Category Archives: Thomas Nast

Dehumanization

Dehumanization is a technique which intentionally depicts a human being as anything other than a human. Representation of an individual or groups of similar individuals with animal or bestial characteristics turns a dignified human being or members of a race, into an “other.” Representation as inanimate objects (see Magnetic Blaine) also dehumanizes and converts a person into a material item or gadget, and therefore easily discarded or diminished. When humans are classified and conceptualized as lesser “others,” superior humans feel entitled to rule, dominate, judge and punish “others” without guilt.

Group of Vultures waiting for the storm to blow over - let us prey,"13-September-1871 by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly. Source: Library of Congress
Group of Vultures waiting for the storm to blow over – let us prey,”13-September-1871 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Source: Library of Congress

For example, Nast depicted Tweed as a vulture, an unattractive and corpulent version of the predator. He reduced Catholic bishops to a swarm of crocodiles in “American Rivers Ganges.”  Taking cues from English artists he admired, Nast and other cartoonists frequently depicted Irish Americans as apes.

George Frederick Keller would depict the Chinese on the West Coast as invading forces of locusts or hordes of pigs. They were also depicted as cephalopods  or octopuses.

Satire cartoon of Chinese laborer working abnormally fast
“What Shall We Do With Our Boys” – 3 March, 1882 by George Frederick Keller for The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp

“Octopuses had long been the icons of the top-down authoritarian power in Europe. In industrializing America,however, a revolutionary nation that imagined itself free of corruption of Europe also became entangled in monopolies controlling previously unimagined wealth and power” (Tchen/Yates 4-5). See “What Shall We Do With Our Boys” to see a Chinese worker drawn as an octopus, monopolizing labor.

Euro-Americans with a belief in their Manifest Destiny celebrated visual depictions and iconography of “epic confrontations” of the brave against “inferior hordes” and can be seen in many French and English paintings of the American West (Tchen/Yeats, 163-164). The archetype of the “lone hero” such as Custer and his last stand, or Crockett at the Alamo, appealed to American patrons of the arts whether it be the high art of oil painting or the low art of cartoons. Battling against the Chinese hordes fit nicely into this new American archetypal way of perceiving “others.”

Dehumanization may assign unpleasant behavioral traits onto a race or ethnic group, e.g., Chinese as rat eaters.  With the arrival of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, many Anglo-centric populations in Europe and America were willing to incorporate the theories as justification to define African Americans or Irish Americans, and later the Chinese,  as sub-strata human beings, or as occupiers of a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder. Dehumanization also occurs through language to define and reduce individuals in simplistic derogatory terms e.g., “gooks,” “mics,” “spics,” “kikes,” “niggers,” “chinks.” Therefore, through word and or image dehumanizing an individual or group of people reinforces the mindset of the oppressor a justification for their prejudice.

“A Paradox” – 22 May, 1880

“A Paradox” 22 May, 1880 by Thomas Nast for Herper’s Weekly.. Source: UDel-Walfred, Public Domain

This Chinese man is being pulled in two directions by two opposing political parties. Typical of most Nast drawings, the bad is on the left, the good on the right. The party figures also represent their regional power base -—the West for Democrats and the East for Republicans. We do not know from what location the Chinese man is standing or how he arrived at this particular tug-of-war predicament. Rare for Nast, there is no detail as to location, no props to suggest a political issue or visual guides to suggest how one might think about the Chinese man’s unfortunate situation. He is is simply being pulled apart.

On the right, the Republican Party, and particularly the Radical Republicans to whom Nast aligned and identified, wanted the Chinese to remain in the United States and argued for their admittance for American citizenship.  Radical Republicans stood first and foremost from a position of morality and believed that the Chinese were no different than any other immigrant group. Mainstream Republicans and those Republicans whose constituency represented business, industry and capitalism, wanted the Chinese to remain. Good workers were good for business. Capitalists admired the hard working, non-striking Chinese and fiscally benefited from their industriousness and productivity. Ideal employees, the Chinese kept to themselves and completed their work. Chinese went where work was offered and perhaps unknowingly, served as pawns to break strikes, drive down labor costs and inflame white workingmen’s charges of coolie or slave labor. break strikes and drive down labor costs.

Democrats in the South also wanted the Chinese to teach newly freed African Americans a lesson.

“Democrats developed ingenious methods of limiting black voting power” and included the poll tax, property qualifications, literacy tests, and anyone convicted of petty larceny (and many such arrests resulted) restricted African Americans from exercising their newly gained voting privileges (Foner 422).

Plantation owners in the Deep South also looked to punish African American labor and reduce dependance on black labor’s earning power by encouraging immigrant labor that included the Chinese. One Alabama newspaper appealed to Irish and German immigrants to earn $10 a month on the farms. “Even more attractive were indentured laborers from China, whose “natural” docility would bolster plantation discipline and whose arrival, by flooding the labor market, would reduce the wages of blacks” (Foner 419).

“Give us five million of Chinese laborers in the valley of the Mississippi,” wrote a planter’s wife, “and we can furnish the world with cotton and teach the negro his proper place, (qtd. Foner 419-420).

