Category Archives: Uncle Sam

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 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 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 stares aghast as 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.

“Uncle Sam’s Farm in Danger” 9 March, 1878

Chinese drawn as locusts invading a farm
“Uncle Sam’s Farm in Danger” The San Francisco Wasp by George F. Keller. 9 March, 1878

George F.Keller’s 1878 piece, Uncle Sam’s Farm in Danger adopted and mastered classic invasion imagery and animal symbolism to devastating effect.

Swarms of Chinese locusts descend on an American farm, Uncle Sam’s farm, no less. The insects, perched for destruction, have sinister Asian faces. The editorial accompanying this double-page pictorial in the Wasp’s March 9, 1878 issue states in part,

Our artist has represented the possible immigration as a swarm of grasshoppers driven along by the inexorable hand of Famine…Uncle Sam, armed with the House Committee Resolutions, assisted by his hired man, the California Press, is striving to stay the torrent of yellow grasshoppers. It seems almost impossible for them to succeed; and it is certain that they will be overcome by the invader unless assistance of a more substantial kind be rendered” (Wasp 498).

The image is disturbing. Precisely what The Wasp had hoped to achieve. With this image, Keller perfected the technique of invasion/infestation imagery.

As the caption and supporting article made clear, The Wasp stoked the fear that widespread famine in China would drive millions of additional Chinese to emigrate to America. Something was needed to stop this danger! The Wasp knew exactly what fear-mongering buttons to push. An uphill battle faces Uncle Sam as he fights off this swarm. Meanwhile the dark specter of Chinese famine ushers and emboldens new invaders to feast on an American bounty while the getting is good.

The caption reads “Seventy Millions {sic} of people are starving  in the northern provinces of China. All who can do so are making preparations to come to the United States. Look out for the grasshoppers, Uncle Sam.”

Evoking this particular insect symbolism was a clever choice to grab attention and arouse the emotions of Californians whose livelihood depended on the continued success of the agricultural sector.  The grasshopper was acutely feared in California’s agricultural community. In 1828 a grasshopper plague caused near famine, and in the great plague of 1874-1878, the crop-munching insect was responsible for wide-spread destruction in the Midwest, causing western governors to organize days of prayer to keep the tide from coming westward (Schlebecker).

“California was the locus of Chinese advances in agriculture” (Takaki 89). The Chinese were anything but locusts.The irony is California agriculture success directly benefited from the transformative innovations contributed by the Chinese. “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” (Takaki 89). Keller also used agricultural imagery in his cartoon Devastation.

For an example of Nast using invasion imagery, see his “The American River Ganges

“Hard to Please the “White Trash”” 1878

A vexed Uncle Sam stands alone as minorities stand behind him
“Hard to Please the “White Trash”” – 6 April, 1878 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Source: UDel-Walfred. Public Domain

When Thomas Nast used Columbia in his cartoons, she represented American values in the purest sense. Nast is often credited with inventing Uncle Sam, but he only popularized the figure and used the tall thin man with a top hat and stripped pants as a symbol for the American government. As this picture above depicts, Uncle Sam can get confused. He finds himself at the mercy of opposing political parties and is often trapped, not by what might be right, but what legislation has passed as the law of the land.

The cover of this issue also shows Uncle Sam with his leg in a snare. In the following issue, he is seen in a full-paged cartoon, seemingly confused as he reflects upon his nation that all is not well in his American house.

After the Fifteenth Amendment granted African Americans the right to vote, Southern Democrats continued measures to disenfranchise the African American vote.

Uncle Sam is confused. He is supposed to hate the “nigger” because he has earned the right to vote, and at the same time, he is supposed to hate the “Yellow Dog” because he has not yet earned the right to vote. Uncle Sam does not know how to react. He has lost track of the direction his government. The Chinese face a difficult dilemma. Legally prevented from earning citizenship, they cannot enjoy the same rights extended to other immigrants. The Chinese may not testify against whites, or intermarry. Since Chinese females are refused entry to the U.S. because they are all considered prostitutes, Chinese men in America have little hope for a normal family life. Prohibited by law to join to American culture, they are penalized for not assimilating. The Chinese find themselves in a no-win situation. The legislative body spoke and Uncle Sam is forced to represent these mandates. California’s state symbol is the bear. The bear trap on Uncle Sam’s leg is painful and there is no easy way out of the attitudes and values he is forced to represent. Uncle Sam is being directed by “White Trash” of free lawmaking men, and there is no pleasing them.

A Chinese launderer is seen to the right. His head is slightly turned as if to acknowledge Uncle Sam’s grumbling. But he goes about his washing tasks, knowing Uncle Sam can do nothing about the current state of affairs.

On the right, an African American figure relaxes against the wall. Nast drew a similar figure in 1879, Every Dog “(No Distinction of Color)” Has His Day.“ He is unaware or unconcerned with Uncle Sam’s conflict.

 

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 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.

The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things, from Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 2, 1871

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 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 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 – advocate who is right and who is wrong. It would have been very easy for me 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 “outraged” 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.