormonism gathered to receive official favor. A Native American stands among the congested crowd of churches, waiting to be anointed with the approval of the state in the same way New York City had blessed the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church at center right, displays the most elaborate replica of a house of worship.

At the center, a Union soldier, and what appears to be a man wearing a Tam o’ Shanter cap, bars the entry to the state steps with crossed rifles.

Nast signed his name at the foot of the Chinese diplomat.

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.

“Something That Will Not Blow Over ” 1871

Thomas Nast drew Something That Will Not Blow Over, a double-paged illustration in Harper’s Weekly, in direct response to the Orangemen’s Riots of July 1871. It features a large central drawing, with various smaller vignettes surrounding the main picture.

Like many of Nast’s larger images, good and evil is divided, shown in the left and right images respectively.

Center image Something That Will Not Blow Over

In the mid to late nineteenth century, for the Protestant ruling class in New York City, percieved “Irish” and “Catholics as synonymous terms.  Irish meant Catholic and Catholic meant Irish.  Italians and eastern European Catholics also arrived in New York, but were not as visually prominent as the Irish. German immigrants, the second largest immigrant group, tended to reside alongside other Germans from the same region.  German Catholics worshiped separately from Irish Catholics, and had their own Catholic churches and communities (Nadel, 29, 37-39).

At first, the  Nast family did not live near the largest German community, Little Germany or kleindeutschland, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but resided further west on Greenwich Street. Bavarian immigrants were scattered across several wards in New York (Nadel 37). Later the Nast family moved to  William Street in the Fourth Ward, closer in proximity to the Sixth Ward that included a large Irish constituency.  Irish American historian Timothy Meagher asserts that the Irish often tangled with Germans, and anyone they saw as competitors (223). Nast’s attacks against Catholics may have grown from this experience, but more likely formed from his observations of the Irish and their political positions. As his biorgrapher Paine suggests, Nast appears to single out the Irish “for the reason that a large percentage of the foreign immigration–an important political factor–professed that creed” (Paine 150). Tweed was the thread that wove many Irish and Catholics together in what Republican Protestants viewed as one neat, corrupt package.

For Nast, the Orangemen’s riots of July 11-12, 1871 confirmed the violent Irish stereotypes that his German culture and neighborhood may well have believed and pre-disposed him to adopt. The 1871 street riots provided Nast with the excuse to not reprise his 1863 draft riot imagery, but strongly reinvent or embellish it.

For several years, Irish Catholics in New York City celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with an annual parade. New York City’s Protestant Irish, calling themselves “Orangemen” — members of the Loyal Order of Orange named in honor of British King William III, Prince of Orange. William III had defeated a Catholic James II for dominion over Ireland, wanted an equivalent celebration. The Protestant Irish insisted their own parade to celebrate their own history. In 1870,  they had gotten their wish, a parade of  Protestant Orangemen-Irish. This first parade resulted in mild disturbances — and future Orangemen parade permits were banned.

Nevertheless the Orangemen petitioned for another public celebration for the summer of 1871. A permit was extended. Irish Catholics were outraged. Tweed succumbed to his constituents’ demands and ordered Mayor A. Oakley Hall to retract the permit for the Orangemen to celebrate.

The vacillation of official approval only proved to stoke Orangemen’s desire to exert their rights.

After Protestant outcry and pressure, Governor Hoffman issued Order 57, allowing the Orangemen to publicly march in the streets of New York City. The July parade would go on, and like its predecessor a year prior, the parade was not a peaceful assembly. Several hundred Irish Catholics heckled the paraders and disrupted the procession, hurling bricks, stones, clubs, and shot at women and children waving to the parade from their homes. The violence escalated to murder.

Referring to the incident as the Tammany Riots, Harper’s reported that two soldiers and one policeman with Irish surnames protected the parade participants and were killed along with 44 civilians. But the New York media could not help but fixate on the apparent hypocrisy that Irish Catholics could have a parade, but Protestants could not. Along with the 46 fatalities, anadditional 26 police and soldiers and 67 civilians were wounded (Harper’s July 29, 1871 p. 564).