Democrats along the West Coast however, wanted the Chinese driven out all together. As Euro-American populations increasingly traveled west, any Chinese earning money was seen as competition — as the enemy. This view took on an even greater urgency during the economic crash of the late 1870s.

The Chinese man central in this cartoon is confused and startled. His queue stands up straight like an exclamation point in reaction to the tug of war over his person, his talent, and his future. He is both a prize of labor and a future victim. Representing the average Chinese worker, he has nowhere to call home, no political party with whom he could place absolute trust.

The Chinese were prohibited from becoming citizens in the United States and could not vote. This prohibition did not extend to any other immigrant group.

By 1880, some Republicans like James G. Blaine aligned less with pro-business and bent under the populist pressure to rid the country of the purported Chinese threat.

“The American River Ganges” 1871

The concern of Roman Catholic interference in public education is brilliantly rendered in what many scholars regard as Nast’s most famous, and well-executed anti-Catholic image. The image was published twice in Harper’s Weekly. The first, on September 30, 1871, implicated Tweed, and reprised on May 8, 1975, with Tweed removed.

The American River Ganges, Harper's Weekly, September, 1871 by Thomas Nast. Original image of Nast's most famous anti-Catholic image, Tweed was safely out of the picture,literally and figuratively when the image was republished on 8 May, 1875 along with other minor modifications. Library of Congress
href=”https://thomasnastcartoons.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/american-river-ganges-sept-1871.jpg”> The American River Ganges, Harper’s Weekly, September 1871 by Thomas Nast. The original image of Nast’s most famous anti-Catholic image, Tweed was safely out of the picture, , literally and figuratively when the image was republished on 8 May 1875 along with other minor modifications. Library of Congress[/
The image is a tour de force of imagination and caricature technique. Nast dehumanized the Catholic bishops by turning them into reptiles. They emerge from the water toward New York’s shore. Two clergies in the foreground have stereotype Irish faces. Slithering out of the water on all fours, their ornate, jewel-encrusted bishops’ mitres (there are three types, one plain and two that are more elaborate), specifically the pretiosa, worn on Sundays or feast days, are drawn as salivating crocodile jaws ready to devour, or feast if you will, on school children. A Protestant minister or teacher, with his Bible, tucked in his waistcoat, and his saucer hat tossed to the ground, stands defiant, guarding several fearful children who are shivering, praying and cowering as certain death approaches. In the middle of the scene, several bishops have come ashore, ready to clamp down on defenseless, and dispensable non-Catholic students.

A Chinese boy on his hands and knees attempts to flee and Native American and African American children press up against the cliff with nowhere to escape. Nast shared a Republican, utopian vision that public schools should be open to all children, regardless of race, creed or ethnicity, and he drew many images of an idealized public school system that included a diverse student body learning in harmony. With the Catholic initiative to create their own schools with the support of public funds expressly underway with support from Tweed, Nast feared separate sectarian schools for all ethnic and racial groups.

“Nast believed that bringing children together into the public sphere, under democratic control, muted their religious and racial differences and molded a unified, multiethnic [sic]American society” (Justice 174). Tweed and the Roman Catholic Church interfered with that vision.

Detail from above, Tweed and his Ring cohorts lower a Protestant child to be ravaged by Catholic clergy
https://thomasnastcartoons.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/detail-american-river-ganges.jpg”> Detail from above, Tweed and his Ring cohorts lower a Protestant child to be ravaged by Catholic clergy[/captio
Perched atop the cliff, Tweed and members of his political machine lower Protestant children to the feeding grounds below. Columbia, Nast’s ever- faithful symbol of American compassion and justice, is bound and led away to a hangman’s gallows.

ps://thomasnastcartoons.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/tammany-hall-church.jpg”> Tammany Hall with Irish Flags assumes Catholic Church architecture

[/caption]At the center top of the image, a U.S. Public School is seen crumbling and an inverted American flag, a sign of distress, flies prominently. On the other side of the river, stands a Vatican shaped “Tammany Hall” (This was changed in 1875 to read “Political Roman Catholic Church.”) Flags of the Papal Coat of Arms, and the Irish harp, fly atop the side domes. Attached to the right of the RC Church is the “Political Roman Catholic School.”

In Harper’s Weekly, the image was accompanied by an essay written by Eugene Lawrence, a nativist and frequent contributor to the periodical. Lawrence blamed the Catholics for the end of the public school system and the Catholic aim “to destroy our free schools, and perhaps our free institutions has been for many years the constant aim of the extreme section of the Romish Church.” The essay continues its attack on Jesuits and the daring aggressive spirit of the ultramontane Irish Catholics who govern New York. The author also touts brave European governments who have dared to challenge Roman Catholic influence of their schools and other institutions.

The institutions that managed New York Public Schools claimed their schools provided non-sectarian education. Catholics disagreed, noting Protestant-based libraries, textbooks and “the daily reading of the Protestant version of the Bible” in classrooms as an unsatisfactory environment for learning (Heuston 54).

