“Something That Will Not Blow Over” – 29 July, 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. The incident marked the second year in a row where violence resulted from a St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City.  Nast’s piece 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.

"Something that will not blow over" by Thomas Nast. Harper's Weekly. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Houston, public domain license
“Something that will not blow over” by Thomas Nast, 29 July, 1871. Harper’s Weekly. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Houston, public domain license

In the mid to late nineteenth century, the Protestant ruling class in New York City, perceived “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. It is not known if they practiced their Catholic faith in the U.S.  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 his attitudes and subsequently his drawings arose from his observations of the Irish and their political positions. As his biographer 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 predisposed 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” were members of the Loyal Order of Orange named in honor of British King William III, Prince of Orange. William III had defeated the Catholic monarch James II for dominion over Ireland, and his celebrants wanted an equivalent observance. The Protestant Irish insisted on their own parade to celebrate their history. In 1870,  they had gotten their wish, a parade of  Protestant Orangemen-Irish. This first parade resulted in mild disturbances on the street, and  future Orangemen parade permits were banned in the city.

Nevertheless, the Orangemen petitioned for another public celebration for the summer of 1871. This time, a permit was extended, causing Irish-Catholic outrage. Ever mindful of his Irish-Catholic constituents, Tweed succumbed to their  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 more fully.

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.

With Tweed now involved in the parade debate, 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 quickly 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.  The majority of  New York’s newpapers fixated on the apparent hypocrisy that Irish Catholics could have a parade, but Protestants could not. Along with the 46 fatalities, an additional 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’s montage depicted the ancillary events that complemented background information for his 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, dealer of admonition to wrong doers.

As an Irish Protestant-Catholic conflict,  racial prejudice did not contribute to the Orangemen’s riots. Religious, not racial tensions factored in the argument or the violence that ensued. Nevertheless, Nast chose to resurrect the racial images of the 1863 draft riot lynching and included it as the central ingredient to examine a completely different incident. His decision reflects on his changing attitude of Irish Catholics.

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 eight-year-old 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 a 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 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 disperse. 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 which advocate a Utopian, melting-pot 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 of which 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. Dollinger 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 own, 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. See also American River Ganges for more on the public school controversy.

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 paints a portrait stereotypes to define St. Patrick.

Nast’s St. Patrick is 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 the Protestant figurehead no respect.

Detail from lower right. A uniformed Irish thug raises a sword to the kneeling Tweed ring. Source: Walfred/UDel scan

Below in another vignette, Tweed grovels on the ground. He and his cowardly cohorts are lowered to the ground as fearful order takers in the face of 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, cower 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, a quote often attributed to Tweed, “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. Columbia Speaks 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. Source: Walfred/UDel Scan

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 valiantly 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 when Nast 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 ethnic or racial ambassador, including Irish, whom Nast felt behaved admirably.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thomas Nast's cartoons of Chinese Americans

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