Nast relied on his arsenal of elaborate visual commentary and symbols to convey the layers of complexity and political maneuvering that surrounded the incident  Like his Emancipation drawing of African Americans in 1864, Nast used a montage to depict the ancillary events that culminated in the central image. On important occasions or events of conflict, such as this riot, Nast called upon the imagery of Columbia as America’s advocate of fair play, morality, and when appropriate, admonition to wrong doers.

As an Irish Protestant-Catholic conflict. racial prejudice were did not contribute to the Orangemen’s riots. Religious, not racial tensions were involved in the argument or the violence that ensued. Nevertheless, Nast resurrected the images of the 1863 draft riot lynching and violence as the central ingredient in which to examine a completely different incident. Nast’s 1871 revision hardly resembled his original eyewitness account of 1863, where he is ambiguous about Irish involvement on Clarkson Street, a scene of racial lynching in 1863.  By linking the Orangemen’s riots to the draft riots, Nast loses the ambiguity of Irish and Catholic involvement in the public violence. In the eight years that elapsed, Nast’s views against Irish Catholics changed and intensified. Something That Will Not Blow Over is a strong condemnation of the Irish and the Catholic religious hierarchy whom Nast viewed as meddlesome instigators. What had changed in the transpiring eight years that led Nast to strongly implicate Irish Catholics? Politics. William M. Tweed entered Nast’s arena and dominated three years of his artistic and professional life, beginning in 1869.

Something That Will Not Blow Over exposed what Nast perceived as a destructive trinity of Tweed-Irish-Catholic partnership. Nast laid the blame squarely upon all three. The cartoon ran at the climax of his three-year tirade against Tweed.

In the center image, an African American hangs lifeless under a lamppost marked with the date of the draft riots. The Colored Orphanage that was destroyed during the 1863 riots once again smolders in the background.  A mob bearing raised weapons shout in outrage. To the lower right of the murdered African American, a Roman Catholic cleric faces his flock. His hat designates he is Monsignor or a Bishop. He does not give a blessing to the soul hanging by a rope nor to the dead and injured piling up on the ground. He is not heading off the crowd. This priest is not a figure of comfort. He clutches his crucifix close to his body and his posture, with his head down-turned, face unseen, and his shoulders raised in a hunch, suggest a devious and cowardly role in the midst of the melee.  The mob is his congregation, his faithful, and he does nothing to stop their attack.

Detail. Walking away from the rioters
Detail. Walking away from the rioters

To the right, a diverse group of people walk away from the mob scene. Uncle Sam, a symbol of the federal government, is front and center, but he is withdrawn, either putting away his sword or is second guessing his impulse to draw it forward. The wiser course may be not to engage or incite the mob, but defuse them by walking away. Only the Chinese man, on the right, flees from a sense of fear. The rest of this crowd turns away from the mob, and looks back at the instigators as they do. Their faces and body language show dejection rather than fear. They are not making a hasty retreat. The feathers of a Native American Indian, Kaiser helmets, Italian fedoras, a saucer cap and queue of the Chinese man are all part of Nast’s Republican “come one  come all” symbolism used in other cartoons that advocate a utopian vision where different races and cultures can live together in harmony.  Nast included heads of state, such as a morose Queen Victoria, to help to express his view that the whole world might be ashamed by the Irish-American state of affairs in New York City. A violent outburst like this would never have been allowed to happen in her country. No wonder Victoria looks so dejected.

In the back of the crowd to the right, two banners are visible, one reads “Liberal Catholic Dollinger and Hyacinth.”  It is important to note that Nast placed a Catholic element on the positive side of his drawing. Ignatius von Döllinger, a progressive Catholic scholar and priest from Nast’s native Bavaria, vehemently and publicly opposed the dogma of papal infallibility. He was excommunicated by the Pope, which raised him to the rank of exalted hero at Harper’s (June 17, 1871) and in several Nast images (July 17, 1871). A courageous, independent thinker was a Catholic to be admired! Only a month before the Orangemen riots, Harper’s had saluted Dollinger’s moral courage and position as moderate Catholic, “Dr. Dollinger declared that the dogma of papal infallibility contradicted both Bible and tradition, and would create interminable conflicts between state and church” (Harper’s June 17, 1871).