“The establishment of a new state school systems in the United states seemed to substantiate Catholic fears that the attitudes of European secularists were taking root in America” (Heuston 169). Prior to the Civil War, Catholics wanted to participate in the public school system without endangering their faith. Catholics were encouraged to pursue the issue after New York Whig Governor William Seward suggested in 1840 that state aid might be given to Catholic schools (53). Henceforth, New York’s Catholic Church, led by Archbishop John Hughes, began strategies to thwart the new school system by working through their political contacts, but these attempts were unsuccessful. A preoccupation with the Civil War and its aftermath diverted attention from the issue of public education and the topic would not surface again until the close of the 1860s.

Catholics once again picked on the issue and “Republican Party and Catholic Church leaders in the late 1860s and early 1870s joined a bitter battle of words over the future of public education” (Justice 171).

Justice suggests the American Public School became a metaphor for the northern lifestyle; “the public school evoked the small-town Protestant backbone of the Republican Party” (180). In 1869, Tweed as head of Tammany Hall and acting State Senator, “snuck a provision in the annual tax levy bill for the city through the state legislature” that provided 20 percent of the city’s excise tax be earmarked to Catholic schools (Justice 182). Tweed’s crafty maneuver set Republicans to outrage in motion and solidified scrutiny by the Republican-based press, such as The New York Times and by Harper’s. Nast’s crusade against Catholic interference in the public school system coincided with his attacks on Tweed’s other political malfeasances. His attacks on Tweed tripled Harper’s Weekly circulation (Hess 100).

Nast’s principal opposition to the Catholic Church rested on what he feared was its aim to subvert the nation’s public school system by diverting public funds to sectarian schools (St. Hill, 70). Benjamin Justice’s research on Nast’s feelings about Catholic interference in the public school system provides valuable insights. Justice feels that American antagonism toward Catholics resulted from its rapid rise due to immigration and the American Catholic Church’s adoption of conservative ultramontane Romanish leadership, which “increasingly insisted on separate, publicly-funded schools, made it incompatible with republican government and unfit to offer mass education at public expense” (175).

Justice surmises Nast’s vicious blasts at the public school issue were a part of a broader attack on the relationship between Tammany Hall and the Catholic Church and were pointed objections to “Catholic political ascendency over the state” rather than an attack on Catholic culture or Catholics as individuals (183).

The image is often used as evidence by Catholics to prove Nast hated Catholics. He did not. After all, it was the faith of his family. Nast produced many similar images, but all of his Catholic cartoons hover over two issues – The New York Catholic Church’s demand for public funds to create their own sectarian schools (which they got thanks to their alliance with Tweed) and the conservative Catholic (ultramontane) concept or doctrine of papal infallibility, wholly adopted by the New York Catholics.

Blind allegiance to an infallible monarch figure perplexed Protestants Republicans. They viewed American Catholics allegiance to the religious figurehead across the ocean as un-American. As Heuston and others have made clear, the Irish-Americans’ devotion to a pope was clear evidence that American Catholics had no desire to assimilate into American culture and behave as independently-thinking individuals.

Most Protestants misunderstood papal infallibility to mean that the pope could not sin. [See Catholic definition] Nast, whose family and religious culture in Germany had aligned with reformed Catholicism, could not fathom that any Roman pontiff could see to be beyond human error. Nast believed what other Republicans and Protestants believed of papal infallibility – that the pope could do no wrong, not make mistakes, and whose word or orders must be carried out by the Irish-Catholic flock. For Nast and most Republicans, it was a doctrine and philosophy with the potential for extreme abuse.

Nast’s campaign against Catholic interference in public schools equaled if not rivaled his obsession with Tweed. Nast saw Tweed and the American Catholic Church in New York as symbiotic and co-dependent. This particularly rankled Nast.

Thomas Nast’s religious (and Catholic) background

Thomas Nast was born on September 27, 1840 in Landau in der Pfalz, then an autonomous region of  what is now modern Germany. His homeland is also known as the Rhineland-Palatinate, a region that had historic links and union with Bavaria. He and his siblings were baptized at Roman Catholic Church of Sankt Maria (Saint Mary’s) in Landau (FamilySearch.org). Landau was a Protestant and Catholic region close to the French border. Religious tensions existed – most notably among Catholics. “When the Nast family left Bavaria in the 1840s, events in Europe pitted the Pope and Catholic orders –especially Jesuits–against liberal reformers and radical revolutionaries” (Justice 175).  The Jesuits adhered to a traditional or ultramontane dogma that acknowledged papal infallibility and advocated a strong Roman Vatican control over its flock. Though it cannot be firmly established, Nast’s art deriding the Pope’s inability to commit human error, suggests the Nast family sympathized with the reformist camp of Catholics practitioners.

In America, Nast was not a good student, with a language barrier being an early obstacle. His official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, suggests that Nast’s was educated in Catholic schools and that the strictness and “rod and ruler” punishment disturbed Nast and did little to encourage his study habits. There are references to stern-faced female principles, but it is not expressly stated these women were nuns. Nast’s Catholic education came to a close at the age of 13, when “he left when required to confess, regarding his sins as too many and too dark for the confidences of the priest’s box” (13). What dark sins could a boy of 13 have?  The passage is ambiguous and an active imagination might draw inferences of abuse. If some level of abuse existed it would explain the origin of negative feelings toward Catholicism or clergy.  Harper’s also confirms Nast’s Catholic education in a short biographical profile, written at the height of his popularity and his anti-Catholic attacks (HW Aug. 26, 1871).

