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 with historic links and union with Bavaria. Often referred to as Bavarian, Nast would not be described as such nor considered correct in today’s context.
Nast and his siblings were baptized at the 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 within the Catholics conservative and reform-minded communities.
“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, the Nast family may have sympathized with the reformist Catholics practitioners, predisposing Nast to dislike ultramontane Catholicism, which was often derided in his cartoons.
The Nast family were German Forty-Eighters, part of a growing number of Germans uneasy with the growing political uncertainty in their homeland. The Nast family was urged by a family friend to emigrate to America in order to avoid mounting political tensions brought on between “a highly educated, politically liberal reform movement and the entrenched power of the aristocracy and military” fermenting in the kingdom of Bavaria. (Justice). Considering themselves the former rather than the latter, Nast’s father Joseph heeded the advice and sent his family to America in 1846, just ahead of the larger wave of “Forty-Eighters” arriving in the U.S. Nast’s father followed his family to New York in 1850, once his obligations as a military musician in the Ninth Regimental Band were fulfilled.
Thomas Nast’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, suggests that for a time, Nast was educated in Catholic schools, but the experience was not pleasant. Paine, an up and coming writer, and 20 years younger than Nast, approached the cartoonist about writing his biography. Paine had admired Nast’s work as an illustrator, particularly his Santa Claus images. Both men were members of a gentlemen’s club known as the Player’s Club in Manhattan where they met and conversed to shape the biography. The tone of Paine’s biography is reverential toward Nast. “The Paine book represents Nast’s life story as Nast chose to tell it” (Halloran 2).
Nast was six years old when he arrived in New York City, just before the largest numbers of Irish Catholics began to arrive in order to escape conditions brought on by the Irish Potato Famine. Nativism, an anti-foreign sentiment percolated within American-born Protestants in reaction to the arrival of the Irish. Nativists viewed the influx of foreigners with fear and disdain. Between 1845-1855, an estimated one and a half million Irish Catholics flooded American’s East Coast and flared the xenophobia. Concerns of Catholic takeover prompted nativists to organize into secret societies, the Know Nothings being the most prominent, and initiate political activists groups such as the American Party.
When the Nast family established their American home, the atmosphere in New York City among nativists had narrowed from distrust of foreigners in general, to a fear of Irish Catholics in particular. The Nast’s family’s attitudes for or against the Irish cannot be established. If they were reformist Catholics, it is not unreasonable to suggest that 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 dwelling on Greenwich Street, on New York City’s west side, as “respectable.” For reasons not explained, the family later moved to William Street in the Fourth Ward, in an area closer to the Sixth Ward with the highest concentration of Irish immigrants. Most new immigrants occupied the Lower East and Lower Central part of Manhattan. If, as suggested, the Nast family considered themselves superior to the Irish, it would not have been unusual. The Nast family’s residence on William Street was “one block west and five north, well within walking distance for a small boy” and this proximity provided an opportunity for his family to witness the destitute conditions the in notorious Five Points neighborhood (Halloran 10).
Nast’s contemporary and modern biographers disagree on how the Nast family viewed the Irish. Paine’s paints his subject as an individual without prejudice toward Irish or Catholics, and argues that any attacks on that population by the artist were based solely on moral and political issues. Halloran’s assessment is more harsh. She finds it improbable, in fact “extremely unlikely” that Nast was not influenced by the “human jungle” which surrounded him. Most Germans in America, the Forty Eighters at least “spoke high German, held university degrees, and believed themselves to possess moral authority as a result of their fight for liberal values in Germany” (12). Halloran considers Paine’s account overly romantic and attributes to Nast a “lifelong dislike of Irish immigrants” (31).
At first, Germans were in a minority, but by 1854, they had reached 200,000 in population in the U.S.
The Nast family likely joined other German immigrants as reform-minded on both social and religious practices, an atmosphere of progressive thought, aligned against slavery prevailed. German immigrants remained powerfully engaged as participants regarding “religious, economic and social concerns” both in Europe and in America (Halloran 28). This philosophy aligned perfectly with the Radical Republican mindset developed under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln’s new political party.
Regarding religious matters the Nast family may have found the Episcopalian faith an attractive alternative religion to practice and a means to distinguish themselves from Irish American Catholics who observed a more conservative or “ultramontane” doctrine. Immigration historian Kerby Miller theorizes many early Catholics made a religious conversion in order assimilate into dominant Protestant culture in America.
In 1861, 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). Nast’s 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 and inherited German views, steering him to a conviction which celebrated Protestant superiority and moral authority.
In 1871, Thomas Nast and his family relocated to Morristown, New Jersey, and became members of the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and their children were christened in that faith.
Paine and Halloran are in complete agreement that however his early environment shaped him, Nast grew into a young man who incorporated the German-American worldview which stood against the great evils of “violence, hypocrisy and greed” (Halloran 27).
An example of Nast’s progressive, utopian outlook toward his adopted country can be seen in two key illustrations:
- The Emancipation of Negroes – 1963
- Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner – 1869
Nast began his professional career at the age of 15. He apprenticed at several publications, honing his artistic talent. With a weekly deadline, illustrated magazines grew in popularity, complementing hard daily news with images. Photos were reproduced by copper plate and later steel 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.
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. In covering events “disastrous, tragic, or splendid, the visual element could substantially enhance the power of the written word” (Halloran 22). Nast had worked for them all–and in that order– but happily achieved his goal to work full time at Harper’s Weekly in 1862 (Paine 28). For a better understanding of what was involved with engraving watch the educational videos on MOMA website.
Established press organizations in the northeast promoted Protestant-based, pro-Republican ideals, and during the Civil War, the majority of these publications 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 Weekly 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.
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