Harper’s Weekly initially assigned Thomas Nast to illustrate Civil War battlefield scenes. During this period, Nast submitted many allegorical pieces that inspired hope in the darkness of war. The sentimental images, including his famous Christmas themes, struck a chord with Harper’s Weekly readers and Nast’s reputation began to build.
When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as an Executive Order on January 1, 1863, the allegorical platform became a perfect frame for a revolutionary image – The Emancipation of the Negroes, January 1863 – the Past and the Future–Drawn by Mr. Thomas Nast. Harper’s Weekly took the unusual step in crediting Nast in the caption in addition to his signature. This is a declarative image of Nast’s political views.
“The Emancipation of Negroes” by Thomas Nast 24, January 1863
In the center image, Nast presented his readers with a look into the future—freed African Americans in a what might be viewed, in the context of Republican standards, as a normal family setting. The family is economically comfortable. Their parlor is well appointed with a modern wood stove, and Nast created the UNION brand to stress the point that the Union provides warmth and sustenance. Candlesticks rest upon a decorative mantle. A portrait of Lincoln, and a banjo, a validation of African American culture, hang on the wall next to a cornice window treatment with curtains fashionably pulled back.
Several generations of the family are shown. Slavery has not torn them apart. The father is well dressed and sits in a tufted chair, an overcoat folded over the arm. The coat suggests an arrival, perhaps from a day of paid employment. He playfully bounces a young child on his leg. Near the stove, an elderly woman wearing a headscarf, observes the play. A young boy, book in hand, stands behind his father –taking a break from his reading to admire the moment.
Behind the grandmother, a young couple shares a tender moment of courtship. An adult woman tends to the stove opposite the elderly woman. She wears her scarf around her neck, not around her head, possibly as a break in tradition. Her hair is pulled back in a neat bun. She protects her striped dress with an apron as she busies herself with the family meal. Everyone is well dressed. There are no tattered holes or rags in this family’s wardrobe. A little girl in a pretty dress leans precociously against the chair and expresses a mischievous look. Nast is hopeful for this family. It is a sentimental and idealized portrait.
Below the central image is a smaller circle containing a figure of an angelic Father Time. He holds the New Year baby who leans forward to unlock the hand shackles of one last slave, kneeling on the ground awaiting his freedom. This is the promise that Lincoln has ordered—a realization of the moral stance to correct the wrongs of history. Nast wanted his audience to absorb the implications and the possibilities of this great advance in moral conscience.
Nast filled the remaining canvas with several vignettes, a common technique in his larger, full-page pieces. The miniature scenes divide and distinguish the past from future as well as right from wrong.
On the left, scenes of grief and pain illuminate the recent history of African slavery in America. Vicious dogs chase down African Americans who are trying to escape.
At middle left, Nast reminds his audience about the “public sale of negroes” as a black man stands at auction, his future unknown. His distraught wife pleads with the white owner not to separate her family. Note the striped dress and shawl of the woman on her knees. She is the same woman depicted in the featured center image. Nast reinforced how drastically her fate has changed with the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. Other slaves are slumped on the ground, heads down, awaiting their fate at the hands of the auctioneer. The lower left shows African Americans in bondage. In a scene of sexual submission, a female, stripped to the waist, bends over a tree stump, her white master swinging the knotted cat o’ nine tails whip high in the air to assure a severe punishment upon her naked back. Other acts of white mistreatment fill out the image.
Nast offered his readers the opportunity to remember this history, but he balanced the view with optimism. Wrongs can be righted. His anti-slavery stance is central to his affiliation with the Republican Party. Democrats were pro-slavery. Whenever there is a conflict of right and wrong, good versus evil, Nast often included Columbia in his scenes.
Columbia has a smaller yet symbolic role as she stands high above the central scene. She is breaking apart the storm clouds of this grim history. She looks to the right as Justice holds her balanced scales in one hand and an olive branch high in the air in the other. Scenes of Union victory are behind her. Below, an American flag flies above a school. (American flags serve as key ingredients in Nast’s images. He would often show the flag flying upside down, a declaration of distress if he felt the nation was in danger).
On the right, Nast includes progress— the new system of public schools introduced during this era, and two children happily leave their home to receive an education. Nast believed in the concept of a multi-cultural public school system and in his public school cartoons shows children of many races and creeds playing and learning together. Dogs play in the yard. A mother, still in a southern-styled headscarf, cuddles an infant.
In the bottom right scene, an African American stands at a cashier’s window making a transaction. His attire and bare feet indicate he is a sharecropper, confirmed by a smaller scene showing two farmers waving to their white overlord. The sharecropping system emerged out of necessity. Following emancipation, sharecropping developed as a popular method to retain African Americans as an agricultural labor force. Economic arrangements varied, but the sharecropping system largely favored white plantation owners and restricted labor mobility and economic choices for the worker or “sharecropper.”
To the right of a cashier’s window, individuals conduct business. A Mexican serape or blanket, seen on the man on the right, suggests the movement or influx of new of people and new laborers toward new opportunities. In this gathering, an African American approaches the cashier to conduct a transaction. He may be receiving his pay, or making an arrangement to travel. A little girl armed with a basket, rather than luggage, waits to his left. By including this vignette, Nast is showing that new freedoms provide choices that were not offered in the past.
Emancipation of the Negroes is an important early work because it establishes a utopian political philosophy and reliance on a political party that for Nast, “remained the instrument of Union, of progress and liberalism, of humanity; the Democrats remained the voice of secession, of reaction, of Negrophobia and violence” (Keller 73).
in 1865, the image was re-released by Philadelphia printmakers King & Baird and sold as a commemorative print after Lincoln’s assassination. It is not known if the reprint was done with Nast or Harper’s permission. The second version did not appear in Harper’s Weekly. In the commemorative version, the content of the smaller center circle was replaced with a portrait of Lincoln. This accounts for the two versions when searching for this image on the Internet.
With the image, Nast challenges his readership to visualize a new reality and possibility for African Americans. This image remains one of Thomas Nast’s most popular illustrations and declarations of his political allegiance to progressive ideology.