The Nast family arrived in New York City in 1846, just before the largest numbers of Irish Catholics arrived to escape the Famine. Nativism, an anti-foreign sentiment felt by many American-born Protestants toward new immigrants, was in full swing.  Nativism grew as a direct response to increased immigration to America and peaked, when immigration did, during the Famine era. Between 1845-1855, an estimated one and a half million Irish, most of whom were Catholic, flared nativist concerns of Catholic takeover and prompted nativists to organize into secret societies, such as the Know Nothings.

When the Nast family established their American home, distrust of foreigners in general had narrowed to fears of Irish Catholics in particular. The Nast’s family’s attitudes for or against the Irish cannot be established. If they were reformist Catholics, the conservative brand of American Catholicism would not have been to their liking. There are other circumstances to consider as well.

Historians William Meagher, Kerby Miller and others agree that German immigrants fared better than most of their European counterparts at the time, possessing education or skills in trades that enabled them to quickly find employment and better living conditions in New York City. Paine makes a point to describe the first Nast family dwellings in New York City as being on west side and  “respectable.”  Most new immigrants occupied the Lower East and Lower Central part of Manhattan.The Nast family may have considered themselves in a higher class, than Irish who, as immigration progressed, arrived with less skills and options, and were forced to live in destitute conditions in notorious neighborhoods.

If the Nast family were reform-minded Catholic practitioners, they may found the Episcopalian faith an attractive alternative to practice and a means to distinguish themselves from Irish Catholics who observed a more conservative or ultramontane doctrine.  Immigration historian Kerby Miller theorizes many early Catholics made the religious change in order assimilate into dominant Protestant culture in America.

A clue to their religious shift might be indicated in burial place of Nast parents, who are interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (Hayes 4). “The fact that she [Nast’s mother] is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, a non-sectarian cemetery might be somewhat of a clue,” wrote Father Morris of the New York Archdiocese,  “It was rather rare, at least until prior to the Ecumenical Council for Catholics to be buried in unconsecrated ground.  If so, special dispensations were required” (Email 30 Apr. 2012).

According to research done by Benjamin Justice, when Thomas Nast and his wife relocated to Morristown, New Jersey in 1871, they became members of the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and their children were christened in that faith.

Whatever his religion was at the time, Nast began his professional career at the age of 15.  In New York City, the most notable weeklies were Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, the New York Illustrated News, and the most respected and prominent, Harper’s Weekly. Nast had worked for them all–and in that order– but happily achieved his goal to work full time at Harper’s in 1862 (Paine 28).

Established press organizations in the northeast promoted Protestant-based, pro-Republican ideals, and during the Civil War, adopted a pro-Union stance in their editorial positions. The two leading daily papers, The New York Tribune and the New York Times, were Radical Republican and mainstream Republican.” The publishers and staff of Harper’s Weekly, including cartoonist Thomas Nast, were mainly Protestant or secular liberals”  (Kennedy, HarpWeek). The more progressive Tribune led as an early advocate for abolition and “attacked Lincoln daily, demanding emancipation” as a cause for Lincoln to adopt (Paine 79). Other media followed suit.  Harper’s was “strongly Methodistic in trend” (Mott 86) and part of a publishing center that “loathed the political culture and style of the Democrats and resented their control of the metropolis,” (Fischer 8).

Northeastern Methodists joined other Protestants in a strong alliance of moral authority and civic duty that sought freedom of slavery. “No single issue had greater power than slavery to shape Methodist political responses,” (Carwardine 597) and Northeastern Methodists, like most Protestants in that region, were Lincoln supporters.  In 1861, a year before he began as a staff artist at Harper’s, Nast married Sarah Edwards, the daughter of English-born parents. Nast figuratively and literally, as historian Robert Fischer suggests, “married into old-line Yankee culture and embraced it with the fervor of the prodigal son come home” (29).  His background, the culture of his employers (cartoon historian Donald Dewey writes that the Harper family had an established anti-Catholic bias) the American Catholic stance against abolition, and marriage into an Anglican family all coalesced to shape Nast’s Republican views, steering him to  a conviction of Protestant superiority.

For his book, Paine interviewed Nast toward the end of his life. His anti-Catholic drawings are not discussed in detail in the large biography. But in an effort to explain away the anti-Catholic reputation that had obviously followed Nast, Paine echoed an earlier Harper’s profile piece and wrote, “He was inspired by no antagonism to any church–indeed he was always attracted by Catholic forms and ceremonies” (150).

Outrage over Nast’s treatment of Irish Catholics continues to permeate in modern Hibernian societies and is the primary reason that “the Father of the American Political Cartoon” has been kept out of New Jersey’s Hall of Fame.

“The Latest Edition of “Shoo Fly”” 1870

“The Latest Edition of “Shoo Fly” – 6 August, 1870 by Thomas Nast. Source: UDel-Walfred. Public Domain

A month after drawing the Martyrdom of St. Crispin, Nast returned with another unflattering cartoon about the Chinese entering the shoe making profession. Here Nast takes advantage of several puns.

