Thomas Nast often used Columbia and ladies Liberty and Justice in his most important cartoons. See Power of the Cartoon Cover for examples of how Nast and his successors used the American maternal symbol to affect emotion on important national discussions.
This powerful cartoon by Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune follows in this tradition.
In the winter of 1885 and the following summer of 1886, the Chinese were driven out of the Northwest Territories, in what is now Washington and Oregon State. After the Gold Rush, many of the Chinese driven out of California moved upwards into the Northern territory.
In Seattle, Chinese found mining and railroad work. As in Wyoming, the Knights of Labor, an organization with a large Catholic membership were visible actors arguing for an eight-hour work day. To their credit, they called for an end to child and prison labor exploitation, but they were no friend of the Chinese, a race of people the Knights of Labor deemed inferior, and whose willingness to work at a reduced rate was regarded as unfair competition toward white labor interests.
Venture capitalists in the mining and railroad knew exactly what they were doing when they recruited the hard-working Chinese to work for less. The employers cared little about the reaction of organized labor. It is less clear how fully aware the Chinese as pawns to be manipulated by management to break labor union demands.
As in many other industrial towns, mob-pressure ultimately broke out against Chinese labor, and the frustrations found release through mob violence. White workers demanded the Chinese leave. Many Chinese fled to the Portland area where they were welcomed and fit in with the foreign trade atmosphere of the city.
Of the Seattle incident, Harper’s editorial concluded, “It is a national disgrace that having excluded Chinese immigration by law, the hundred thousand Chinesewho are so unlucky as to be caught in the country are outraged by foreign mobs, while the government politely regrets that it can do nothing. The coming of the Chinese may be a curse. But if it be a curse, it is now prohibited by law, and honest Americans upon the Pacific slope should be the first to defend those who are here against brutallawlessness.”
Nast’s second to the last cartoon on the Chinese was drawn four years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Eleven years elapsed since he brought Columbia or her any of her relatives (here in the form of Lady Justice) out of retirement to stand strong on behalf of the Chinese. Denis Kearney and his white labor cohorts achieved their goal, but the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act failed to satiate their fear and mob activities against the Chinese persisted. They wanted all Chinese out, even those few Chinese who met the legal requirements to remain in the U.S.
In the cartoon, Chinese men lay prostrate on the ground from recent violence. On the right, structures smolder in the distance. In her right hand, Lady Justice heaves a large sword as white workers on the ground notice her interrupting presence and begin to leave.
The weighing pans of Lady Justice’s scales are incomplete. One of her pans is missing. From this end of the scale, a white man dangles from the neck as if lynched or hung in order to compensate for the death of the Chinese victim. The dead Chinese figure is cradled upon a bowl-shaped container. His queue hangs over the edge. His hands rest on his chest as if posed in death. The arms of the scales, however, are in balance. Justice has brought her incomplete measuring instrument to the violent scene and weighed each victim despite the missing component. There are no other obvious white victims. Her broken scales signal that the Justice system is broken and has failed the Chinese workers.
Despite her faulty scales, Nast’s Lady Justice balances the scale with a white victim. The white man obviously weighs more, yet the atrocities are equal in her eyes. Did Lady Justice scoop up a white perpetrator in a biblical “eye for an eye” moment, exacting justice despite a broken instrument? Has she turned the tables on the white workers, adapting their tactics of lynching to send her message? Works cited
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?””
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 Nast’s 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.
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 and sharing sections among family and friends, assured these editorial cartoons would be seen multiple times over.
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. It possesses 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 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 and provoking us to consider both the obvious and the subtle.
If Nast were around today, he’d be proud, and perhaps, a little envious.