In Nast’s view, heroes like Dollinger were a rarity. Conservative, ultramontane Catholics set policy in the Vatican. On the left side, the American flag is upside down, a clear signal that the nation is at peril. The overarching statement, “Has no caste, no sect, any rights that respect the infallible ultramontane Roman Irish Catholic is bound to respect” reinforced the widely held Protestant notion that the Irish did not have minds of their owns, nor did they respect any tenets except those preached by the Catholic Church. Directly opposite, a Catholic flag, adorned with the Irish harp, a very Irish looking Tammany Tiger, Nast’s animal symbol for the political power of Tweed’s machine, and the papal standard, fly high over the land. Here, Nast suggests that the menace will become transcontinental – what starts on the East Coast will soon blow westward. Beware California, the Irish Catholics are coming! Public schools are seen crumbling on the Irish side, Nast’s snide reminder of the municipal funds which poured into Catholic schools at the behest of Tweed and at the expense of public interest. To the right, the Protestants must contend with the spires and steeples of Catholic cathedrals, churches, and schools supported by tax dollars.

Other smaller scenes show the series of events that led up to the Orangemen’s riot.  The top right image’s theme is honor or lack thereof. King William III, Prince of Orange, with two police escorts, shows his written permission to parade to St. Patrick, the patron saint of Irish Catholics. It is not offered meekly, slipped across the floor as Tweed has done with his documentation (see lower left and right images). King William’s authorization is placed on a pedestal. William is trying to reason as one leader to another. He offers a compromise – a quid pro quo – promising that the Protestants will abandon their parade if the Catholics will do the same. He asks for fairness as if to say, we will give up our rights, but will you? Despite any animosity, he is approaching his adversary as an equal. Nast does not extend any artistic courtesy toward St.Patrick. Nast laid an array of stereotypes upon St. Patrick.  Nast creates an obstinate figure who will not listen to reason. Despite his higher position he delivers his “Nivir” in heavy Irish brogue. Although he wears the robe of Catholic hierarchy, he looks like an ape. His attitude is anything but saintly. Hands on hips, exposing his vestments and crucifix, he turns away from William, according him no respect.

Detail from lower right. A uniformed Irish thug raises a sword to the kneeling Tweed ring

Below, Tweed grovels on the ground. He and his cowardly cohorts take orders from their beastly Irish masters. The Irish are not afraid to fight for their cause. The Irishman’s saber is central to the image. He stares down his subordinates. Finally, the lower center image shows a dejected, perplexed, and once powerful Tammany Ring; Boss Tweed, Sweeney, Connolly and Hall, are on the ground trying to figure out what went wrong. Tweed can’t win. He and his cohorts are losing ground. Over them hovers a rhetorical question, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”

Harper’s represented two perspectives in the form of prose. The author(s) are unknown, but they were likely written by the editorial staff.

And Pat’s Complaint:

At the top left of the image, Columbia places laurels on the heads of New York CIty policemen, presumably some of whom are Irish, for their valor and adherence to law during the riots.
At the top left of the image, Columbia places laurels on the heads of New York City policemen, presumably some of whom are Irish, for their valor and adherence to law during the riots.

Columbia appears as Nast’s voice. Columbia freely rewards valor, shames cowardice, and highlights hypocrisy.  She does not suffer fools, particularly Tammany fools, lightly.  Put into service by Nast, she will do his bidding, rising to a noble call to defend  her country without hesitation.  While these vignettes are important,Nast’s deployment of Columbia on the issue’s cover image, Bravo Bravo, deserves special attention.

Complimenting Harper’s reports of Irish policemen serving valiently during the riots, Columbia places laurels upon the heads of the police who aimed to keep the peace between the warring factions. Are these public servants Irish? They could be.

If so, the image defies the allegation by some scholars that Nast always drew the Irish as beasts and thugs. It is easy to pick out the Irish that Nast criticizes. He uses stereotype and caricature to call out their crimes.  How does Nast show an Irishman in a favorable light? Policemen in uniform would not be wearing the waistcoat or a top hat. In the line of civic duty, It could be argued that whenNast drew Irish policeman, he drew them to look like any other American from a European ancestry. It is easy to prove a negative. Far more difficult to spot the everyday ethnicity, including Irish, whom Nast felt behaved admirably.