A demonic Chinese laborer is at his cobbler’s bench, he has replaced St. Cripin as the cobbler. Western-styled shoes in various stages of progress surround him, but the Chinese man does not wear the product he makes. The Chinese artisan wears his native mandarin jacket and loose pants. Nast will always draw the Chinese in native dress, including Chinese footwear, often with thick grass or straw soles and topped in cloth or hide.

The cobbler is clearly annoyed by the soul or “sole” of the displaced St. Crispin, the Catholic patron saint of shoe cobblers and leather workers. The insect, named St. Crispin, is not happy. He is distressed to see a Chinese take the place of his usual patron,  a Christian or Catholic white shoe cobbler. A halo hovers over its head, formed as the heel of a shoe. Its large wingspan is troublesome. Two of its six legs are clenched in fists, ready to attack the foreign cobbler.

The Chinese man cowers at the insect’s arrival. Because his large hat or douli hangs on the wall out of reach, he grabs the closest weapon he has, the end of his long queue to swat or “shoo” the shoe fly away. The shorter hairs on the top of his queue bristle. It is hard to determine if the cobbler is angry or afraid His posture would indicate defeat, but his expression, particularly the raised eyebrow and sideways glance, indicate a determination to get rid of the pest. A partially opened umbrella stands at the opposite end of the bench.

He clearly wants to be left alone to sell his “Cheap Shoes” to the public. In case the message is not clear, “Cheap Shoes” appears twice in the cartoon. Because Chinese workers were considered cheap and often slave or  “coolie” labor, they were able to undercut the prices of their competitors.  The Chinese were in fact brought in as strikebreakers against the interests of the Knights of St. Crispin labor union. See Martyrdom of St. Crispin. In Massachusetts, threats of violence and rock throwing were thwarted by heavy police protection. Nast’s signature, which varied in its placement and size in his cartoons, was prominently shown on a large rock at the foot of the cobbler’s bench. Nast typically had many options to insert his signature. By placing it upon the rock, does it mean he is willing to throw the first stone?

Harper’s Weekly sided with pro-capitalist positions and therefore consistent as a pro-Chinese publication. Like a the majority of post-Civil War, eastern Republican dailies and weeklies, Harper’s viewed the overall benefit of trade and utilizing a Chinese workforce to benefit progressive American venture capitalists. In their view, the Chinese benefit to business interests outweighed any concerns that Democratic labor might have (Tchen 181).

That summer in the streets of New York City, Mayor Oakley A. Hall, a Tweed associate and inside member of the Tammany Ring, spoke before a rally. Oakley joined many pro-labor speakers who convened a rally to fire up “The Chinese Question” among the workingmen constituency in the city. “Hall opposed the “importation of tawny slaves” by the “wicked combination of capitalists” and “man-stealers” (Tchen 179).

The outcry from these rallies often blurred the distinction between willing competitive labor, cheap labor and coolie labor. Democrat charged the Republican leadership with hypocrisy  –  a group who fought against slavery, but were too willing to use slave labor in the Chinese.

Other New York papers, particularly the New York Herald, with largest daily readership in the nation, went back and forth on its opinion of the crisis. Its editor, James Gordon Bennett held his finger to the political wind and initially “waffled on the Chinese laborers, but ultimately landed for tolerance on the Chinese question” (Tchen 181).

Disagreements and concerns between labor and capital interests never reached the sustained conflicts that were soon to be stoked in California Sand Lots later in the decade.  Capitalists on the West Coast did not have an alliance of local media to alleviate concerns and or suggest positive images on behalf of the Chinese.

But Nast was anything but positive with “The Latest Edition of Shoo Fly.” Nast could be counted on, almost with a knee-jerk reaction, to strongly counter any position or issue that Tammany, its cohorts or white Irish, pro-labor constituents would support. In fact, Nast’s next cartoon on the topic The Chinese Question, issued a strong indictment against Tammany support of white labor positions. The six months that elapsed between the two cartoons shows a significant evolution in Nast’s thinking. This may be a direct result Nast’s developing investigation of Tweed and a distaste for anything that was condoned by the Tammany touch.  Nast’s subsequent Chinese cartoons offer a stronger defense of the beleaguered Chinese Americans, though he would occasionally regress into employing crueler stereotypes, Nast kept his pen focused on the hypocrisy of white immigrants, most of whom Nast defined as Irish, who viewed themselves as the definitive Americans charged with protecting the country from a Chinese threat.¹

But in this cartoon, Nast had yet to find conviction with his position. He decided to portray cheap shoes and cheap labor through the eyes of the Chinese’s detractors. If Nast meant to poke fun at white labor, it was a cheap joke, made at the expense of the Chinese.  In 1870, as the shoemakers controversy trampled up and down the East Coast, Nast appears to have been swept up in their sentiment and found a use to exercise satire. This example is not representative of his evolved sensibilities that Tweed’s alliance with white labor interests helped only helped to focus.

¹For more explanation on Irish-Chinese conflicts click here.

The influence of Harper’s Weekly

In his A History of American Magazines Frank Luther Mott, credits Harper’s Weekly as the most important magazine on the East Coast in the nineteenth century. The management of the Harper brothers, the writing and editorials of George W. Curtis and the drawings of Thomas Nast “combined to make Harper’s Weekly popular and powerful” (40).

Harper’s Weekly, The Journal of Civilization” with a Thomas Nast cover,                    8 February, 1879

Exactly how powerful is difficult to quantify, at least in terms of circulation numbers. Mott makes a point to establish that publishers of this era did not maintain circulation statistics and were offended by inquiries into same.  The information was deliberately mysterious. “There was something sacrosanct about circulation figures.” But by 1874, Mott had determined that Harper’s monthly and weekly publications had subscription lists of more than 100,000 each (6).

This of course does not account for newsstand purchases, and pass-along readership shared with a neighbor or friend.[1] According to an Ohio State University website that maintains a measure of Harper’s scholarship, the weekly had a circulation of 120,000 in 1861. Perhaps owing to the circulation mystery to which Mott alludes, Wikipedia quotes circulation figure of 200,000. HarpWeek, the official website for the magazine states, “Its circulation exceeded 100,000, peaking at 300,000 on occasion, while readership probably exceeded half a million people.” Whatever the figures were, by the standards of its time, Harper’s Weekly stood as a successful publishing venture. Nast’s artwork, particularly his political caricatures, is widely acknowledged[2] to be the major ingredient of the magazine’s growing prosperity.

Images mattered.  The illustrated weekly format provided an alternative conveyance for messages that resonated with the public, sometimes more effectively than the word. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1870, the first year such data was recorded, illiteracy rates for whites was 20 percent and for blacks, nearly 80 percent.

With a weekly deadline, illustrated magazines grew in popularity complementing hard daily news with images. Photos were reproduced by copper plate etchings and illustrations were drawn to scale, often in reverse to be transferred from paper, or drawn directly on, a large cross-section of boxwood. The areas not receiving ink– the white areas– meticulously carved out by a staff of engravers, leaving only the black lines in relief to press against the page. (A mind-boggling feat given the prolific crosshatching in Nast’s work). In New York City, the most notable weeklies were Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, the New York Illustrated News, and the most respected and prominent, Harper’s Weekly. Nast had worked for them all–and in that order– but happily achieved his goal to work full time at Harper’s in 1862 (Paine 28).

Established press organizations in the northeast largely promoted Protestant-based, pro-Republican ideals, and during the Civil War, adopted a pro-Union stance in their editorial positions. The two leading daily papers, The New York Tribune and the New York Times, were Radical Republican and mainstream Republican.” The publishers and staff of Harper’s Weekly, including cartoonist Thomas Nast, were mainly Protestant or secular liberals”  (Kennedy, HarpWeek).The more progressive Tribune led as an early advocate for abolition and “attacked Lincoln daily, demanding emancipation” as a cause for Lincoln to adopt (Paine 79). Other media followed suit.

Harper’s was “strongly Methodistic in trend” (Mott 86) and part of a publishing center that “loathed the political culture and style of the Democrats and resented their control of the metropolis,” (Fischer 8). Northeastern Methodists joined other Protestants in a strong alliance of moral authority and civic duty that sought freedom of slavery. “No single issue had greater power than slavery to shape Methodist political responses,” (Carwardine 597) and Northeastern Methodists, like most Protestants in that region, were Lincoln supporters.  In 1861, a year before he began as a staff artist at Harper’s, Nast married Sarah Edwards, the daughter of English-born parents. Nast figuratively and literally, as historian Robert Fischer suggests, “married into old-line Yankee culture and embraced it with the fervor of the prodigal son come home” (29).  His background, the culture of his employers (cartoon historian Donald Dewey writes that the Harper family had an established anti-Catholic bias) and marriage into an Anglican family all coalesced to shape Nast’s Republican views, steeped in the conviction of perceived Protestant superiority.

Journalistic historian Thomas C. Leonard offers the term “visual thinking” to describe the effect Nast’s woodcuts had on Harper’s readership. The public had learned to rely on Nast’s cartoons as a legitimate form of truth telling.  “Harper’s Weekly drew power from common knowledge of illustrations as well as the public’s hunger to see more of them” (102). Leonard cites the Nast’s series of anti-Tweed images as the most effective use of visual thinking.  Nast’s images resonated and were eagerly awaited by Harper’s readers. Many Nast scholars maintain that his “dammed pictures”[3] led to Tweed’s downfall and to his eventual arrest in Spain by someone who saw the fugitive’s likeness in the magazine. The illustrations added to the overall dialogue.  “Harper’s verbal descriptions often missed the visual clues and the radical elements of [that] Nast’s images” were able to capture (Hills 111).

Nast’s power and popularity gave him free artistic reign at Harper’s. He drew what he wanted. “Nast drew only what he was moved to draw for Harper’s Weekly, having no editorial or ownership responsibilities. Nast refused to draw anything he didn’t believe in” (Dewey 10). Nast enjoyed artistic autonomy under Fletcher Harper, but this artistic freedom dissipated after political editor George W. Curtis assumed the managing editor role after Fletcher’s death in 1877.

__________________________________________

[1] Citing various modern sources, the consensus is that printed magazines are “passed along” on average four times. This figure may be conservative for the late 19th century.

[2] There are numerous references to Nast as a major contributor to Harper’s success. Paine, his biographer, quotes Colonel Watterson as saying, “In quitting Harper’s Weekly, Nast lost his forum: in losing him, Harper’s Weekly lost its political importance” (528).

[3] Tweed is reputed to have said, “I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!” This quote appears in almost every account of Nast’s work. It may be true, it may be apocryphal.

Thomas Nast was born and raised Catholic

In almost every biography or reference to Thomas Nast, he is described as a Protestant – and in some cases more specifically as a Lutheran. One scholar, Roger A. Fischer, deviates from this mold. In his book Them Damned Pictures, Fischer writes:

“Nast, born a Catholic in Bavaria and raised Catholic in a German neighborhood in New York City, converted to the Protestant faith as an adult.”  Fischer speculates that Nast’s marriage to Sarah (Sallie) Edwards was an entry into old world Yankee culture and embraced it (29-30).

I decided to do some of my own checking, and indeed, found Nast was baptized in Sankt Maria (St. Mary’s) Roman Catholic Church in Landau, Germany.  To view the German family archives site click here.

Fischer also credits Charles Press and Draper Hill for also acknowledging Nast’s Catholic roots. Most reporting on this has been lazy, with researchers repeating Nast’s Protestantism while overlooking his original family faith and traditions.

The American River Ganges, Harper's Weekly, September, 1871 by Thomas Nast. Original image of Nast's most famous anti-Catholic image, Tweed was safely out of the picture,literally and figuratively when the image was republished on 8 May, 1875 along with other minor modifications. Library of Congress
The American River Ganges, Harper’s Weekly, September, 1871 by Thomas Nast. Original image of Nast’s most famous anti-Catholic image, Tweed was safely out of the picture,literally and figuratively when the image was republished on 8 May, 1875 along with other minor modifications. Library of Congress

But if we are to fully understand Nast’s anti-Catholic drawings, his religious roots should not be overlooked, for this was the faith of his parents.

In nineteenth century America there were many reasons for Catholics to convert. Love may certainly have been one of the reasons. In my own family history, the reverse seems to have been true. My paternal great grandparents, Bavarian Lutherans, were very upset that their daughter (my grandmother) fell in love with, and at the turn of the twentieth century, decided to marry an Irish Catholic and convert to Catholicism.

Without precisely knowing when Nast converted, likely, there was more to it than just amoré. Nast emigrated to New York City in 1846, about the same time the potato crop was failing in Ireland. The Irish had been coming to America long before then – but most Irish emigrants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (about 70 percent) were Presbyterian (Scots or Ulster Irish) and 30 percent percentage were were other Protestants, such as Anglicans or Dissenters (Baptists or Quakers, William Penn being the most famous of the latter). Kerby Miller’s research indicates Roman Catholics comprised  a small minority of Irish emigres, and there were social, cultural and economic pressures for pre-Revolutionary Catholic emigrants to convert to Protestantism, typically to the very similar Episcopalian faith. As the American colonies were still very much under the influence of England, Catholics were afforded few property rights, an exception being Maryland and small parts of Pennsylvania.

After the Revolution and the enactment of  The Bill of Rights, Catholics in American could relax. After the Napoleonic Wars, Irish immigration to America picked up. From 1815 to 1840, a second wave of  Catholics left Ireland for better opportunities. These Catholics, generally speaking, saw the writing on the wall as their native Ireland  fell sway to British oppression. Increases in tithes and taxes and decreases in land ownership rights, particularly for Catholics, fueled their immigration to America, and also to Canada and Australia. Emigration to the latter two countries was encouraged by the British government who often underwrote the travel expenses.

These pre-Famine Irish Catholics arrived in America with agrarian skills and a bit of money in their pockets, poor, but not destitute. This small distinction enabled them to move out of East Coast port cities toward opportunity in the American West (at that time east of the Mississippi), and to the South. They did not congregate in large cities as the Famine immigrants were forced to do. Whether they converted or not, Miller suggests this second wave of Irish immigrants, were for the most part, accepted into American mainstream, in part because population numbers did not make them conspicuous. They did not stand out or appear to have congregated in large enough numbers to be alarming to the Protestant status quo which still dominated in the expansive American West.

This perception changed with the Great Famine and its aftermath. While historians like Kirby Miller  estimate about a million Irish of mixed faith came over from 1815 to 1845, they did so over a 30-year span and spread out all over the country. During the Famine years of 1845-1855, one and a half million destitute and desperate Irish emigrated to the Northeast region of the U.S., usually New York City, and there they conspicuously remained. Almost entirely Roman Catholic, the third wave of new arrivals had no money, nowhere to go, and few relatives to claim them. The first impressions these Irish Catholics left upon the New York and Protestant status quo was anything but positive.

They came to be known as the “shanty Irish” who are depicted in Gangs of New York (book and film) Sante’s Low Life and also Tyler Anbidner’s excellent, factual account of Five Points neighborhood, the most notorious of the the  quickly built, inadequate tenements of the Fourth and Sixth Wards. Most  Irish had little choice but to call the city tenaments home. They lived in slums under the most horrible of conditions with few skills or opportunities to improve their lot. As a result, many were forced to adopt vice and crime as a means of survival. If the Irish Catholics did find honest work, it was the most demeaning and menial of work as domestic help or as low paying textile workers and shirt makers. From a Protestant perspective, the Irish arrivals practice of a strange, cultist form of Christianity,  and their inexplicable worship a foreign man on a Roman throne,  further solidified the notion that the Irish stuck together like glue and didn’t  want to assimilate or become “American.”

Consequently, the terms “Irish” and “Catholic” became synonymous —absolutely interchangeable and derogatory in usage.

As a result, Protestant Irish no longer self-identified as Irish, preferring to make the distinction as “Scots/Scotch Irish” or” Ulster Irish” and some affiliating as “Orangemen”  in honor of William III of Orange who subdued Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne, or better yet, just plain American. They did not want their Protestant Irish ancestry associated with the slum Irish. The Germans immigrants who arrived before and around the same time as the Famine Irish, emigrated mostly for political reasons and left their homelands with money as well as useful skills — artisans with a trade which advanced their livelihood and living conditions in America. Although many nationalities and races were present at Five Points, the majority of skilled Germans lived in neighborhoods on the west side, in areas that are today known as Greenwich Village and Tribeca.

Nast’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine (also Mark Twain’s biographer) makes a point to place the Nast family in a “respectable” house on Greenwich Street. Paine does not mention the Nast family faith at all, but early on provides a hint of where Nast’s Catholic problem may have had originated:

His [Nast] early religious impressions were confusing. There were both Protestants and Catholics in Landau, and once at a Catholic church he saw two little girls hustled out rather roughly for repeating some Protestant prayers. This incident disturbed him deeply. He resented the treatment of these little girls. It may have marked the beginning of a bitterness which long after was to mature in those relentless attacks upon bigotry which won for him the detestation, if not the fear, of Pope and priest (6).

In New York City, Nast was educated in the Catholic faith, at least until the age of seven.  Never a promising student, his parents moved him to different schools to see if an academic spark would ignite. Paine continues,

A little later, by advice of his father he attended a German school though only for a brief period. He left when required to confess, regarding his sins as too many and too dark for the confidences of the priest’s box.  A brief period at another German school followed, and a term at a Forty seventh Street academy, considered then very far uptown. It was all to no avail. (14-15).

The mid-nineteenth century (1840-1860) saw a fervent rise in nativist sentiment and anti-Catholic rhetoric. The Know-Nothings rose and gained political power by essentially feeding into a growing anti-foreign, anti-Catholic paranoia.

“Catholic traditions continued to look dangerously un-American partly because they did not harmonize easily with the concept of individual freedom embedded in the national culture” (Higham 6).

They also drew very strong political lines — and politics would play a huge part in defining the anti-Catholic sentiment. Aside from their strange faith and odd practices and preoccupation with politics in their native Ireland, Catholics were successfully recruited by and subsequently aligned with the Democratic Party, which among other things, was staunchly anti-abolitionist. The Catholic Church took the unpopular position of not wanting to rock boat in their new home, on the issue of slavery. The Catholic Church was very keen to earn headway and inflfuence  in the U.S. They believed in the law of the land and that law included slavery. The official position of the church was to let slavery continue.

Republicans, the Know Nothing factions among them, found the Catholic position on slavery reprehensible. During the Civil War, the Democratic Party affiliated and aligned with the Confederate South, and despite exceptions and Union loyalists, the majority of Irish and Catholics sympathized with Confederate side.

These pressures may have propelled a young Thomas Nast, and others like him, to convert.  It may have been in pursuit of love (his intended was Espicopalian), the taint of Irish Catholicism, or from a desire to ascend and better assimilate in New York society. Given Nast’s staunch abolitionist views, it is not unreasonable to assume the American Catholic  Church’s position on slavery had a lot to do with his conversion and continued skepticism of Irish Catholics in New York.

Nast did not hide his Catholic roots however. At the height of his fame during the Tweed era, Harper’s Weekly introduced their star artist to readers with a brief biography and engraved photo. Nast was described as Catholic, a fact that Harper’s clearly felt bolstered Nast’s integrity and the real purpose of his attacks on the American Catholic Church’s relationship with Tweed and New York City finances. It was the issue at hand, and not the people or faith that Nast attacked.

The pro-slavery position of Northeast Catholics during this time is not something that is well known among today’s Catholics. Modern Catholics  might find the revelation of their history on this issue in America shocking. Certainly, it is not a part of a history that American Catholics choose to highlight and brag about. Nonetheless it is an ugly part of the American Catholic past that did factor into perceptions of the time. The Democratic Party was on the wrong side of a pressing moral issue. Irish Catholics strengthened the Democratic Party and therefore had a indirect role in  blocking the progress for civil rights. Abolition attitudes ran very strong in Republican and Protestant circles, and may have contributed to social and moral pressures  for Nast to abandon his ancestral family faith, and view American Catholics – Irish Democrats with increased scrutiny.

Nast’s images about Catholicism are brutal, but they erupt from specific issues (public school funding) and the social policies  of dominant political figures (Tweed). The Irish’s persecution of Chinese Americans likely factored into  Nast’s attention and sarcastic scrutiny.